Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Campus coal contentions

It looks as though the Sierra Club's Coal-Free Campus Campaign has aroused some ire. For the last few days students and PSU grads have written letters to the editor of The Daily Collegian decrying the anti-coal campaign (click here and backtrack to previous letters). It's an interesting back and forth primarily because it contains ill-informed arguments.

It would be nice if some of these letter writers actually understood the problem. We understand that coal plants power our lights, computers, and appliances. Yes, coal is part of the equation that has made it possible for us to watch football games and powered the factories where our cars and trucks that got us to the game (and contributed to climate change as well). We are not ignorant straw men and stupid bandwagon joiners.

Burning coal contributes to a host of natural environmental problems: Coal plants emit
enormous amounts of greenhouse gases that in turn contribute to climate change. In this regard, the American northeast is a significant and disproportionate contributor to climate change. Coal plant waste and mining operations also poison local wells and watersheds in ways that hurt communities - especially poor communities - and devastate ecosystems. One need only look at last year's Tennessee Valley Authority's coal ash spill to see the results (at right courtesy of ENS-newswire). But those pesky facts just don't matter to some people or haven't penetrated the veil of convenience for them.

As a case in point a letter writer today states,
Coal allows us to live the lifestyle we have grown accustomed to at an affordable price. The U.S. would revert to a third world country if coal were taken out of our energy mix.
In effect, this this person argues that his leisure and convenience SHOULD come at other people's expense. And the only price that he seems to have considered is the immediate economic price or standard bottom line. He clearly has not considered the triple bottom line that would add the human welfare costs and the price to the natural environment. Were those things weighed in any kind of equal weight, he would have to conclude the real cost of doing business constitutes a disaster.

I am not making some wishy-washy argument about the intrinsic value of trees, moss, owls, and cute tree frogs. We don't need to believe in the "suchness" or "transcendent good" of other organisms to witness coal's destructive qualities when we burn it to produce electricity. Coal hurts people in enormous ways. We don't need to be treehuggers to see that thousands of people were endangered by TVA's coal ash spill. Though I am guilty right now of using a computer powered by coal, I can use that computer to urge a speedy and intelligent transition toward a cleaner world. My iPod SHOULD NOT come at the expense of other people's and other organisms' health and well-being. These are not morally defensible side effects to "business as usual" so that can run our iPods or attend football games. We are currently trapped in a system that makes hypocrites out of people with the best intentions and aspirations. Penn State can do better.

As the Sierra Club notes, "we have all of the technology we need" to solve these problems, including effective solar and wind power. But we lack the political will to do it. The recent letters seem to argue that we should do little to reduce our energy consumption as individuals, communities, or institutions. One letter writer says that be "believes in the environment." He better. It's there. And it can't supply us with coal, oil, and natural gas to burn forever. Beyond that, the atmospheric and oceanic climate feedback systems will, at some point, make it very difficult for all of us to adapt if we continue this trend.

We can see a way to escape this trap.
Reduction and replacement go hand in hand. We need to consume less by just using our sources less and making all of that use more efficient. And we need to replace dirty and climatically precarious sources much less. Coal has to go. We are morally called to do it.

Perhaps, if we think deeper about these issues, as one letter writer suggests we do, then we will figure out ways to halve our energy consumption and make coal irrelevant. That is both a realistic and hopeful step toward a solution.

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