For most of our history as a species, we relied on solar energy in the form of plants, animals, and human muscle. Living plants would use the sun’s light to photosynthesize their own food out of the air. Trees grew woody tissue that could be burned, releasing the collected energy quickly to warm us in the wintertime. Green grass provided solar energy to animals, who used it to do work (like plowing fields) or who passed that energy on to us in the form of meat. We also ate some plants directly, adding their energy to our own. The hack of agriculture enabled humans to conscript more of the Earth’s surface into our service by taking land that once supported a diverse array of species and forcing it to catch sunlight for our purposes only, and we invested that gain into an increased population and a more complex culture, not to mention a lot more work. However, things really took off once we learned how to harvest “ghost acres” for fossil fuels like coal and oil.
Up until that point, humans were limited in their ability to soak up sunlight by time and geography. If a farmer wanted to heat his home or cook some food, he needed wood: either directly, from his own woodlot, or indirectly, by buying wood from someone else who had more trees than needed for heat. Either way, it took a given amount of land to produce what each person needed to live. That all changed when coal use exploded around the time of the Industrial Revolution. Although tiny amounts had been used as a novelty for thousands of years, large-scale exploitation of coal provided a way for humans to co-opt not just contemporary sunlight and land for energy, but the stored sunlight of millions of years of plant growth. It was as if we had found another planet covered with trees. These are the “ghost acres” that helped us temporarily overcome the hard limit to population growth.
Being able to access the energy production of millions of years of sunlight and vast swaths of the ancient Earth’s surface in the form of coal and oil looked and felt like prosperity at first, but it was dark magic indeed. Although we have long overshot the population that could be sustained by relying merely on the current biological output of the Earth’s surface, our dependence on coal forces us to accept cruel bargains in exchange for this trick. Mountaintop removal to mine coal in Appalachia not only ruins the landscape, it brings the danger of flash floods, mudslides, coal slurries that replace forests, and premature mortality not just for coal miners, but anyone who works or lives near it. Coal ash poisons rivers and leaches metals like lead and mercury into the groundwater. Even when it’s cleaned up in an “environmentally friendly” way, that just means the ash is used for making concrete (itself an environmental problem) or landfilled in a specially sealed pit, ideally forever but leaks happen. Leaks always happen.
Meanwhile, our inflated population is so dependent upon electricity that we not only willingly hand over our money-power to the coal industry and look the other way when they defile the land and water, but we also defang our collective ability to regulate their industry in the form of the EPA. Sure, the EPA may require some tweaks to West Virginia gubernatorial candidate Jim Justice’s multi-state coal mining empire in order to reduce their poisonous output. But how long were those mines spewing discharge before they were caught? And even if Justice pays a fine and says he’s sorry and will never do it again, how will that money take the mercury out of the fish, the lead out of the children, and the coal dust out of the miners’ lungs? How many more mines out there, especially in places like China with fewer regulations, don’t worry as much as we do here? And all that coal is eventually burned, putting long-buried carbon back into the atmosphere, causing climate havoc. Every desperate scheme to sequester carbon is a stab at reinventing the wheel, since Nature already invented the perfect form of carbon sequestration: burying it in the form of coal.
There have been attempts to put a price on all of this (PDF), perhaps as a way to facilitate the internalization of the real cost of coal, but the process is squishy and subject to bias. A full accounting would have to account for even indirect variables, such as the demise of indigenous ways of life, while apologists try to whittle down the figure, objecting, for example, that too much value is given to human lives!
The truth remains, that by spending this one-time glut of fossil energy on population overshoot, we have guaranteed two disasters for ourselves: a population crash when supply can no longer be sustained, and a patchwork of environmental disasters from poisoned water to climate change that will get worse the longer we try to keep the party going. The cynical view might be that the latter problem will help to solve the former. However, I believe it’s important not to lose our humanity, especially when we are set to lose so much more in the years and generations ahead.
NC coal ash spill clean up continues two years later, by CBS North Carolina. Feb 2, 2016