Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Freedom and (Re)moving Mountains: Our Thirst for Electricity and Its Effects

As I said earlier, one of the most interesting and disturbing books I've read recently is Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. In it, one of the major conflicts concerns a man whose heart is in the right place, but who becomes an agent for the destruction of West Virginia communities by "mountain top removal" in the name of preserving a small bird species.

Franzen presents a damning, but nearly sympatheic, portrait of American society. Some of the characters border on being caricatures, however, although their motivations are always very understandable. So, too, the situations Franzen creates for them are frequently laughable in the gallows humor tradition. But if a reader ever thought the basic problems the characters face are overdrawn, a story in today's New York Times proves just how carefully Franzen reflects reality.

"Various government regulations require that coal companies return the stripped area to its “approximate original contour,” or “reclaim” the land for development in a state whose undulating topography can thwart plans for even a simple parking lot," the story says. "As a result, the companies often dump the removed earth into a nearby valley to create a plateau, and then spray this topsy-turvy land with seed, fertilizer and mulch....

"The result is "an out-of-context clot(s) of land (rising) hundreds of feet in the air — a valley fill, that has been “hydroseeded” with fast-growing, non-native plants to replace the area’s lost natural growth: its ginseng root, its goldenseal, it hickory and oak, maple and poplar, black cherry and sassafras."

Why? Because coal generates electricity, and we all need electricity. It's the same kind of sitaution that led to the construction of nuclear reactors without adequate fail-safe systems in Japan, that is leading to global warming.

The solution? We must use less energy, and it's up to us all to figure out how to do that.

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