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ELCA World Hunger

Underdeveloped or cutting edge?

A few weeks ago I wondered whether the yellow water bucket that we associate with poverty might actually symbolize respect for a limited resource.

Today I’m wondering whether places that lack “conveniences” are actually better off than we are. What begins as convenience ends up as infrastructure, like the one that locks us into using too much water every single day. So many interests are invested in this system that changing it is very, very difficult.

In the yellow bucket world, infrastructure is scarce and innovation is abundant. Greenfield is an emerging term for a place with little infrastructure. Says Wikipedia, “the analogy is to that of construction on greenfield land where there is no need to remodel or demolish an existing structure.”

In mobile technology, the African continent was a greenfield.  With few telephone poles and landlines, African countries quickly adapted cell phone technology, and today lead the world in mobile commerce. In places like Uganda, you can do all kinds of cool things on a phone—transfer cash, check the market price for your fish, text money to your family—without signing up for a pricey two-year contract!

In mobile commerce, African countries have leapfrogged many developed nations.

Leapfrogging is the process through which developing countries can actually develop faster, notes Wikipedia, “by skipping inferior, less efficient, more expensive or more polluting technologies and industries and move directly to more advanced ones… avoid environmentally harmful stages of development and [without needing to] follow the polluting development trajectory of industrialized countries.”

In other words, our “less developed” companions in ministry are poised to leapfrog, from their greenfields, right over us and our well-entrenched, wasteful, polluting ways!

So, who advises whom? Do we go on raising money to “fix problems” in other places, or do we start confessing that we’re stuck in a system that consumes too much of absolutely everything, and open ourselves to learning from—and celebrating—the leapfroggers? I’ve been feeling pretty pleased about the new, high-tech solartube in my roof, designed to brighten a dark hallway with daylight instead of a lightbulb. Looking around for examples for this post, I discovered that a plastic water bottle would have been just as effective, and cheaper. Wow!

Wouldn’t it be nice if, every time we launched a faith-based “development project,” we started by searching for leapfrog technologies to see what we could learn? Instead of raising money for 100 wells in African countries by actually wasting water (dunk tanks, throwing water balloons), could our next campaign give equal time to–or even showcase–the wisdom of companions on how to replace systems and habits that waste water  with something more efficient and respectful?

Yesterday, the New York Times posted a blog post called “What We Can Learn from Third World Healthcare.”  The theme is the same. We spend billions on medical bells and whistles, yet our health metrics are simply terrible. Concludes the blog’s author: “In other words, we have yet to deploy what could prove to be the most powerful weapon in the fight to contain costs and improve the quality of health care: our own humility.”

The world is telling us we’re not so very wise. Instead of being defensive about our way of life, shall we smile and join the leapfrog game?


Anne Basye, Sustaining Simplicity

From simple to sustainable on the homefront

Like typewriter or answering machine, the phrase simple living sounds a little quaint. Have you noticed how many faith-based and secular organizations devoted to scaling back lifestyles have called it quits? And how energy and attention have been gradually shifting from frugality towards creating sustainable lifestyles?

My life has been following this path, too. The Tightwad Gazette and Your Money or Your Life launched me along the journey described in Sustaining Simplicity: A Journal.  Those years of simple living culminated in the great paring down of 2009 described here and here.

Capturing rainwater for gardens is part of a sustainable NW home. The ReStore in Bellingham uses containers from a food processing plant to catch and store 800 gallons of water.

My early simple life unfolded in a city—a complex system with an infrastructure and buildings shaped around assumptions from a hundred years ago. There wasn’t much I could change about my urban environment (or so I thought), so I focused on decluttering my home and calendar; lowering my expenses; seeing what, personally, my son and I could live without; and organizing our lives around people and personal interests rather than mass market dictates.

All that changed when I moved closer to family in the northwest. Surrounded by fields, hills and rivers instead of brick and mortar, I wondered about the systems around me.  Where did my water, electricity, and propane come from? Where did my garbage go? How did my septic system work? What were my farmer neighbors growing, and who ate it? How could I ride a bicycle in the rain?

To create a life that complemented or enhanced those natural systems, I would need to learn a whole new set of skills around gardening, composting, and reducing and generating energy. That’s why this spring my simple life is way, way over budget. I’m rehabbing a 40-year old, single-story family home into a green, energy-efficient dwelling with the tiniest possible footprint. Everything I’ve read about green building is turning into practice as the rehab team tightens the building envelope, increases ventilation, and adds high-efficiency heating, a 50-year roof, low-flow everything, compact fluorescent and LED lighting and low-VOC or recycled paint. All while reusing, recycling or composting as much construction debris as possible.

In Chicago I did the laundry in a corner of the basement under a single 60-watt light bulb. Now I have daily discussions about ambient versus task lighting for a dedicated bathroom/utility room, dual- versus single-flush toilets, and radiant heat versus heat pumps. A basement washing machine under a dim light feels pretty Lutheran and pretty simple. It’s modest, straightforward, and leaves lots of time for loving your neighbor. Sifting through lighting choices feels scandalously self-centered, self-indulgent, and not Lutheran at all! Is this really me???

Decisions, decisions, decisions!

When pesky building specs overwhelm me, I remember: Changing any life habit takes time and attention. Someday, all of us will live in homes that consume few resources and even produce their own power—in the country and the city. We’ll have made our existing homes greener, and green building practices will be standard. But we’re not there yet. Contractors and customers still face a steep learning curve. Dissecting lighting (xenon, LED, solar tubes?), I hope, speeds it up a little.

Eventually, my house will stop being a full-time project and just be my home. Insides its sustainable envelope I can resume my regular simple life. I can get back to being Lutheran and loving neighbors I don’t know. But for the next nine weeks, the carpenters, the plumber, the electrician, the heating contractor, the roofer, and the insulation/air sealing guy are the neighbors I’m called to respect and listen to with patience as we tackle a million details and create a green home.

Anne Basye, Sustaining Simplicity

Solving the last-mile challenge

After 10 car-free years, I am a car owner once again.

Shedding my car meant mastering new ways of moving around the world. The alternatives come naturally now, which is why so many of my posts try to encourage—hector, even—readers to take up their carbon-dependent, gas-guzzling beds and walk, ride a bike, or take the bus.

But for a year now I have suffered from what transportation planners call the “last mile” problem. My wonderful local transit hub can get me around and between towns from Canada to Portland, Oregon. But only a handful of buses can get me the three miles to the Skagit Station—all before 6 pm, and never on Sundays. Bicycling is a great option for good weather and daylight savings time, but from November to April my biking day ends by 5 pm—and snow, ice, showers, or 40-mile-per-hour gusts can keep it from starting at all.

My new challenge is to own a car without lapsing back into blind dependence on it. To stay committed to biking, walking, and taking buses FIRST instead of lazily letting the convenience of my car gradually eclipse the other options. To continue to SEE the options and to start figuring out how to overcome that last-mile—or last-three-mile—problem.

Fortunately, trends are going my way. Google Transit is taking the mystery out of planning a public transit trip. Cities like New York and Mexico City declare some areas car-free on weekends. More than half a million members share almost 8000 cars in car-sharing programs across the U.S. (Find the closest to you here) General Motors itself is a partner in the new RelayRides program in San Francisco, a system through which private car owners profit by sharing (for a fee) their cars with neighbors who have been vetted and screened.

I see my car ownership as temporary, a sort of bridge to the world I have been trying to create by not owning one. Perhaps I’ll persuade more people to take my country bus line so we can extend its hours. Perhaps I’ll organize a small car-sharing group among my country neighbors. I have lots of allies, especially among the young.  A recent New York Times article noted that 46 percent of people 18 to 24 would choose access to the Internet over access to their own car. Only 15 percent of their baby-boom parents felt that way. “The iphone is the Ford Mustang of today,” quipped an automotive analyst.

Even more exciting, car ownership is declining among the young. In 1978, 50 percent of 16-year-old Americans obtained their first driver’s license. In 2008, only 30 percent did. My son was over 18 when he got his first license, and at 24, he still has no car. Those with licenses drive less, said the Times:  21- to 30-year-olds now drive eight percent fewer miles than they did in 1995.

Life without a car takes ingenuity, creativity, and commitment. It also costs a lot less. (Buying, registering, insuring, fixing, and fueling a 14-year-old-car in the last six weeks of the year boosted my 2011 expenses by 11 percent.) And it’s getting easier.

My 2012 resolution is to own a car that stays off the road as much as possible. Here’s where I get back to hectoring. Won’t you join me? Get to know your local bus system. Walk to the store. Set up a carpool. Urge your mayor to declare a popular part of town car-free for an afternoon. Dust off your bike. Keep your car, but drive it less. Broaden your transportation strategy to include some more active choices. Together we can figure out the last-mile problem.

Anne Basye, Sustaining Simplicity

Animal-less meat?

Would you eat a hamburger that was never part of walking, breathing cow? Apparently we’re not too far from that as an option. Stem cell research is allowing scientists to take two cow stem cells, put them in a petri dish, and grow cow muscle, just like the kind we normally remove and consume from an actual animal. Okay, in practice the process of growing meat in a dish is a little more complicated than that. But not in concept or result. Because the petri dish meat came from cow cells to start with, the resulting meat is, indeed, “real” meat.  You can read about it in an article in the May 23rd issue of The New Yorker titled, “Test-Tube Burgers.” 

Why would we want to eat meat from a lab? The article cites the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization when it explains “the global livestock industry is responsible for nearly twenty percent of humanity’s greenhouse-gas emissions. That is more than all cars, trains, ships, and planes combined. Cattle consume nearly ten percent of the world’s freshwater resources, and eighty percent of all farmland is devoted to the production of meat.” Then there are the well-documented problems of waste lagoons, use of antibiotics, and the treatment of animals in industrial meat production facilities. Add to all that the growing world population and the increase in demand for meat as countries like India and China get wealthier, and the current system for providing meat seems rather unsustainable. The petri dish offers a potential alternative that could mitigate or eliminate many of these issues. Perhaps the better question is why wouldn’t we want to eat meat from a lab?

There’s certainly an ick factor.  It’s similar to the notion, in the culture of the U.S., of eating insects, though they, too, offer an potentially excellent source of protein without some of the drawbacks of meat (something I blogged about a long time ago). But at least bugs are naturally occurring in nature. Meat in a lab wouldn’t happen without people and labs, which makes it more suspect – at least to me. The New Yorker article points out “lab-grown meat raises powerful questions about what most people see as the boundaries of nature and the basic definitions of life.” And yet, if lab meat could be produced in large quantities inexpensively (as they think will ultimately happen), could help provide food and good nutrition to people who can’t afford “traditional” meat, and if it could be done without many of the currently problematic impacts of meat production, what does refusing to eat it say?

I hesitate, but I think I would eat it. What do you think? Would you try lab-grown meat?

Nancy Michaelis

Where does it come from? Where does it go?

In blizzards like this week’s, basic services matter. When snow fell in Chicago, I was always grateful that my heat, water, and light almost never quit.

Where those resources came from mattered less. But connecting to services in my new home in Washington State, I’m asking: where does it come from? Where does it go?  And what is its environmental impact?

Electricity was first. In Chicago, my carbon footprint was high even though I had no car, because so much electricity is generated from coal. Naively, I assumed that Puget Sound Energy electricity would come from hydropower in the mountains and the manure-to-power plant down the road. What a surprise to learn that 56 percent of PSE power comes from coal and natural gas. A big chunk comes from the Colstrip plant in Montana—the second-largest coal power plant west of the Mississippi!  On the plus side, by signing up for Green Power, I can help boost the proportion of biomass and wind power in the overall PSE power mix. Consider it done.

Next, cooking gas. For the first time, I have a propane tank. Checking into this, I’ve learned that more than 80 million barrels of this byproduct of natural gas and petroleum processing are stored in giant salt caverns in Texas, Kansas, and Alberta. Factoring in extracting, processing and delivering, propane produces slightly more greenhouse gas emissions than natural gas but much, much less than electricity, which “looks” clean when it is used, but, once you add in emissions released as it is produced, stored, and transported, is the dirtiest of all fuels. (Something to keep in mind if you are excited about owning an electric car.)

Water, supplied by the county, comes from a mountain watershed, is stored in a reservoir, treated, and then piped to homes like mine. But I’m not connected to the sewer system; my waste water goes into the septic system out back. The science of septic tanks is something else I’ll be reading up on.

My landlords take their garbage and recycling to the local transfer station themselves. With no car and no outdoor storage shed, this is not an option for me. But the most recent Skagit County Solid Waste Management Plan recommended that local scavengers support recycling and composting by offering every-other-week pickup of one trash can. Bingo! I signed up for that paradigm-shifting service. When my garbage leaves the transfer station, it will be sent by train to a landfill in Klickitat County, where electricity is generated from methane. My compost will go in the garden and the dry recyclables will be stored until I can join someone else’s recycling run.

What do electricity, gas, water, sewage, and garbage services have to do with hunger? Severing these resources from their context and system makes it easy to waste or denigrate them. Knowing where our resources come from can change our behavior. (Maybe I should rely more on propane and less on electricity that turns out to come from a Montana coal mine!) Understanding who delivers these services also builds respect in a climate marked by griping about taxes. (Thanks, Skagit County, for designing a system that will treat everything from construction waste to agricultural waste to the cans and bottles of people like me. Thanks, Skagit PUD, for the clean water.)

Wherever we work on hunger issues, it makes sense to identify and understand existing systems before pursuing individual projects. How many of us well-building Lutherans know about the context of Water Supply and Sanitation in Tanzania?  A little due diligence might persuade us to invest water funds in strengthening an existing water delivery system instead of building “our own” well from scratch.

We live out our days inside systems. Most of them are transparent. Can you see yours?!

Anne Basye, Sustaining Simplicity: A Journal

Smitten and trying to respond

“He smote the bank!” cackles Jean Stapleton, after John Travolta, as the archangel Michael, casually unleashes a bolt of lightning in the movie “Michael.”

Earthquakes, oil spills, floods, droughts—there’s a lot of smiting going on, and a lot of preparing for it, not with sackcloth and ashes but catastrophe scenarios and emergency response plans and drills.

I discovered this last week at a talk on the Great Storm of 1861-1862—the one that turned California’s Central Valley into a 300-mile long puddle; the one that forced the California state government to move to San Francisco; the one that damaged 7/8ths of all housing and destroyed one out of every eight homes and a third of all taxable property in California.

Sacramento in 1862

This fascinating, safely distant story of a smitten state was followed by an anxiety-generating winter storm scenario that the U.S. Geological Survey is creating. The hypothetical date of this “extreme precipitation event” is January 2011; May 2011 is when the agencies and emergency managers and responders will hold their practice drill. Based on the understanding that California has a “mega storm” every 300 years (and destructive as it was, 1861-62 wasn’t a mega storm), these experts are:

…examining the possibility, cost, and consequences of floods, landslides, coastal erosion and inundation; debris flows; biologic impacts; physical damage such as property loss from wind, flood, and landslide; and lifeline impacts such as bridge scour [when the sand and rocks around a bridge give way, leading to collapse], road closures, and levee failures. Consideration is given to the disruption of water supply and the impacts on ground-water pumping, seawater intrusion and water supply degradation. The scenario is depicting the economic consequences of these damages in terms of repair costs and business interruption, public-health implications, and emergency response.

The USGS guy painted the picture starkly and dramatically. When he finished, the room was silent. Finally the emcee stood to thank the speakers and said, a little shakily, “well, I guess it’s time we all move to the foothills.” We took home delightful reading: “The ShakeOut Earthquake Scenario,” which modeled the aftereffects of a hypothetical 7.8 earthquake on the southern San Andreas Fault as the morning rush hour was ending. That Southern California earthquake drill, involving 5000 emergency responders and 5 million citizens, has already taken place. (Watch this USGS video on the earthquake scenario and  the ARkStorm winter storm project, and check out the Old Testament imagery.)

Appalled and intrigued, I went to the Internet, and discovered I could learn how a New Madrid mega-earthquake would affect the Midwest, where almost no anti-seismic measures are in place. Briefly, five to eight states would be affected; local mutual aid would not work; bridges over the Mississippi could be uncrossable for several hundred miles, for years; transmission of natural gas, oil, and electricity to much of the east coast would be affected for many months, along with the supply of wheat and grains to other parts of the world; there would be significant out-migration. (Question for discussion in this FEMA exercise: what could or would emergency managers in one local jurisdiction like Memphis do when faced with such a catastrophe?)

Or I could choose a scenario for a slow-developing catastrophe like Lake Mead going dry, leaving 22 million people in three states without water. (Discussion question: How can emergency managers in Las Vegas prepare to respond?)

Or I could browse peak gas scenarios, 2012 Armageddon scenarios, global warming scenarios, armchair quarterback analyses of the Black Plague, the Irish Potato Famine, the 1917 Influenza Pandemic, Hurricane Katrina, or Limits to Growth, the 1972 scenario published by the Club of Rome that projected nine different outcomes based on the variables of world population, industrialization, pollution, food production and resource depletion. Only one of those nine is hopeful; the others are so dire, a catastrophe response plan would be pointless.  Recent studies confirm (says Wikipedia) that current “changes in industrial production, food production and pollution are all in line with the book’s predictions of economic and societal collapse in the 21st century.”

Things are not looking good.

It’s tempting to call my efforts to live a sustainable life foolish. To quit trying to support alternative systems and behavior. To chuck  my bicycle for a really big car. But I think I’ll stay the course.

Why? For starters, imagining catastrophe is the first step in trying to mitigate it. The literature of catastrophe helps us grasp the scope of what we face, and discern what part of it is in our control. The silver lining to spending a sunny  afternoon imagining my hometown underwater was learning just how many people are collaborating on the response.

Second, letting go of the idea that everything is in our control is just plain healthy. No amount of clean living and recycling can prevent an earthquake!

Third, there is power in individual and collective action. Martin Luther thought so, too. Asked what he would do if the world were to end tomorrow, he said, “Plant an apple tree today.”

Smiting happens. But faith kicks in where reason ends. I’m voting for faith, for the apple tree, for the bicycle helmet. And I’m  spending tomorrow curled up with “A Guide to Emergency Preparedness for Sacramento County.”

Anne Basye,  Sustaining Simplicity

Sustainability Part 3: Book Review

I just got done reading Joel Makower’s book, Strategies for the Green Economy. I have to admit, I was very impressed with how many different perspectives Makower introduces to his readers. For instance, I was challenged to think not just about the negatives of big box stores, but also about their positives. Looking at the entire picture was enlightening. It turns out corporations that I had no idea had a green heart are making strides toward sustainability, zero waste production and eradicating toxic chemicals.

Much of the book focused on messaging from a business perspective. How and when should companies tell their green story? How good is good enough when it comes to a green initiative? I found it thought provoking to consider Makower’s points about companies who come out and say, “Hey, we’ve done this green thing!” and then getting called out by activists for every other thing that they haven’t done. A favorite quote from the book reads, “Consumers, even activists, can accept imperfection in incremental solutions when they know that the company understands the issue at hand, is sufficiently concerned, and is taking adequate steps to change things, including influencing others—suppliers, competitors, and legislators—to join them in becoming part of the solution.” I also found it interesting to learn more about how consumers view “green” products and the accompanying research which suggests a product’s effectiveness must be proved, not just proclaimed.

It’s more than just messaging and box stores though, Strategies for the Green Economy asks important questions that relate to everyday life such as, “What are the opportunities in the green economy for those at the lower end of the economic ladder? Where are the jobs, the access to renewable energy, the affordable organic produce, the availability of wellness programs?” In other words, how does the greening of business positively affect all people?

More than anything I was encouraged by the research, facts and outlook of a book that focused on the greening of the business world, and how it can continue its climb. Makower, in fact, believes that green is not going anywhere, and when it comes to sustainability suggests that this goal will be surpassed as real market leaders look toward being restorative. Restoring the earth, providing green jobs to the lower end of the economic ladder, and encouraging corporations large and small to “green-up” seems to me like a pretty decent way to begin to impact hunger—as companies take care of resources, the environment and people on a large scale.

There are so many thought provoking ideas, notions and facts between the covers of Strategies for the Green Economy that a blog cannot truly do it justice. Check it out for yourself at your local library or grab an e-book!


A Light from Above

009-794645Literally. We have new light from above. Check out the picture of my family room. That bright circle on the ceiling isn’t an electric light. It’s the sun! In the past couple of weeks, we’ve had three solar tubes installed in our house – two in the family room and one in the kitchen.

If you follow this blog, you know we’ve been talking about coal and electricity recently. I’d love to say that my family’s decision to install solar tubes was in response to our desire to use less electricity, less energy, less coal. And that was a consideration. But the bigger reason was more self-serving: I wanted more natural light in some of the darker areas of our house just because I like natural light. The way our house is situated, we don’t get nearly as much of it as I would choose, and I’ve always wished for more. We have considered skylights from time to time, but they always seemed too expensive and work-intensive, what with all the drywalling and painting that’s required with their addition. But then we learned about solar tubes! We could have them less expensively than skylights, and each one took only about an hour to install (done by a professional). That was it! The result is wonderful. Unfortunately, I don’t have before and after pictures, but you can get a sense of the increased light from the shadow cast by the pillow onto the arm of the couch. That most certainly was not there before.

What I love about this little anecdote is that one largely selfish act is so beneficial! By getting something I wanted – more natural light – I’m using less electricity, which reduces my use of coal, lowers the demand on the power grid, and hopefully lowers my electric bill. It also supports jobs in the “green economy,” as we purchased a solar product and paid a professional to install it. And it is another step in our household’s efforts to live more sustainably. I find it all very hopeful. Or maybe I’m just giddy from all that natural light.

-Nancy Michaelis

Appalachian Musings

Sorry not to have posted last week. I was still catching up from my time in West Virginia with my colleagues from Church in Society. We observed there firsthand some of the issues that folks are facing in the rural areas of Appalachia. I had hoped to post from the region but the days were packed full. I am still processing what I saw and heard so I apologize if the following is not yet fully formulated. Five thoughts:

1) Driving along the Interstate I saw several billboards by the heavy equipment manufacturer Cat. The sign proudly proclaims “Coal, Yes. Clean, Carbon Neutral Coal.” One problem: we do not yet have any way of burning coal cleanly. Another problem, and this may be the bigger one, even if we could figure out how to burn it cleanly, the way in which we extract it is environmentally and socially destructive (and don’t forget about the Tennessee disaster a couple of months ago).

2) Water issues are not only a Global South problem. They are not only a future problem. Today, in the U.S., there are people who do not have access to safe drinking water. Nancy Michaelis already gave an articulate post on this. Read it here.

3) One of the scary things about coal, or any fossil fuel for that matter, is that we all consume it. Lots of it. We consume coal in direct ways when we flip on the lights in our houses (this cool Web site shows how you may be connected to West Virginia coal). We consume coal in indirect ways when we buy just about anything. We are a very energy dependent people, and most of our energy needs are met by using environmentally and socially destructive fuels.

4) The trip made me think about how we conceptualize land ownership. There was an audible gasp in the room when we learned that energy companies lay claim to 75% of the land in West Virginia. Ralph Dunkin, the bishop of the West Virginia-Western Maryland Synod described how when he purchased his house he had to sign away the land rights. Should some great natural resource be found under his home, energy companies have rights to it. The land and the house would be purchased from him and he would be forced to move. Others we spoke with expressed fear of that happening, especially in this economy when fair market is substantially less than it was a year ago. This system and our collective response gave rise to lots of thinking that will be the subject of a future post (quick preview: we need to rethink the idea of land ownership).

5) Coal is a complex issue, and solutions to the problems it presents are a long way off. We are a very energy consumptive society. And we are only growing in our energy “needs” as we become increasingly dependent on portable devices such as cell phones, Blackberrys, iPods, and the like. Coal is abundant, and one of the few fossil fuels to which we have direct access. In short, in spite of all the problems that coal introduces (carbon emissions, environmental degradation, water concerns, land rights, and so on), we will still continue to mine and burn coal. This will be particularly true in the immediate future–a recent article in the Congressional Quarterly describes how Democrats from coal producing states are dictating a new coal agenda to the chagrin of Republicans from oil producing states.

What seems to me to be the way forward is consuming less energy both directly and indirectly. This of course introduces new problems. For one, in a depressed economy, do we really want to encourage everyone to consume less? For another, in states like West Virginia, coal is the only game in town. Stop using coal, and the tax revenue that is used for public services such as schools and hospitals dips, leading to more social problems.

When I find myself in a catch-22 like this (and the longer I’m in this job, the more I find myself thinking about rocks and hard places), I wonder how to best accompany those who are poor. What choices should I make that will truly serve their needs and interests? Ideas?

David Creech

The Trouble with Coal Mining

As a nation, we love coal. Over 50% of our electricity comes from coal, and it’s a natural resource that we have lots of. It’s an abundant energy source right here in our own country. Each time we flip the light switch, turn on the TV, or warm up dinner in our microwaves, we should be grateful for coal.

But it’s not all happiness and lights. The trouble starts from the very beginning, when you have to get the coal out of the ground. Traditionally, we have engaged in underground coal mining and strip mining. But more recently, we’ve moved to mountaintop removal mining. The name is just as it implies. The top of the mountain – up to about 400 feet of it – is blown off, exposing the seams of coal, which are then extracted and hauled away. The benefit of this method is that it’s cheap. And theoretically, cheaper extraction means cheaper power for us consumers. Compared to digging deeply into the mountain, structurally supporting the tunnels, sending people in to dig out the coal, and then hauling it out of the mountain, it’s pretty easy to blow off the top of the mountain. It also takes many fewer people to accomplish, which is not only cheaper, but puts fewer lives at risk.

But what a toll it takes! The video clip below shows the scope of it – sort of. I filmed it from an intact mountain (hence the trees in the foreground) overlooking an area that has been mined and is no longer active. Note how far there are no trees, and how much lower the ground is in the mined areas. And this mine actually goes quite a bit farther to the right than the video shows. It was sobering to see.

Here are a few of the problems with mountaintop removal as a means of extracting coal: the explosions to remove the mountain are enormous, rattling everything and causing structural damage to homes and buildings. It also takes a while to blow up that much mountain, and over time the ongoing explosions rattle nerves as well as structures. They fill the air with dust, creating air pollution that people and animals breathe, and that coats everything. Then there’s all the earth that is displaced that isn’t coal. Where to put it? Much of it gets dumped into nearby valleys. The environmental impact of it all is enormous. Flora and fauna have been blown up, animals flee, and earth is exposed which causes erosion. Ecosystems are disrupted both in the direct path of the mining and also under the discarded rubble. Waterways are polluted. Toxic minerals and metals are exposed. And it takes decades for the landscape to recover. And these are just some of the problems with the extraction process. It doesn’t begin to take into account things like the CO2 emissions from burning coal, or the health care costs of people who live in the region.

On the flip side, the nation’s demand for electricity continues to grow. As long as we keep asking for power, companies will seek ways to supply it. And we aren’t exactly docile if our lights don’t turn on when we want them to. What’s more, coal is one of two major industries in West Virginia. Mining provides much needed jobs (though not as many as it used to), and a tax base that supports education, hospitals, and infrastructure. We met State Senator John Unger, who explained that without coal mining, there would be a serious shortage of tax funding for necessary services. As a result, the legislature and government give mining companies the benefit of the doubt. Indeed, we heard the ambivalence of citizens, who live with the trade-offs between employment and environment every day. Senator Unger commented that it often feels as though it’s a choice between economic justice and environmental justice. What impossible choices to make.

-Nancy Michaelis