We have talked a lot about what got us here today. It is so important to understand our histories so we can fully understand the implications of our present situation. Now we will focus our attention on the new dangers that loom in our future.
The background of The True Cost of Coal contains a series of scenes that illustrate a one-way system that perpetually builds and reinforces the pyramid scheme. On the left side, the system is dominated by a huge power-plant monster, gobbling up not only fossil fuels but also other resources like land, lumber, water, and labor, feeding everything into this big furnace of a mouth.
The power-plant looks like a train engine, and it is towing behind it a long train of factories that stretches out past the horizon.
In today’s globalized economy, resources, goods, and services travel all over the world and back again, consuming more and more every day.
Many of those goods and services end up here, in this scene we call the temple of conspicuous consumption.
But they dont stay there long. Nowadays, everything is built to break, and before you know it, everything we buy goes down the poop chute into the dump.
This one-way system gobbles up resources – land, water, biodiversity, cultural diversity – and then chops them into a million pieces, sends them all over the world and back again as they are converted into consumable goods, thereby consuming more and more in the process, and then sells those goods to us at enormous profits. Because the true costs of these products are not reflected in the prices that we pay for them, the true costs are borne by lands and peoples in resource colony sacrifice zones, places like Appalachian coal fields, or Central American banana plantations, or Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale. Like a cancer, this one-way system consumes and grows endlessly while “externalizing” the massive damages it creates.
All over the US, where union miners fought and died to win rights for all of us, mechanization has drastically reduced the number of humans on a mine site to the bare minimum, and as a result unions have been broken and many of their gains are being rolled back. Because extractive industries are so greedy to get it all as fast as they can, a boom-and-bust economy cycle is created and many people are desperate for jobs now even when they know it is bad for their communities in the long run.
To maintain an endless stream of income, industries push new products on all of us, “manufacturing desire” through advertising and consumer culture, and many of us have become so accustomed to it that we dont even notice that as monopolies like Walmart succeed in pushing out local businesses, real costs rise and quality falters, as wages stagnate and many in this country work more and more hours only to find themselves drowning in debt.
And its not just industry pushers at fault – banks and government regulators enable bad behavior by also focusing on short-sighted profit margins and denying evidence of destruction and long-term losses.
Of course they do – they are at the top of the pyramid scheme, and power and resources always flow up. There is a revolving door between big business and big government, and back-room deals decide the fate of our lands and communities.
But so much has been flowing up that we are gobbling up the foundations. Things like land, and water. Acid mine drainage is a permanent source of pollution – there are 2000 year old Roman copper mines that still leach sulfuric acid today.
Chemicals and metals flow downstream through entire river systems, killing microfauna that are the basis of the aquatic food chain and eventually ending up in the Great Lakes,
or bio-accumulating in our bodies causing cancers, liver failure, brain damage, birth defects. Or they leach into aquifers and then come up through the tap. When groundwater is polluted, it will never be clean again.
And desperate measures can lead to grave mistakes, and another inevitable result of extreme resource extraction is extreme environmental disasters. Fracking has severely polluted groundwater – families in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Colorado, and Wyoming are now reporting that their tap water is flammable due to methane pollution. Pipeline spills are causing a lot of worry all over the country, especially after 900,000 gallons of diluted bitumen gushed out into the Talmadge Creek in Kalamazoo in 2010. Earlier this year 1.1 billion gallons of coal waste leaked into the Dan River in North Carolina, and just a few days ago, 3.8 billion gallons spilled out of a copper tailings pond and into surrounding lakes and rivers in Mount Polley, British Columbia.
Notice that the smoke coming out of the many smokestacks is swirling into a hurricane. Carbon emissions are fueling climate chaos.
There are some details on the power-plant, like transformers that look like missiles and smokestacks that look like gattling guns. The US economy has become dependent on a state of permanent global resource war. Military ventures are a primary driver of technological developments in the colonial paradigm. Drones used for espionage and assassination today will be delivering packages and herding livestock tomorrow. Meanwhile, the US Department of Defense is the world’s largest consumer of fossil fuels and largest emitter of greenhouse gases, more than many whole countries.
As people all over the world lose their lands and their abilities to provide for themselves by traditional means, they must also buy into the pyramid scheme in order to survive. So people often seek work and bread in the Global North, and even here we feel the effects of forced migrations, so we included a border fence as well.
So where do we fit in all of this? This is a scene that we call the dance of hard choices. Frog miner is caught in another type of vicious cycle. Frog miner is directly involved in the extractive industry, but we can see our own lives in this scene as well. Even if you work as a carpenter, a barrista, or a lawyer, in this system every role depends on and encourages extraction.
In step one, frog miner is detonating explosives at the mine site, and getting a paycheck dangling from a fishing line in return.
In step two, frog miner is at home, with some pain in its back – maybe it got hurt on the job. Or maybe it has some pain in its kidneys because of heavy metal poisoning – we can see little tadpole pouring black water out of the tap.
In step three frog miner goes to the doctor, who is represented as a well-endorsed pharmaceutical jackass, and hands over a fat wad of cash in exchange for highly addictive prescription painkillers and bottled water.
In step four, frog miner has only a handful of change left, so it puts its hard-hat back on and heads back to work. Tadpole, who is nearly grown up now, is faced with a choice – do I follow in the footsteps of my family tradition?
or do I follow this other well-trod path, leading to the bus stop out of town? In so many communities around this region and around the world, young people are fleeing their traditional lifestyles, now made “obsolete” by mechanization, and looking for any job they can get in the city.