There was a lovely reflection in today’s NYT by novelist Denise Giardina about the Upper Big Branch mine explosion in West Virginia. Denise spent some time with Sojourners community in the late ’70s and early ’80s when she was working on her first book Storming Heaven. Since then she’s gone on to write Unquiet Earth, Saints and Villains, and Emily’s Ghost. Currently, Denise is the writer-in-residence at West Virginia State University. Below is an excerpt from her column:
Halfway through Saturday night’s semifinal against Duke, our star forward, Da’Sean Butler, tore a ligament in his knee, and the Mountaineers crumbled. And on Monday evening, while Duke and Butler played in what for us was now merely a game, West Virginians gathered around televisions to watch news of a coal mine disaster.
Despite the sunny skies and unseasonably warm weather, the mood here in southern West Virginia is subdued. As of Tuesday afternoon, 25 men have been confirmed dead, two are critically injured, and four are missing and presumed dead. Their fellow West Virginians work round the clock and risk their own lives to retrieve the bodies.
Already outrage is focused on Massey Energy, owner of the Upper Big Branch mine. Massey has a history of negligence, and Upper Big Branch has often been cited in recent years for problems, including failure to properly vent methane gas, which officials say might have been the cause of Monday’s explosion.
It seems we can’t escape our heritage. I grew up in a coal camp in the southern part of the state. Every day my school bus drove past a sign posted by the local coal company keeping tally, like a basketball scoreboard, of “man hours” lost to accidents. From time to time classmates whose fathers had been killed or maimed would disappear, their families gone elsewhere to seek work.
We knew then, and know now, that we are a national sacrifice area. We mine coal despite the danger to miners, the damage to the environment and the monomaniacal control of an industry that keeps economic diversity from flourishing here. We do it because America says it needs the coal we provide.
I really want my urban D.C. row house to be as naturally powered as possible. But I’m lacking in both the finances and the DIY skills to make it so. This puts me in the position of a “beach-chair activist” when it comes to solar power. I read all the cool new solar developments with envy and dream of a day I can at least feel the sun in my shower.
I’m also hoping that my Columbia Heights neighborhood will start a solar panel cooperative (like they’ve done in Mount Pleasant, D.C.). And I want the U.S. to catch up at least with Europe in saving the planet. (I have a lot of desires.)
The harnessing of solar energy is expanding on every front as concerns about climate change and energy security escalate, as government incentives for harnessing solar energy expand, and as these costs decline while those of fossil fuels rise. One solar technology that is really beginning to take off is the use of solar thermal collectors to convert sunlight into heat that can be used to warm both water and space.
China, for example, is now home to 27 million rooftop solar water heaters. With nearly 4,000 Chinese companies manufacturing these devices, this relatively simple low-cost technology has leapfrogged into villages that do not yet have electricity. For as little as $200, villagers can have a rooftop solar collector installed and take their first hot shower. This technology is sweeping China like wildfire, already approaching market saturation in some communities. Beijing plans to boost the current 114 million square meters of rooftop solar collectors for heating water to 300 million by 2020.
The energy harnessed by these installations in China is equal to the electricity generated by 49 coal-fired power plants. Other developing countries such as India and Brazil may also soon see millions of households turning to this inexpensive water heating technology. This leapfrogging into rural areas without an electricity grid is similar to the way cell phones bypassed the traditional fixed-line grid, providing services to millions of people who would still be on waiting lists if they had relied on traditional phone lines. Once the initial installment cost of rooftop solar water heaters is paid, the hot water is essentially free.
I’ve enjoyed Utah-based essayist Terry Tempest Williams since I read her 1991 book “The Clan of One-Breasted Women” (“I belong to a Clan of One-Breasted Women. My mother, my grandmothers, and six aunts have all had mastectomies. Seven are dead. The two who survive have just completed rounds of chemotherapy and radiation.”) about her family’s experience living as Downwinders from the Nevada Desert Nuclear Test Site.
A few weeks ago, at the Artists for Climate Action event in downtown D.C., I heard her speak. She highlighted some work she’d been doing with creative writing students in collecting oral histories from coal-mining communities in Wyoming. It turned into “an unprecedented experiment in the art of listening,” as Alexandra Fuller described it in her New York Times OpEd piece. You can read the students’ Weather Reports and see photos they took during their community listening project.
Terry’s newest book, Finding Beauty in a Broken World, is a study of the art of mosaics, which she then applies to examining ecological mosaics in Bryce Canyon and the to the broken land of Rwanda attempting the art of putting what’s broken back together again in a shape that is beautiful.
I saw her at the Chesapeake Climate Action Network demonstration on Monday to close down or convert to solar the Capitol Hill Power plant (which runs on 49 percent coal supplied by Peabody Energy). There was a great line up of Kentucky essayist Wendell Berry, Methodist environmental leader Bill McKibben, head of NASA scientist James Hansen, country music star Kathy Mattea, and Terry Tempest Williams all under the banner “Save Our Mountains.” It was a beautiful sight to see.