Sunday, June 29, 2008

Lost Mountain: a Book Review

Green Bean has been running an ongoing challenge for the last two months, asking bloggers to read ecologically relevant books. I missed the first month, but signed up for June. I read Lost Mountain by Eric Reece. The subtitle pretty much says it all: A Year in the Vanishing Wilderness; Radical Strip Mining and the Devastation of Appalachia. This is a terrible and wonderful book, simultaneously fascinating and horribly guilt inducing, one of the most depressing books I have ever read. It is well written and fast paced, a nightmare of outrageous proportions. Everyone should read this book.

In September 2003, Erik Reece hiked the ironically named Lost Mountain, shortly after the state of Kentucky issued a permit for its destruction, but before the miners showed up. He documented the natural beauty: the sassafras, the warblers, the liverworts. For the next year, he returned to Lost Mountain repeatedly, trespassing at no small personal risk, to document the unnatural horrors of strip mining, and the changes wrought upon the lands and waters. The meat of the book is organized in monthly sections, where the author chronicles his ongoing observations. The frontispiece to each section is the same, a photograph taken before Lost Mountain was mined, showing misty mountain wilderness. When you turn the page to begin each new section, you are confronted with an image taken that month, showing the changes. Before, after; before, after; each successive "after" is more and more horrifying.

Interspersed amongst the observations of natural destruction, Erik Reece documents the human side of this tragedy, the social ramifications Big Coal has on rural communities. He attends public meetings, and visits local educators, clergy, and families. A local activist takes him on a disturbing tour of her town, pointing out home after home where, "everyone in that house died of cancer."

He also speaks with state regulators and representatives from the coal industry, and sheds some light on the politics of coal. It is a dirty, bloody business. Corruption and cronyism seem to rule Kentucky. There might be environmental protection laws on the books, but there is no enforcement. Regulators who try to do their jobs are forced out of office, or worse. In December 2003, on the same day the author sneaks past the iron gates on Lost Mountain for one of many documentary hikes, a state surface mine inspector died after being found beaten and unconscious in his own home, his body mutilated by human bite marks. Big Coal does not take kindly to resistance.

This may not be a pleasant book, but it is necessary. We need to educate ourselves about where our energy comes from, so we can demand better. As I suspected, "clean coal" is not the answer. Not that coal mining can't be done in a more responsible, more ethical way; it can, and the author documents that as well, describing the methods and practices that don't poison the water, where native plants will grow again. It can be done, but it is not.

This leads me to my only small quibble with the book. There is a conclusion section at the end, which contain some great information and tries to provide hope--this is where the author describes reclamation done right. In my opinion, it is still the weakest chapter in the book. To be perfectly honest, I don't like the conclusion chapter because Erik Reece uses it to take what I see as a cheap shot at science. It's that same old, tired humanities vs. science argument, "Science without compassion, science without ethics, has given us the modern war machine, the industrial farm, the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, the strip mine." Dude... oversimplify much? It's not science that gave us those things, it is greed, it is the market, it is simple ignorance.

I accept my share of the blame: I am ignorant and I am complicit. Due to an abundance of hydropower and nuclear power, only 18% of the electricity in my state comes from coal. But I use electricity, and my utility buys coal. In reading this book, I became a little less ignorant, and a lot more motivated.

Back at our old apartment, we paid a little extra for green power, a mix of wind energy and small hydro. When we bought this house, it was one of the details that got lost in the shuffle of moving, and we ended up with the default conventional power. Reading Lost Mountain inspired me to pull out the utility bill hanging file, and re-enroll in green power. It will cost a few extra pennies per kilowatt, but it will ease my conscious, make me feel less complicit. I no longer support Big Coal.


Nadine said...

Oh my, that book sounds terribly depressing but, as you said, terribly important. The bit about science is something we talk about in school all the time. One of the major misconceptions about science is that science and technology are the same, which of course isn't true. Technology is "applied science" and is resposible for many horrors. Science is merely the search for truth. It's how the discoveries are used that is the problem, not the science itself.

Adam said...

What you make of this book seems simply terrifying. I think many people avoid these kinds of books because they are afraid of the truth. People would rather sit in their air conditioned homes, oblivious of how their energy is processed. It is a shame that we are not making a faster transition to green power. My city is in the process of building a brand new coal power plant, which has been met with a a lot of controversey. Sure, we have the technology and even the resources to create greener power. But what we don't have is political and social support. I do think more Americans are aknowledging our addiction to coal and oil, though, and that really is the first step.

Green Bean said...

What an amazing sounding book. I have never heard of it before and am now convinced that I need to read it. We all need to read it and educate ourselves. Coal is one of those things I've shrugged my shoulders at. It's terrible, I know. But I figure my state doesn't use too much, coal country is miles away. I had no idea! Thank you for a heartfelt review.

Swamp Thing said...

Go see it in person and it will make you cry or vomit! All the folks screaming for more traditional fuel production at home should have to - at the very least - read that book (I read a good chunk of it at a bookstore recently), and ideally, see what our fuel REALLY costs. Beyond $4/gallon!

Mary Stebbins Taitt said...

Great and important review! YES!

Printed it for BB