The True Costs of Coal: A Very Brief Introduction

The social harm caused by coal is enormous.

Of course there is the obvious horror of mountaintop removal. I once led a discussion with coalfield residents in which we brainstormed about 100 of its horrible effects, ranging from the disappearance of wildlife to the boulders that were crashing in nearby homes.

But the social and environmental consequences of coal are disastrous even before the extraction process can begin. First comes the “enclosure” of lands customarily held in common: lands that provided the timber, food, water, herbs, and even coal which people with meager incomes needed for even modest independence. At the same time, people with moderate land holdings are defrauded or physically forced from their lands. In the early days, the need to build railroads, coal camps, and underground struts led to the clearcutting of every inch of forest, which of course caused erosion and destroyed streams. This further undermined the possibility to use the woods and streams as a supplement to subsistence and small market lifestyles. The same effect is caused by mountaintop removal today.

When a monolithic economy establishes itself, whether it be sugar, cotton, or coal, any chance for healthy development is obviated by the oppression of colonialism. ANYWHERE you find a monolithic economy in the world, you find poverty, boom and bust, corrupt politicians, and environmental devestation.

Then there is the burning of coal. This causes acid rain, asthma, and probably global warmining. For those that live closer to the coal plants, the effects are substantially worse. There is heavy metal poisoning, high rates of autism, and even lower IQs. Then there is the storage of coal waste. In the coalfields this means gigantic impoundments of toxic sludge that loom over elementary schools. For those living near the plants, this means coal ash ponds like the one that broke in Tennessee last December.

 Of course, politicians will not stop the use of coal unless they are forced to do so…

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