Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Book Review: Lost Mountain

To keep things interesting, The Blogging Bookworm will, from time to time, highlight reviews from fellow bookworms. This review is from berrybird at Lake Loop. I chose the review because one, it reached out and grabbed me and two, I know nothing about coal but had heard in the distance the echoes of strip mining and it's devastation. This book is that voice, no longer an echo. Check it out and enjoy the review.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.

RATING: 5 out of 5 Stars

READERS: Recommended for all greens in the spectrum and everyone in the entire color wheel

14 comments:

Bobbi said...

Lost Mountain is a wonderful book! I live in the Bluegrass region of Kentucky, so I'm not near the coal fields. Strip mining has all but destroyed Eastern KY, and it is such a waste. Much of the beautiful "knobs" has been wiped out, probably never to regain their beauty within my life time.

One of my favorite KY authors is Silas House. He is from Eastern KY and he has a wonderful blog on his site about the effects of strip mining. You can read the blog here: http://www.silashouseblog.blogspot.com/

BerryBird said...

Bobbi, I'm glad to hear you also enjoyed the book, and thanks for the link. I'll definitely head over and check it out.

Green Bean said...

Such a compelling review. I had never heard of this book before BerryBird chose it for the Bookworm Challenge but it sounds like something all of us should read. I'm so glad that you shared your review here as well as on your own blog.

BerryBird said...

Thanks so much, Green Bean! Lost Mountain is a *very* compelling book. It is no coincidence that people don't know much about strip mining... that's how the coal industry likes it. I have never written a book review on my blog before, but I feel so strongly about this book, I want everyone to read it.

arduous said...

Wow, that book sounds fascinating. I can't wait to check it out of the library now. Thanks for the review, berrybird!!

kale for sale said...

My request is in at the libary. I have one book in front of this one but I also have a few days off coming up. Just from reading your review I've been more conscious about turning lights on and off although I have no idea where our power comes from in CA. Actually yes I do - local, organic vegetables. Clearly I need to educate myself.

BerryBird said...

Arduous, I am sure you will "enjoy" the book, it truly is fascinating.

Katrina, in 2006, 15.7% of California's electricity delivered by major utilities came from coal statewide. The number varies widely by utility company though--PGE's coal usuage is much lower, for example.

I signed up for my mix of wind and small hydro through Community Energy, as they operate the wind farm closest to my home. They offer wind energy in California, too, that looks to be from the Shiloh Wind Power Plant in Solano County, but I am sure there are other providers as well.

Sorry to go on and on like this... can you tell I'm pretty geeked up?

Green Bean said...

I have PG&E. I'm assuming you do too, Katrina? Still, PG&E does use some coal power I believe. Also, this is a bit off topic but has anyone been able to get alternative power from PG&E? I tried and even called them and the best they could offer was carbon offsets.

Thank you for all the information, BerryBird. A truly fascinating review.

Donna said...

Small world -- my grandfather spent his whole working life working for PG&E. I really want to read this book, and I really don't. It's so much easier not knowing...

Thanks for a really great review.

BerryBird said...

Green Bean, in 2006 PG&E only derived 3% of their electricity from coal. This link gives the breakdown statewide, and also for PG&E and SCE separately. So your utility is doing better than most--nationwide, coal accounts for nearly 50% of electricity. If you signed up for wind energy from Community Energy, it would still be delivered from PG&E. There would be no interruption your service. The only change would be an additional charge on your bill each month, and PG&E would be contracually obligated to purchase the amount of electricity you use from wind energy sources. The agressive RPS you have in California is doing a pretty good job of creating demand for the wind energy anyway. PG&E is already buying energy now from Shiloh and other area wind farms.

[To be clear, I don't mean to promote or endorse Community Energy over other green energy providers--I am just speaking from my own experience. You may find other better options for your area.]

Donna, if it helps, the book is beautifully written. The author teaches writing at the University of Kentucky. It is definitely easier not knowing, but it's too late for me. Not that I know, I can't shut up about it :)

Green Bean said...

BerryBird, thank you for information. Burbanmom is always going on and on about buying renewable energy but I've never been able to figure it out. I'm visiting family but will follow your links, when I get home, to hopefully cleaner electricity.

Green Bean said...

Okay, it's me again in my endless desire to sign up for renewable energy. Turns out I can only buy Renewable Energy Credits from Community Energy for California. That's basically carbon offsets, right? I'm already doing Climate Smart which is PG&E's carbon offsets program. Any other ideas? Otherwise, it's back to the drawing board for me and our renewable energy search. Thanks for your advice, Berry Bird.

Mary Stebbins Taitt said...

WOW! Super and important post! WHEW! Too bad it's prolly preaching to the choir--but hey, even the choir can benefit!

Mary Stebbins Taitt said...

I printed this review for BB (my husband) to read) and may send it off to some friends as well.