KILLING FOR COAL THE SHIFT IN ECONOMIES Up until the 1800s, America was almost exclusively an organic economy, one in which people met their needs of food, fuel, shelter, and clothing by harvesting energy and materials from the plants, animals, rivers, and wind. The growth potential of organic economies remained constrained by the limited ability of people to tap into the sun’s energy through farms, windmills, waterwheels, etc.
Carbon-based fuel use began in the late eighteenth century. The Industrial Revolution was ushered in by the use of coal. The invention of the steam engine and its subsequent use in mechanizing the British textile was the catalyst to this “revolution”. American industrialization began with New England’s water-powered textile mills. By the 1830s, large-scale coal extraction had begun in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and beyond.
Enter William Jackson Palmer… WILLIAM JACKSON PALMER (GEOLOGICAL ENGINEER AND INDUSTRIALIST) On a tour in Great Britain and France in the mid-1850s, “Palmer realized that the rapid growth of British industry depended on the momentous transition from an economy in which most energy and materials derived from organic sources to a mineral-intensive economy in which fossil fuels and metals played a much more important role.
If coal could revolutionize the British economy, why couldn’t it transform the sleepy Colorado frontier” (32) By 1870, enormous quantities of power suddenly moved through Colorado igniting an economic boom to a once isolated economy. Andrews eloquently expressed a full picture of the labor, environmental, social and economic history of how coal transformed not only the landscape of the West but also transformed the American psyche. Coal provided an immediate solution to meeting the human demands of heat, light, food, transportation, and entertainment.
Coal-powered technologies magnified the strength of American workers, making the U. S. labor force the most productive in the world. Coal gave people POWER. But there were tremendous costs to all of this… Human Costs In this and other ways, working-class Americans of all races suffered disproportionate burdens in the new mineral-intensive economy. Many jobs became extremely hazardous. Thousands of workers died or were maimed every year on the railroads, in factories, and especially in coal mines. Several more found their lives shortened by coal dust, lead, and other poisons.
A massive strike in the late summer of 1913 created a chain of events that culminated in the massacre of 19 men, women and children and where a workers uprising left more than 30 strikebreakers, mine guards and state militiamen dead. Environmental Costs America’s industrial conquest was a disaster for the environment. In the countryside, coal-burning machines such as tractors, steam shovels, and dredges ripped into the earth and eroded the soil. Cities and towns have been polluted by fossil-fueled railroads, industries, and homes.
There are numerous damaging environmental impacts of coal that occur through its mining, preparation, combustion, waste storage, and transport to include water, air, and thermal pollution. Coal-fired power plants are responsible for one-third of America’s carbon dioxide emissions significantly impacting global warming. Cultural Costs “We cannot exist without it. ” That has been the philosophy that the great industrialists brought forth submerging much of America’s great working labor force, skilled and unskilled, to toil in it.
It is that cultivation of dependency, perpetuated by government response that was a recurring theme throughout this book. “Almost a century and a half after William Jackson Palmer first embarked on his utopian empire-building scheme, this amnesia, this denial obscures a Western past and present far more complicated and far more troubled than myth or memory would generally credit. ” (290). That term “amnesia” that Andrews uses is powerful and very accurate. It impresses that our society needs to wake up, remember, and respond.