Exploring the Eclipse of Equality

Lust for the Lure of the Mine: The drama of true cost accounting

In Class and Social Stratification on April 9, 2010 at 10:24 am

Where danger is double  and the pleasures are few. Where the rain never falls,  the sun never shines, it’s dark as a dungeon way down in the mines. There’s many a man  I’ve seen in my day who lives just to labor  his whole life away. Like a fiend with his dope  And a drunkard his wine, a man will have lust  for the lure of the mine.

Dark as a Dungeon by Merle Robert Travis

One can’t consume news today without confronting the tragedy of the coal miners in West Virginia, who are still trapped in a coal mine so dangerous that rescuers can’t hazard a rescue without retreat. We have a sister story that has something of a happy ending in China that received almost no coverage here, but which highlights a problem we have as a species–our need for what some scientists call “energy servants,” brings costs that we only face when we can no longer look away. Today, the nation mourns the loss of twenty five miners and fears the loss of four more, but how many of us are thinking about this in global strategic terms? Is there a conflict here that we are missing?

Of course there is reason to blame and to criticize the coal mine’s owner. We have seen quite a few reports on how the coal mine had over a thousand safety warnings in just the past few years. In fact, just prior to the explosion, there were methane warnings and, as I understand it, the methane was the problem that was directly linked to the combustion. The best explanation one can attach to this is another class argument in which the greedy mine operators stick it to the exploited workers, even to their deaths. The class argument about mines has a long pedigree and the easily attributable cost born unevenly by miners has made the occupation among the most radical in history across several countries and systems of government. Even in my practical experience of trying to teach class conflicts, the movies I most readily find for ambient classroom support are mining cases like Matewan. It is not hard to see the fundamental conflict of interests when one side stands to gain a modest profit at the expense of the lives of the other party. When the terms of class conflict are life and death and not more and less, radicalism benefits.

The class story is not a bad place to begin and there is plenty of room to direct outrage toward Don Blankenship, the chief executive of Massey energy, who was reported in the Times saying they “are going to vent that anger toward someone, and I would suspect in some cases it will be me.” But this brings up larger issues about what we mean by class conflict and how structural inequalities play out in real conflicts. The key thing to recognize here is that if it were not Blankenship in power, it would be someone else. If  über-Senator Robert Byrd, alias big daddy, did not delicately support the interest of the mine owners to maintain this endless status quo, someone else would. In short, the people who enable the tragedies that we witness every so often are responsible in limited measure, but are constrained by the contexts in which they operate. That is, of course, what we mean by structural violence. No one need intend it, but it happens nevertheless.

The larger problem here derives from the energy needs of the world as a whole. Jimmy Carter may be remembered as one of the least successful presidents, but surely he was one of our most successful political prophets:

Tonight I want to have an unpleasant talk with you about a problem unprecedented in our history. With the exception of preventing war, this is the greatest challenge our country will face during our lifetimes. The energy crisis has not yet overwhelmed us, but it will if we do not act quickly.

Carter Speech April 18, 1977

Today, we face challenges with carbon dioxide, which is now so abundant that we consider it to be a pollutant, ongoing deaths in mines around the world, and perhaps more ominously a foreign policy that is overly sensitive to the natural resources available in the Middle East, that forces us occasionally to side with tyrants, to retard the development of indigenous movements toward social justice, and to enable some of our friends in Israel to flatter their hawkish, trauma-born instincts in ways that might undermine their own long term security. The problems of the Middle East are not reducible to oil, but they are certainly well lubricated by it.

These social problems, climate change, mass death underground, illiberal governance, imprecated moral authority of the American idea, multi-trillion dollar counter insurgency wars,  and more are the true costs of our energy policy. In order to assess the costs we are paying, we should factor them all in somehow to our policy decisions. One wonders if even the search and rescue operations for the West Virgina case are being born by Massey Energy; they certainly are a predictable part of the cost of business.

The decision by many liberals to place a moratorium on nuclear power in the 1970s was based on a sound analysis like this. The proponents of the freeze were worried about unseen costs and were convinced that the risks associated with nuclear power were too great to bear. They helped to launch a new science of framing, risk and discourse analyses in which we think about problems in terms of the guiding rationales that support them rather than taking arguments at face value.

The tragedy of this sound science and its accompanying social movement is that the opportunity costs of alternative framing were ignored. We are now paying those costs by exploiting fossil fuels. We are not accounting for the costs, but we are paying them. The question we should ask ourselves is, how do you want to pay?

The promise of limited growth for an affluent society was a first world fantasy that succumbed to the natural balancing that comes with market equilibration. The greatest irony of this situation is that our reliance on fossil fuels creates a context for strife that makes nuclear power too dangerous to share democratically with places that might need it most. If it were not for fossil fuels, would Iran be the nuclear threat it is today? Worse still, many of the costs of our energy policy are born largely by those who do not benefit from the energy’s use. Three Mile Island proved to many that we should not hazard nuclear power in places like Pennsylvania, but it also helped to insure that others around the world would hazard quasi-feudal injustices coupled with the presence of deadly foreign peacekeepers in their lands. Just watch the movie Crude to get a sense of how the search for a reasonable profit imposes costs on people who one never thought to take into consideration. My guess is that Texaco executives assumed that people would simply move when they realized that staying in place was a deadly affair, but some problems simply do not solve themselves.

In his 2006 State of the Union address,  George Bush said that we were addicted to oil and that we had to do something about it. This may have suited his personal worldview in which he had overcome his own addiction, but it always fell a bit flat with me. I like to think instead that we should confront another kind of sin, which is well rendered as the lust for the mine. There are no simple answers here, but we now have an opportunity to recognize that coal power like nuclear has invisible costs as well.


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