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In King Coal's Kingdom, Truth Is Stranger Than Satire

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San Francisco -- Back in December 2008, the coal industry looked to be the victim of a vicious satire. An online campaign purporting to be from an organization called the American Coalition for Clean Coal posted a series of cartoons of lumps of coal dressed in Christmas garb and singing absurd lyrics to Christmas carols. For example, to the tune of "Frosty the Snowman," we heard that "When they looked for pollution there was almost none to see" and that "Frosty the Coalman" is "affordable and adorable." Like most spoofs, the campaign vanished like a snowman melting in Dubai when folks like Rachel Maddow mercilessly tweaked it.

This week Peabody Energy issued a press release in the way that corporations that have been caught screwing up often do -- they agreed to pay (grossly inadequate) compensation for the documented impact that burning their product has on the lungs of children. Peabody agreed to a typical class action suit remedy: provide a free inhaler to any child afflicted with asthma who lives close to a coal-fired power plant, along with a $10 coupon for the purchase of the medicine that goes in the inhaler. The details are provided on what looks like a typical coal industry-funded website. (There are many such sites.) This one is called Coal Cares. Coal Cares appears to reflect the industry's knowledge that its product is making kids sick, and perpetuates the industry's fundamental response: "Let them breathe inhalers."

There's only one problem. The Clean Coal Carolers video, full of lies, is the coal industry's Real McCoy, and the truthful-if-painful Coal Cares site is a prank by the culture-jamming satirists The Yes Men.

In denouncing the prank, Peabody promptly slipped back into falsehood, claiming that "a growing collection of studies demonstrate the correlation between electricity fueled by low-cost coal and improvement in health, longevity and quality of life," according to a company press release. "The United Nations has linked life expectancy, educational attainment and income with per-capita electricity use, and the World Resources Institute found that for every tenfold increase in per-capita energy use, individuals live 10 years longer." WRI promptly pointed out that it had never made any such finding.

So we have a deceitful coal industry internet roll-out, followed by a truthful satire of the industry's stance, and capped off with a deceitful denunciation of the satire by Peabody! The black comedy might end there... except the parodies of the truth that Peabody puts out are not only showing up online, where the likes of Rachel Maddow and The Yes Men can track them. They are also headed for a 4th grade near you.

Scholastic Inc., whose name is at risk of becoming a self-parody, has entered into another one of its "curriculum for pay" deals. For a sum it won't disclose but doesn't deny, Scholastic Inc. has agreed to distribute curriculum materials to 66,000 fourth grade teachers commissioned by the American Coal Foundation. The curriculum pretends to be a comprehensive energy learning tool, but in fact, it's straight-out coal propaganda. None of coal's pollutants are mentioned, nor is mountaintop removal mining.

The Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, which calls these kinds of curriculum-for-pay deals "predatory marketing," is asking Scholastic to pull "The United States of Energy Materials." You can join their campaign and send your own letter.

Let's keep deceit and pollution profits where they belong: out of schools.

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