You can't but help admire Tom Friedman's enthusiasm for technological innovations. The NY Times columnist and mega-bestselling author has probably interviewed more scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs about high tech clean energy ideas than anyone in the last few years.
But instead of interviewing only corporate CEO's and clean tech innovators, it's time for Friedman to come down to the dusty soil and interview coal miners, afflicted residents and farmers and children in the coalfields, and the millions of people who are paying the price for many of these so-called "clean energy" alternatives.
Friedman's latest column, "Dreaming the Possible Dream," is a startling reminder that in his haste to promote high tech solutions to dirty energy problems, he casually overlooks some of the darker consequences--especially when it comes to Big Coal.
Three years ago, Friedman celebrated his favorite green lump, in a hair-raising tour of Montana's brutal coal country with Gov. Brian Schweitzer. If only Friedman had toured with brilliant author Rick Bass, who gives a real tour of the nightmare of coal in Montana in his latest piece, High Plains Poison.
In this week's column, Friedman highlights the experiments of a clean energy start-up to convert CO2 (possibly from coal-fired plants) into calcium carbonate. Great idea, for sure. But then Friedman glibly quotes (and doesn't challenge) a "son of New Delhi' and a soon-to-be-bankrolled-by-Peabody Energy (largest coal company in the world) source about the innovation:
A source says the huge Peabody coal company will announce an investment in Calera next week. "If this works," said Khosla, "coal-fired power would become more than 100 percent clean. Not only would it not emit any CO2, but by producing clean water and cement as a byproduct it would also be taking all of the CO2 that goes into making those products out of the atmosphere."
Read that again: Coal-fired power would become more than 100 percent clean.
More than 100 percent clean?
Does Friedman realize how wrong, how offensive, and ultimately, how dangerous this kind of rhetoric can be in the clean energy debate?
Doesn't Friedman know that even New Dehli has declared its intent to become coal free?
How can Friedman celebrate any technology that would increase coal production, not decrease it--especially within the context of peak coal concerns, devastating underground longwall mining operations, devastating strip-mining and toxic coal processing discharges in watersheds in over 20 states, toxic coal ash, entrenched coalfield poverty, black lung disease and the myriad nightmare of "sulfur dioxide, particulate matter (Pm), nitrogen oxides, mercury, and dozens of other substances known to be hazardous to human health."
Perhaps Friedman and his Peabody-funded clean tech innovators missed the Physicians for Social Responsibility's recent study, "Coal's Assault on Human Health," that found:
Coal pollutants affect all major body organ systems and contribute to four of the five leading causes of mortality in the u.s.: heart disease, cancer, stroke, and chronic lower respiratory diseases. this conclusion emerges from our reassessment of the widely recognized health threats from coal. Each step of the coal lifecycle--mining, transportation, washing, combustion, and disposing of post-combustion wastes--impacts human health. Coal combustion in particular contributes to diseases affecting large portions of the u.s. population, including asthma, lung cancer, heart disease, and stroke, compounding the major public health challenges of our time. It interferes with lung development, increases the risk of heart attacks, and compromises intellectual capacity.
Perhaps Friedman needs to interview one of the three coal miners who die daily from black lung disease--which is still on the rise in 2010!
In some ways, strangely enough, Thomas Friedman reminds me of Thomas Jefferson.
In 1786, while visiting England, Jefferson was astonished by the technological prowess of England's coal industry. He had often times witnessed England's great coal-ﬁred navy that controlled the waterways. Author Daniel Defoe, a half century before Jefferson's ﬁrst arrival in London, had written about the "wonder" of the "prodigious ﬂeets of ships which come constantly in with coal."
But on this particular trip, Jefferson was the ﬁrst American to make note of what historian James Parton hailed in his Life of Thomas Jefferson as the "most important piece of mechanical intelligence that pen ever recorded--the success of the Watt steam engine, by means of which 'a peck and a half of coal performs as much works as a horse in a day.' He [Jefferson] conversed at Paris with English industrialist Matthew Boulton, who was Watt's partner in the manufacture of the engines, and learned from his lips this astounding fact."
Coal could not only provide ﬁre, but accelerated an energy-efﬁcient power. It would fuel the industrial revolution and a nation.
Back in the States, Jefferson was soon investigating the dynamics of coal importation versus the quality of American coal. Although the steam engine and other technological advances were another generation away from taking hold in the United States, Jefferson forever shaped his frontier American policies with an eye perennially cast back across the water.
There were just a couple of problems with Jefferson's innovators--it required widespread slavery and Indian removal. Putting aside his stated belief that "money and not morality is the principle of commerce and commercial nations," Jefferson helped to launch a coal industry on the backs of African and African American slaves for a century of horrific accidents and disasters, and began the removal of Native Americans on coal-rich lands.
Instead of continuing the staggering human and environmental costs of coal for another century, you would think Tom Friedman--and our nation--would pursue truly clean energy alternatives today.
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