06/20/2011 03:03 pm ET | Updated Aug 20, 2011

Centralia: Where the Future Meets the Past

Sometimes in life there are things that you are not prepared for. Sometimes the cruel ironies of life lend themselves to sheer incredulity and sometimes they create visuals that simply cannot be described by the most carefully chosen words. And oftentimes life's absurdities, usually assisted by mankind, simply defy even the most vivid imagination.

This past weekend, as fate would have it, I traveled to Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, home of one of the state universities, to deliver a speech on climate change. Utilizing the scenic beauty of North Central Pennsylvania's mountainous terrain, I found myself traversing the winding roads of Columbia County past the surreal ghost town of Centralia. Today it is little more than a series of asphalt grids winding through overgrown weeds, a testament to a town that no longer exists.

This was anthracite coal country, and at its peak the town boasted over 2,000 residents, thriving in an economy governed by what lay underneath, a seemingly never ending supply of coal whose extraction provided jobs and an energy source that powered a nation and eventually the greater part of the world. Today there are 10 or so hearty residents who refuse to vacate, despite the overarching powers of the State to use eminent domain to condemn the town.

For those not familiar with the story, in 1962 the town sat on an underground inferno when abandoned mines caught fire. The resulting mix of heat and toxic fumes eventually doomed the town. The fire burns to this day and is projected to burn for another 250 years. So is this what Thomas Friedman had in mind when he talks about "fuels from hell"? You could easily pass what was the town of Centralia as you make your way up Route 61, there are no signs identifying that you are passing on the outskirts of a ghost town. But if you leave the road and travel along several of the streets in the weeds, you can find yourself on top of a hill, right next to a cemetery that appears to be well kept to this day, if the flowers and American flags are indicators of such.

Upon mounting the hill you can witness for yourself smoke rising from underneath the ground. When you go up to the earthen chimneys and place your hand over the opening, you are immediately taken aback by the intense heat rising from beneath. It is eerie and fascinating at the same time. There are very few reminders of life here, nothing to indicate that homes once populated the streets and the sounds of children once pierced the air instead of carbon monoxide. But that was the past; it is no longer anything but a chapter in the history of Centralia. The book has closed on this town and we can only hope that one day soon the book will close on the fossil fuels that fueled the town and the nation and for that matter the world.

I delivered my presentation to a group of scientists that day imploring them to help facilitate a shift from the old economic paradigm based upon fossil fuels to a new economic paradigm based upon renewable energy. Ironically, the energy resource that once supported this town ultimately destroyed it. Ironically, I came face to face with the reality of the story on the same day I delivered my 96th presentation, imploring anyone who will listen that our future demands we shift away from fossil fuels and embrace the "fuels from heaven" that provide inexhaustible, emission-free sources of energy.

But the ironies do not end there. As I made my way back down the hill I came face to face with a dozen or so edifices adorning the adjoining ridge tops; imposing and graceful, majestic and functionally magnificent, their very presence striking a pose in the summer-like blue skies over Pennsylvania as if to defy the conventional wisdom that alternative renewable energy is something off in the distant future. There along the ridge tops stood wind mills gently turning their blades of promise into energy. The juxtaposition of these two starkly divergent energy sources simply could not be more perfectly captured than having a picture of the smoke rising from below blending in with the whirling of the blades.

The moment captured a snapshot of the two paths we can follow: one, pinning our children's futures on that which lies underneath, providing short-term relief and ultimately long-term destruction, the other taking advantage of the benefits of nature, the wind or the sun, which promises both short-- and long-term benefits for a productive and healthy world.

The choices underscored in this vivid picture bring into clear focus the depth of our commitment as a generation to actually leave the world in a better way than in which we found it, or at the very least no worse. The problem is not our addiction to oil; it is our addiction to fossil fuels. Unless we reaffirm our commitment to our children, as reflected in the lessons of the energy debate, we are simply deluding ourselves and choking our children on the fumes of fossil fuel futility. They will have every right to resent us and condemn us as a selfish and spoiled generation more interested in their own indignant entitlements, and a hypocritical, over indulgent class of individuals whose platitudes about caring and love did not match their actions.

To borrow a quote from muckraker Lincoln Steffens, "I have seen the future, and it works." In this case, I have seen the past and the future works better because the future is here now. The lessons of Centralia illustrate both the past and the future, and nowhere are they more applicable than in our decisions to break away from our dependence upon fossil fuels, because in the end they will destroy us.