Increasingly absent in the bombast and bizarre behavior of this campaign is a discussion of issues that separate the candidates and their parties – issues that once defined the boundaries of political debate. I’d like to examine some of them in upcoming posts. First up: energy and the environment.
When I traveled through the Rust Belt last month, people talked of the “war on coal” in very personal terms. Since the 19th century, coal had been the engine that drove the steel industry that provided jobs and prosperity. Now coal is under attack, the mills have closed and the jobs are gone, victims, I was told, of environmental over-regulation and cheap foreign competition. Sixty years ago, for example, the steel industry employed over 13,000 full-time workers in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, alone. Today, 500 are left.
Those jobs are not coming back, a retired newspaper editor told me. “Natural gas, not regulators, killed the coal industry,” he said, and almost three-quarters of the steel used in the U.S. is still produced in the U.S., “just not here.”
And we forget, too, the horrendous cost of coal: miners’ short lives and black lungs, dark clouds of filthy air, streams of undrinkable water – and the removal of entire mountaintops, perhaps the single most destructive industrial practice ever conceived.
We need to move beyond arguments that pit the economy against the environment, beyond treating the earth as a pit from which to rip resources and a cesspool into which to dump waste. As a nation, we need to move beyond coal, but not without investing in the lives of those people and families who produce it.