Paul Andersen: We’ve been ‘fossil fools’ for too long
“How Green Was My Valley” is a beautiful and tragic novel that stands as a poignant metaphor for the way fossil fuels have defined the human relationship with energy.
Written in 1939, by Richard Llewellyn, this emotive book describes a Welsh mining community that is literally enveloped by the mine in which the men of the town labor at great personal risk.
Winner of the National Book Award in 1940, “How Green Was My Valley” opens one’s eyes to the fatal dichotomies of the Industrial Age which, according to Wikipedia, is “characterized chiefly by the replacement of hand tools with power-driven machines such as the power loom and the steam engine, and by the concentration of industry in large establishments.”
Concentrated industries replaced cottage industries and gave rise to the Luddites, who smashed machines in protest against the inexorable homogenization of mass production. Cheap, dirty energy became the opioid of the ages.
“I wonder,” reflects Llewellyn, “is happiness only an essence of good living that you shall taste only once or twice while you live, and then go on living with the taste in your mouth, and wishing you had the fullness of it solid between your teeth, like a good meal.”
That “meal” of good living has been soured by the hidden costs of energy, beginning with the Industrial Revolution, which began around 1760 in Great Britain and spread to other countries in a flood of technological advances that forever changed human life.
The devil’s bargain has been carbon emissions, first from dirty coal, later from oil and gas. The energy sector has polluted the atmosphere, rained acid onto the earth, caused wars and is now pushing climate change to a critical factor that weighs human survival in the balance.
“Men lose their birthrights for a mess of pottage,” lamented Llewellyn about his pastoral community as he watched slag heaps from the mine flow down and eventually cover their precious, green valley and their very homes. Coal mining was their only income, and it eventually destroyed all they loved.
A recent headline from Reuters News brings this to date with stunning clarity: “150 Years of Spills: Philadelphia refinery cleanup highlights toxic legacy of fossil fuels.”
The article describes how a closed-down refinery remains a toxic legacy of the U.S. energy sector, the largest contributing economic factor to climate change today. Ambitious plans call for this 1,400-acre site to be transformed into a commercial hub with warehousing and offices.
“All it will take,” ruefully suggests Reuters, “is a decade, hundreds of millions of dollars, and confronting 150 years’ worth of industrial pollution, including buried rail cars and a poisonous stew of waste fuels poured onto the ground. A U.S. refinery cleanup of this size and scope has no known precedent.”
The article points out that this refinery is only one of many toxic testaments to cheap energy. “About half of America’s 450,000 polluted former industrial and commercial sites are contaminated with petroleum, according to the EPA.”
These obsolete facilities have been kept going for as long as they have, states one industrial historian, because “they’re so contaminated, it’s hard to figure out what else to do with them.” Clearly, these plants were built and operated with no end game.
Fossil fuels have been an enormous boon to man at a development stage seen today as human adolescence. Fossil fuels have provided cheap power for the short term but without guiding intelligence in the long run.
“How Green Was My Valley” is a doleful reflection on the tragic toll of energy as told by Huw Morgan, the narrator, as he is about to walk away from his ruined valley and destroyed community.
Huw is able to walk away from the localized impacts of fossil fuels, but we are not able to do the same. All of humanity must live with the aftermath of fossil fuels and consign the same to our children and to theirs after them.
Walking away from fossil fuels is a necessity if we choose to protect our communities and homes. Humanity can make a new start, but only if we can mature from adolescence into adulthood.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at email@example.com.
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The events of our lives we toast in beloved restaurants are the same events we recall over and over again in all different times and places. They never die.