The environment and economics… in that order please!

Watching a recent documentary on “People & Power” on Aljazeera, made the obvious, yet largely ignored concept of the environment and then the economy, really sink in. Our consumer-driven, debt-based world economy has been conceived on the back of the theory that the economy comes first and then the environment. The economy is a subset of the environment, not the converse. Even if there are renewable alternatives, the commercial interests of companies continue to take precedent over the environment, literally killing the proverbial goose that lays the golden egg!

The topic of the documentary was the striking, and somewhat extreme example of “mountain top removal” for the open cast mining of coal in the Coal River Mountains in West Virginia in the US, which highlights this insane concept. The process is essentially based on blasting the surface of the land, stripping it away to expose a seam of coal a metre or two thick. The coal is removed and eventually finds its way into power stations and industrial applications. The coal is burned, and then it is gone, releasing “cheap” energy which contributes to global warming, and carbon into the atmosphere – cheap only if you externalize or ignore the cost to the environment.

Now, the landscape, along with many eco-systems which convert carbon dioxide into oxygen, has been destroyed for a once-off burn of the coal. The large holes excavated are filled with the blasted overburden, changing the landscape forever. The region in question is magnificent countryside, comprising a series of ridges and valleys covered with trees and shrubs which is being systematically ravaged by this questionable process. Aerial photos (see Google Earth reference below) are the best means of appreciating the devastation, and the scant regard for the value of this once pristine part of the USA.

There is vehement opposition to these activities by a concerned group of locals who have formed an action group, and they have not only pointed out the destruction which is taking place, but have produced a study which makes it clear that the mountain ridges offer the perfect site for the erection of wind turbines, which will produce ongoing renewable energy for many years to come, as opposed to the once-off burn of coal with all of its environmental negatives. The company in question naturally declined an interview, highlighting their awareness that they are in the wrong, even if the activities are legal.

Sure, the turbines are not pretty, but they beat the trashed landscape which will not recover and will certainly not produce another joule of energy and little oxygen. Unfortunately, the company which has bought the rights to mine the coal does not quite see it like this – this has a familiar ring to it, not so?

More recent studies by leading scientists on the rate of temperature increase on our planet now indicate that assumptions made around the impact of sea temperature on global warming, were significantly underestimated. In fact we are becoming warmer a lot quicker than first calculated, and even if we all stop now with the environmentally destructive practices which predominate worldwide in the name of growing our economy, the sheer momentum created by defecating in our own backyard for so long, will continue for around 30 years! This could be the legacy we leave our children if we don’t seize both the challenge and the opportunity to turn it around. It is our generation which has the last chance to preserve our incredibly beautiful life support system.

References: Aljazeera, People & Power; M-net, Carte Blanche; The Stern Review (Google search or Wikipedia)
Google Earth: Coal Mountains, West Virginia

Chris Behrens, Chris Behrens Consulting Engineers CC – Working towards a greener tomorrow

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