“It’s a humid day, reminiscent of so many others in Bangladesh, as Aarashi hops on the truck that will take him to the coal mine where he has toiled in obscurity most of his adult life. He enters the claustrophobic tunnel, like he has nearly every morning for twenty-six years, and is instantly swallowed by darkness.”
It’s a humid day, reminiscent of so many others in Bangladesh, as Aarashi hops on the truck that will take him to the coal mine where he has toiled in obscurity most of his adult life. He enters the claustrophobic tunnel, like he has nearly every morning for twenty-six years, and is instantly swallowed by darkness. The mindless, repetitive motions of coal mining begin anew.
The earth doesn’t give up its treasure easily. Wresting the coal from its grasp is grueling, backbreaking work, but it feeds Aarashi’s wife and three sons, boys probably destined (some might say “doomed”) to one day follow their father into the mine. Aside from agriculture, Barapukuria Coal Mining Co. is the only source of employment within miles. The company has an economic stranglehold on the neighboring village where most workers live, but it’s a relationship both sides value as indispensable to their survival.
This day, though, news that threatens the symbiotic union circulates through the shaft. Aarashi hears his name echo through the damp bowels of the earth, and recognizes the voice as that of Nayaab, a co-worker, who bears unwelcome tidings: the government of Bangladesh is scaling back its use of coal in favor of renewable energy. Every miner in the labyrinth of tunnels feels personally threatened by the announcement, which parades under the banner of “progress.”
Although renewable energy has obvious advantages and is used to various extents around the world, coal miners — especially in poor countries like Bangladesh — are often left unemployed by the new competition. The plight of Aarashi, Nayaab, and their co-workers is but one example of the economic hardship that befalls miners when they are displaced by “green” technology, which topples old pillars of support and sometimes leaves human suffering in its wake.
Yet renewable energy seeks to avert an even greater tragedy that looms in the form of global warming. Carbon dioxide levels and global temperatures rose at their highest rates in recorded history over the last century, triggering frequent weather extremes and the extinction of certain species. Currently, fossil fuels represent the world’s main source of electricity, accounting for sixty-seven percent of total power generation.
Coal, however, is an environmental scourge. Its fumes pollute the atmosphere when burned to generate electricity, a process blamed for thirteen thousand deaths in the U.S. alone each year. An increase in renewable forms of energy will result in cleaner electrical production, reducing the demand for fossil fuels like coal. These new energy sources, which release less harmful emissions into the atmosphere, will slow down global warming and stem the increase of air-related diseases like cancer and other lung ailments.
The introduction of cleaner energy might leave Aarashi and Nayaab unemployed, but it could prevent their early deaths. Lung disease, often contracted by working long hours in the dusty underground, is an occupational hazard faced by miners worldwide. At first blush, this new technology might seem like a curse to miners, but it could prove providential to their health and welfare.
Renewables not only help the environment, in the long-term they benefit the economy and the impoverished people they initially displace. Hundreds of thousands of jobs are created to research, build, and operate renewable energy sources, putting many of the newly unemployed back to work with additional training. The new “green” jobs have the potential to lift employees out of poverty, turn them into contributing members of society, and put an end to the bleak generational cycle of sons following their fathers into the mines. College, once deemed financially off-limits to the children of miners, suddenly beckons as a possibility.
In addition, renewable energy holds the promise of supplying electricity to every home on the planet. Fully fifteen percent of the global population now lacks access to electricity. Fossil fuel prices are rising, and the cost is prohibitive for many families. People are dying of starvation because they are unable to preserve their food without electricity. Renewable energy offers new hope to this vast underclass, including Aarashi and Nayaab.
In the final analysis, we are all citizens of this world, its borders now blurred by technology and mutual threats. As such, we share an obligation to provide for our common welfare, to educate our children, and to protect the environment. Duty demands that we answer the clarion call of renewable energy, both for ourselves and succeeding generations.
Yet the United States, under President Donald Trump, is perhaps the biggest obstacle to reversing the effects of climate change. When the leaders of one hundred countries gather in Paris on Dec. 12 to intensify the fight against global warming, Trump will be conspicuous by his absence. The American president has rejected the Paris Agreement, negotiated in the French capital in 2015 to drastically curtail carbon emissions. Even war-torn Syria has pledged to join the accord.
Trump, however, has retreated to the isolationist policies of “America first,” leaving the world looking to France’s newly-elected president, Emmanuel Macron, as the de facto leader on climate change. Trump has embraced right-wing orthodoxies on the environment, and has already taken steps to revive America’s flagging coal industry, with the support of Republicans in Congress, especially those who represent Appalachia.
The U.S, president, less than a year into his first term, has indicated he intends to reverse his predecessor’s climate change policies, increase fracking for oil and gas, and lift current restrictions on coal mining. If Aarashi and Nayaab are bent on continuing their hazardous work, and find themselves unemployed under the more progressive policies of Bangladesh, they might find jobs in this country. U.S. coal mining and production actually ticked up this year.
But most analysts agree that the coal mining industry cannot ward off market forces, led by cheap natural gas, that have been building for years. Paradoxically, the Trump administration is revving up oil and gas exploration on federal lands, an intervention that has roiled conservationists and accelerated the decline of gas prices.
There are 643 million acres of federal land in the U.S., an area more than six times the size of California. Critics say this latest exploitation of natural resources threatens an iconic part of the country — and the western states’ identity. Even now, the Interior Department is drawing up plans to reduce wilderness and historic areas currently protected as national monuments, creating more opportunities for profit.
Trump has also vowed to remove roadblocks to energy projects like the Keystone XL pipeline, and promised to lift restrictions on coal mining and drilling for oil and natural gas. The president has already signed legislation that quashes the Office of Surface Mining’s Stream Protection Rule, a regulation that protected waterways from coal mining waste, enacted during the waning days of the Barack Obama administration.
“Neither a wise nor a brave man lies down on the tracks of history to wait for the train of the future to run over him,” asserted Dwight D. Eisenhower, former U.S. president and the leader of Allied Forces during World War II.
Of all the problems confronting this world, climate change is the most global. The task of converting to renewable energy should be a common effort, since bequeathing a habitable planet to our children hangs in the balance. Yet in the U.S., the coal industry exudes confidence for the first time in years as the nation abdicates its leadership role in the pursuit of profit.