Jeff Biggers and the Coal-Free Future


November 6, 2010

Many write well; fewer of those also try to do the work of the better angels. Jeff Biggers (The United States of Appalachia, In the Sierra Madre, and No Lonesome Road, an American Book Award Winner), one of those writer-activists, was here last week to discuss his latest book, Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland, and to kick off Sustainability Week on our campus.

Reckoning is an important book. It’s framed as Biggers’ own education on his roots deep in Southern Illinois’ Shawnee National Forest, but as with all the best stories its specificity has meaning for us all. Reckoning shows how policies of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson led to today’s coal industry, how and why Native Americans were removed from this “window to the West,” and how black slavery was legally sanctioned in the Land of Lincoln. It’s about unions, worker safety, communities, and “the devastating environmental consequences of industrial strip-mining.” Publishers Weekly says,

Part historical narrative, part family memoir, part pastoral paean, and part jeremiad against the abuse of the land and of the men who gave and continue to give their lives to (and often for) the mines, the book puts a human face on the industry that supplies nearly half of America's energy. [A] devastating critique of the myth of clean coal.

The book has gotten a lot of attention (see Biggers here on the Leonard Lopate show at WNYC) and couldn’t be timelier in an age of ongoing mine disasters, mountaintop removal, worries of energy-dependence on foreign resources, and the declaration by President Obama that “It’s been said that the United States is the Saudi Arabia of coal…. If we can develop the technology to capture the carbon pollution released by coal, it can create jobs and provide energy well into the future.”

I’d never met Biggers in person, so I was both a little thrilled and horrified when, after the Chancellor and two or three others had had their say at the start of the event, Biggers got to his feet with my book in his hand. He believes traditional readings should be replaced with something more interesting—something I wish more authors including me had the guts to believe—and the lights were shut off in the big lecture hall, plunging us into the darkness of a mine and the one at the moral center of his book. Biggers is a great voice actor and one of the co-founders of the Coal Free Future Project, a multimedia theater show and series of workshops on a 20-state campus/community tour, as well as an off-Broadway production. The audience was rapt as he spoke.

After the dramatic prologue, the lights came back up and Biggers read a short passage from my novel, in which the protagonist, a UMWA official, agonizes over right action and thinks courting public opinion may be the way of the future, something Biggers has done for years. The Chancellor had left right after his own speech, missing mention of one of his own, but maybe it’s just as well since Biggers generously referred to me as “Professor” a couple of times. (He also pointed out Chicago's landlord status over the rest of the state to remind students from Chicago that their fathers' and forefathers' fortunes, and ultimately their privilege, have come partly at the expense of Southern Illinois history. This seemed to come as a surprise to some.)

“Is Professor [Churm] here tonight?” Biggers asked. All heads swung around as I waved. “Garsh,” I said.

Before he left the Chancellor had announced a plan for the campus to be coal-free—despite large new mines being opened nearby—by 2017, and beyond that to be the greenest campus in America, which makes sense given the school’s reputation for engineering programs. Why wouldn’t we have wind farms, solar arrays, geothermal pumps, and methane collectors?

The greening must happen by action on several fronts, of course, including conservation. The Office of Sustainability’s site says, “Total energy consumed by the main campus…dropped 6.5% in FY09 compared to FY08. Campus consumption is now nearly 10% lower than FY07 on a square foot basis. The FY09 energy reduction resulted in a budget savings of approximately $7.5 million. The goal for FY10 is another 5% reduction (i.e. 5% below FY09).” Other plans include new smart buildings, retrofit design, outreach programs, and incentives for new projects funded by students’ “$2 per semester Cleaner Energy Technologies fee and a $5 per semester fee for a Sustainable Campus Environment.”

Biggers spoke for an hour, took questions, helped forge an alliance between a non-profit environmental group and a county board member in the audience, signed books and chatted with those who hung around. I took him out for a quick beer afterward, so I could thank him for his kindness and good taste.

A few days later my family and I drove to Chicago on an old state road we’d never traveled so Mrs. Churm could attend a conference and the boys and I could visit the bouncy-house paradise that smells of feet and vomit. An hour or more into the trip I spotted a long line of red lights ahead of us in the dark. They were the type you might see on a water tower or bridge to warn off aircraft, but there were so many of them that they filled the width of my field of vision. Granary? Refinery? Railroad? Transmission towers? They were disorienting, mesmerizing, like nothing I’d ever seen before, and I began to understand how people might claim to have seen the mothership. The landscape is so flat and the scale of the project so large that we drove toward whatever it was for half an hour, the lights eventually differentiating into various heights but all blinking, horizon to horizon, in perfect unison. As we got even closer something seemed to flash periodically through some of the lights.

It was the Streator Cayuga Ridge South Wind Farm, which I didn't know existed. For a year or more I’ve been seeing semis bearing enormous propeller blades on the highways but thought they were bound for other states. I was as dumbfounded at the sight of the operating windmills as Don Quixote was by his; there was something sublime in their giant turning in the dark. (The propellers alone weigh two tons, and there are some 150 turbines spread across several thousand acres of farmland.)

In this global age, what’s good can easily become complicated. It happened with the giant ethanol plant that was meant to be a major consumer of commodity corn but which also sucked up the aquifer that supplies this part of the Midwest. The Cayuga wind farm is owned by a Spanish company with headquarters in Portland, Oregon, and the energy it generates is sold to the Tennessee Valley Authority for use in its grid. Not everyone was for it, and promised jobs and tax revenue seem to be in dispute. There are, it turns out, other wind farms nearby, which also met local opposition, and which I’d also never heard of.

Time says, “The onshore portion of the industry has been growing healthily in recent years, with more than 10,000 MW of wind power added last year alone, representing 39% of all new U.S. power generation.” Our own campus is taking bids for a minimum 1.5 megawatt turbine, budgeted at $4.5 million, to be operational by the end of May 2011. It’s meant to supply two percent of campus power.

One gets used to futuristic promises of cruise-ship mega-buses, flying cars, bionic limbs with the strength of six men, and prepackaged cookies that don’t taste like sticks. Often one is disappointed.

Sometimes, though, the technology appears so suddenly and ubiquitously it becomes a given nearly overnight. I’m not old enough to have had to learn to use a slide rule in math class, but it was close. My first electronic calculator, which had maybe five functions, cost my mom $40. A year or two later the bank was giving pocket calculators away as promotional items.

On Saturday we drove through the wind farm again on the return trip home. “There was nothing like this when we were kids,” we told our sons. It was daylight, and white windmills towered over us and diminished in size in every direction, all spinning slowly with sleek grace. “Nothing like it anywhere on earth, until just a few years ago. This is really something.”

Wolfie was asleep in his car seat, and Starbuck was reading. He glanced up quickly, once, at our insistence.

“Yes,” he said and returned to his Eyewitness Classics edition of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which he’s read six times.


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