Monday, November 22, 2010

Coal Illuminates Collectives

A news story in the New York Times this morning brings the latest about black gold. China has become a major importer. The price of coal has doubled in the last five years. And producers all over the world, not least in countries where coal consumption is under major environmental pressure, are vying to take part in this latest coal rush. Meanwhile our domestic airwaves are filled with pious talk about carbon footprints and the like. A telling statistic is this: U.S. exports of coal to China stood at 2,714 tons in 2009; in the first six months of 2010 we’ve already shipped 2.9 million tons. Now, of course, it doesn’t matter where that coal is actually burned—not in the context of global warming or ocean-acidification. Let him who wants to chastise China first look to his own exports, etc.

The behavior of all the parties, wherever they are, is easily understood, indeed quite logical. The point that I’ve been making, talking to myself, is that collectives are quite incapable of acting with the kind of consciousness and will we associate with individuals at their best. Many years ago, a colleague of mine at Midwest Research Institute, as part of some study of energy, made the fascinating discovery that China had once been as thickly, you might say impenetrably, forested once as Russia still is in part. Over the millennia, China became deforested. And not just China, you might say. As a collective, humanity devours natural resources in an entirely unthinking way. Never mind our extremely sophisticated predictive computer models.

But note. I’m not pointing fingers or advocating any program. I’m simply observing. It saves time. No point in listening to global warming seminars on television. We’ll consume the last molecule of sugar on that slice of glass and multiply like mad as we do it, just like bacteria in an experiment. And when it’s all consumed, the vast majority of us will go to the Big Petri Dish in the Sky. I note this because it teaches me something about the meaning of Reality, yes, that one, the one with the capital R.

I have the image from here. The source provides no source for, or the name of the creator of, this cartoon.


  1. Is that not a typo... 2,714 tons versus 2.9 million tons? Holy cow!

    Interesting post and the cartoon is exeptional.

  2. No, alas, not a typo--unless it is in the NYT.

  3. I see in this huge growth of US coal export to China two different public faces we are trying to project, both hypocritical: 1) We berate the Chinese for polluting the globe with coal dust and other toxic emissions from coal burning, and 2) Under the guise of job creation and adherence to free trade we are scrambling to establish new ports on the West Coast to be the first and largest exporter of coal to China.

  4. Good point, Brigitte. Also, we like to have these dirty mining industires elsewhere... and just gain the riches extracted... NIMBI.