The mine disaster that took place in West Virginia this week is a reminder that our need for energy carries with it a large and sometimes grave burden. My heart goes out to those affected by this tragedy. I cannot imagine risking my life as a coal miner, but for some it is their calling. They see coal as the bringer of a paycheck that will put food on their family’s table, while I (and the many other environmentalists out there) see coal mining as a dirty “necessity” of our current lifestyles. Both sides of the issue are right in their beliefs; you can’t blame anyone for wanting to provide for their family.
And coal is not the only energy industry that carries with it this duality. Here in Pennsylvania we are hearing a lot about Marcellus shale natural gas drilling – that it will bring new jobs to an economically depressed part of the state, and that it will pollute our drinking water and fragment the beautiful natural landscapes that abound in north-central Pa. Which is the truth? Most likely, they both are. Even wind energy, which so many conservation organizations tout as one of our best bets to an energy independent future, has its drawbacks – if turbines are improperly sited they can kill bats and birds, as well as fragment forested habitat. Hydroelectric dams can prevent fish from moving upstream; fields of solar mirrors can look like a lake to migrating birds, drawing them to their death; and offshore oil rigs are a scenic eyesore.
So what are we to do? How can we continue our way of life when posed with all these negatives – people dying, vistas permanently marred, habitats polluted beyond redemption? We are in the middle of an energy emergency, one that has been with us since the dawn of electricity and the age of the automobile (or theoretically even further back than that… think whale oil lamps!). I am not an alternative energy expert, nor an economist, nor a subsurface geologist, so I won’t hazard a guess at our best bet for one or more energy sources that have the smallest impact on our health and the survival of the natural world. What I do want to say, however, is that unless the majority of people in the world start to rethink how much energy they use and what they use it for, all the alternative energy sources in the world still won’t be good enough. Even small changes in our energy use patterns will go a long way toward improving the quality of our planet. If that means getting outdoor more, rather than watching so much television, washing clothes with cold water rather than hot, ditching the bottled water and walking once or twice a week rather than driving, is that too much to ask? While we have the option of making those choices we should take them. If we put it off too long someone will make the choice for us and we might not like the decision.