The Problem With Stories About Mine Disasters

This week, I've been hearing a lot about coal mining. Amanda recently read 'Germinal', Zola's epic story about coal mining in Second Empire France, and wrote a beautiful review of it. More than that, there has been a disaster in the coal mines here in America, that already has left several dead and wounded, and the chances don't look good for the rest of them.

Mining is actually a subject that I've been interested in for some time (I'd like to say this is because I'm a nice, humanitarian person, but unfortunately it's more selfish than that - the book-I-am-writing-but-will-never-finish draws on mining pretty heavily). From a metaphorical perspective, there is something powerful about it, something almost ressurectional in these groups of men and women descending down into the ground every day then rising up at the end, drawing their living directly from the breast of Mother Earth by main force. Before the industrial revolution, mining had an air of superstitious wickedness to it. Mining was a job in many communities for those outcast from real society, frequently even the work of slaves. And, the product? Well, Pluto and Hades were the patron gods of the riches drawn up from the earth, and the connection with Satan took a very long time to dissapear.

Of course, mining is the very lifeblood of our economy now, particularly coal mining. If it were to stop, if we were to shut down all mines our economy would quickly fall apart. Our lights would turn off, our factories would stop, all the complex, delicate web of modern civilization would dissapear.

Which makes disasters like the one this week even more painful to me. Like the image of Moloch in Fritz Lang's Metropolis, we, the 'overlanders' as it were, send human souls into the mouth of destruction, as a sacrifice to appease the gods of modern living. This is, it seems to us, unavoidable. Much like car accidents, mine accidents are simply a part of life, something tragic but that one expects will happen, simply because someone must keep the coal-fires burning. Sad, but almost banal in it's sadness. Another mine disaster, that's so unfortunate, man that'd be scary. A 5 minute byline on the news. A dramatic rescue, or a moment of sorrow when they find the bodies.

This is made worse for me because - and understand, please, that I don't believe this is intentional - of the way we cover these stories in America, because in the way we cover a mine disaster, one begins to see the outlines of the way that we protect ourselves from the horror of the system surrounding them. This morning on NPR, for instance, the story came on that they're still looking for these miners. A byline comes up about the awful safety record of the miners, and then a long description of a meeting 2 weeks ago of industry professionals, union leaders, and journalists, where they more or less celebrated how safe mining has become, how last year was the safest year ever of mining in America. The pathos of this was fully explored, the feeling that, yes, these people were sincere, EVERYBODY figured that disasters like happened at the Sago mine in Utah a few years ago were behind us as a country. Everyone was shocked when they heard the news. Everyone, of course, being those that were flown to Washington to drink and celebrate how damned nice we all are for trying to make sure miners don't get killed. The mining industry journalist they spoke to was devastated by the news, shocked.

How shocked can the owners have been? The owners who kept sending down miners into a mine so hopped up with coal dust and methane gas that they had more than citation per day last year. They were fined $900,000 last year for violations of safety codes. Of course, the problem is, that it is economically viable to run a mine fast and loose on safety rules, and just pay those fines. Safety, they say, takes time. Safety is important, but must be balanced with productivity. The company is only trying to stay competitive in a difficult market. The company is doing nothing that is too far out of band for the industry, and they've vastly improved over the last few years.

And the painful thing is (and again, I know there are reasons for this), I listened to a lot of running time talking to these mining experts, and how sometimes circumstances come together in unforeseen ways (yeah, I loved that one - see, yeah, methane + coal dust + oxygen + spark = boom. There, now you can 'foresee' it next time, jerks), and how they just don't understand how this could happen, and they're heartbroken. But then, there is only a few minutes, where they apologize for not notifying the families of the dead that they found the bodies of their loved ones. There is just a few minutes listening to mining families say 'yeah, well, we send him down every day knowing he might not come back up, but you just sort of have to get used to that. That's how it is, he's a miner.' The story on our nightly news yesterday shows these vague, indistinct images, taken from a helicopter, of a lot of people milling around a hole in the ground with machines. The horror, in all this, is that we were surprised, the story seems to say, that we really meant well, but it just didn't work out.

That's not the horror at all. This isn't a story about how good intentions go awry. It's a story about what happens when a spark hits fire and instantaneously entombs the living souls of men we take advantage of in order to have our lights turn on in the morning. It's a story about horror and isolation and the endless, endless dark, and desperately scrabbling for the emergency food and gas masks, and sitting under the ground waiting, waiting, for days you can't even count anymore, for hopefully someone to come for you. It's the story of sitting on the surface, watching a machine drill holes into the ground because the place where maybe, hopefully, their best guesses say, your husband, wife, son is is so full of methane that it isn't safe for rescuers to go on. It's the story of crawling around in half-collapsed passages, looking for your friends who are probably dead, calling into empty chasms, trying to hear in every creak of a pipe and echo of air  and metallic tapping some little morse code saying what you are increasingly sure isn't so, that you are not just digging up a corpse so it can be reburied somewhere else.

But there's a problem, there, and the problem is that in a mining story, there is a we and there is a them. Them is the miners, and we feel for them. We are the listeners, though, and the media speaks to our concerns, our needs, our worries. And it reflects our feelings, the vague sense of othering the incomprehensible, so that we can find a way to emerge still able to forget to turn off the light, and not feel that we've extracted the blood of some far off soul as a recompense for our carelessness. So, we talk about our story, the story of not being able to comprehend how awful it must be, the story of wondering how this happened, of not being able to comprehend how those distant someone's who must of caused this couldn't have been controlled by the regulators or congress, or whatever. And then, at the end, the story fades out over the sound of melancholy bluegrass music, the music of 'them', those poor guys far off who are dying (it's even worse when it's a Chinese mining disaster - those we hardly even notice, despite the mines powering our desire for fully stocked Walmarts). And we feel sad for them, and this sadness gratifies us, it is our sacrifice - it's all we know HOW to sacrifice.

There will be, now, a great deal of talk about resolving the underlying issues in mining. Talk will center on the amorphous word 'regulations', and 'stiffer penalties'. Talk is already surfacing calling these miners heroes, sacrificing themselves bravely for the greater good. But, none of this talk looks at the root issues. I am not an expert in mining, but from the outside, here is the problems that I see.

1) First and foremost, mining is a capitalist industry, and in capitalism, the only truly effective impediment to bad behaviour is the machinations of the market. And in this case, the coal industry, from a safety point of view, is more or less insulated from market effects. The market does a fine job of regulating price (assuming the presence of strong anti-trust regulation), and it has been very effective at this in terms of coal (too effective perhaps, which I'll talk about in a minute). But, the only way 'soft' issues like safety and ethics are regulated by a market are by offending the sensibilities of your customers. Well, unfortunately, you or I have no choice as to whom to buy coal from. We simply get power. Their 'customers' are big power companies, who, of course, have no control over the coal companies they will say, and therefore can't be responsible for the ethics of their suppliers. This isn't to say Adam Smith was wrong - simply Adam Smith assumed that cost/benefit could be measured. And it's pretty difficult to measure the cost of a human life. After all, the direct cost of someone in West Virginia dying, to me, the consumer, is pretty darned low, really. I have no idea how to fix this. The best solution we've come up with in the past for this sort of thing, is extremely heavy regulation - basically forcing the industry to do what we as a country think is right.

2) Coal is too cheap. It is very easy to just look at the bosses and say 'those bastards, what were they thinking?' But, the problem is, they are right in a sense - what they are doing isn't abnormal, and it would be difficult for them to be profitable on a large scale WITHOUT a 'gradual' approach to safety. They need to produce, and safety slows production. The problem is, ironically, that we demand cheap power on our side of the equation (and other countries are providing it with no particular concerns as to the safety of miners). When we demand cheap power, it must be produced cheaply. For it to be produced cheaply, there must be a plentiful, cheap supply of consumables. This pushes the market for coal down, speeding the frenzy for production, leaving less time for safety. This is what gets forgotten in debates, for instance, about renewable energy - yes renewable energy is more expensive in dollars, but that's because we don't figure the actual price of a coal-fired power plant, largely because much of the cost is immeasurable (don't even get me started on the 'cost' of pollution). If we were paying as much as we OUGHT to pay for coal-generated electricity, there would be a lot less power use, a lot fewer dead coal iners - and unfortunately a lot of angry constituents complaining to their congressmen, and a lot of people dying of heat stroke and hypothermia because they can't afford to run their heat/ac.

3) We, as citizens, are blind to the production process, and no longer have to worry about where our stuff comes from. This has been true, of course, throughout much of history, but the problem now is that, really, the mine disasters in West Virginia are only the tip of the iceberg. True, crushing, murderous poverty is now outsourced to other countries in the name of development and industrial growth, so, like I said if I we aired every dead miner in China, we'd spend a lot of time looking at dead miners (and dead industrial workers, and dead children from breathing in factory smoke, and dead rivers from being dumped into, and a whole lot of blood that goes into our happy meal toys). These things, though, are far away, now, and not our fault - it's not OUR fault, after all, that the Chinese government doesn't regulate it's industry, right? But again, this is the irony of the American position. We worked hard for years to spread the free market economy to the world, as the harbinger of freedom and opportunity. And then, when the market is unable to regulate human rights and ethics, we just shake our heads and figure those countries just aren't free enough.

Again, I don't mean this to be a diatribe. I do not know what the solution to these things is. I just don't know. I do know that in the meantime, we wake up each morning and ask human beings to get out of bed and hurl themselves into complex, devious murder machines, and then fret and feel confused when the blades draw one or two of them in and hack them to bits. Maybe, we say, maybe they just need a little thicker leather suit. Maybe they just need to be taught how to hurl themselves in properly. Maybe we need to move the blades a little so they aren't pointed directly at their vital organs. Maybe. Sure. Or maybe we need to work together to find a way to stop hurling men to their death.


Caniad said...

I once had a history professor who said that his PhD had been in 19th-century German coal mining. I've never been able to understand why someone would have chosen such a topic until reading your post. There's a lot more to mining than I'd ever considered.

Amanda said...

I certainly think of this mining disaster differently in light of having just read Germinal.

(ps - I think we need to watch Metropolis again soon. Fritz Lang was simply a genius.)

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Caniad - It really is an interesting - and easy to ignore - aspect of the world, I'm glad you got something out of my ranting :). It's, like so many things, one of those subjects so painfully big that it's difficult to wrap your mind around - and too easy, thus, to just pretend it doesn't exist.

Amanda - Yeah, I felt that way after reading King Coal by Upton Sinclair last year (and it wasn't even THAT well written). Thanks again for your review, I can't wait to read Germinal. And yes. We DEFINITELY need to watch Metropolis sometime.

Jeanne said...

I think at least part of the solution is for Americans to get over their irrational fears about nuclear energy.

Trapunto said...

This post gave me a lot to think about. The vague air of self-satisfaction everyone gave off about this stuff, when I was growing up in an area where the power grid rested almost entirely on dams. The fact that there are so many dangerous blue-collar jobs, like lumberjacking, where the horrible deaths don't get so much attention. I guess because they are "clean."

Have you ever seen the show Dirty Jobs? The host can be a jerk, but we've been watching the streamable episodes on netflix. The best part (when it's good) is seeing the people who do the work. I absolutely loved the episode with the Pennsylvania coal miners. They showed both the danger and the dignity of the job.

Debi said...

This was such an awesome post, Jason. So many things I want to say, really. But most of all, I want to thank you for this:

"Coal is too cheap."

As is our food. As is all our "stuff." We don't pay the full costs of nearly anything in our lives. We are, at least in this country, so arrogantly spoiled, and most people don't even realize it.

Yeah, I don't know what the answer is either. But it doesn't stop me from trying to make my pathetic little dents...like hanging our clothes instead of using a dryer. We're also lucky here...we have the option of paying our electric company extra each month to assure that a portion of our electric is wind generated. Sometimes I become so depressed over all this stuff, seriously hide under the blankets kind of depressed. But obviously, that doesn't help either. :(

On a side note, my grandpa was a coal miner for a while. He didn't die in a mine accident, and in fact, he lived until a ripe old age. But when he did die, the coal mines were a part of it (black lung and various other lung problems).

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Jeanne - It's certainly a difficult question - I think it is at LEAST true that coal has dangers that are probably as serious as a nuclear plant - just more gradual and less glamorous when they occur.

Ms Trapunto - I agree, there are LOTS of blue collar jobs that are dangerous and 'unglamorous', and mining does have the advantage that usually a bunhc of people die at one time, so it gets attention. And of course, most of those blue collar jobs aren't even in the states (oftne not even the developed world) anymore, so we find it very easy to pay no attention to them.

Ms Debi - Yes! EVERYTHING in our culture is too cheap! Which in the end leads to the trash culture we live in, where we find it so difficult to value anything we have, and need to seek for yet more stuff - now that we have almost limitless resources, in relation to cost, we somehow find society compelling us to go into debt anyway. Culture is crazy, and utterly unsustainable, I just hope we can slow it down, instead of eventually come to a crashing halt, and that we can stop hurting everyone else in the meantime.