The Ask Master

During the recent national obsession with the fate of those trapped miners, it occurred to me: Why don't environmentalists get more upset about mining? In logging, the trees can grow back eventually, but I'm fairly sure rock doesn't grow back. And will places fall in?

Briefly Concerned

Will places fall in? Yes. It's not at all infrequent for areas of land, ranging in size from a few hundred square feet to several acres, to suddenly (and rather alarmingly, if you happen to be standing on one) drop five or six feet lower than they were a few minutes before. This phenomenon is called "subsidence," and it happens sufficiently often in coal mining country that the locals, not normally given to Latinate polysyllables, discuss subsidence with the same casual facility with which they recall a particularly toothsome mess of okra or Harold Joe's latest possum hunt.

(Lest the previous be perceived as an anti-Southern slur, let me disclose that both of my grandfathers were southern Illinois coal miners. My surviving grandfather has enjoyed many a fine mess of okra in his day, and if his brother-in-law Harold Joe hasn't been on a possum hunt recently, you can bet that he knows someone who has. It's a lovely area, though I chose not to settle there, due to the depressed local market for Latinate polysyllables.

[By the way, did you know that in a recent study of Carmelite nuns—actually, I don't know if they were Carmelite or not; I just like saying "Carmelite nuns"—it was shown that those who wrote in a more meandering, roundabout style—using lots of modifying clauses, digressions, and parentheses—were much less likely to develop Alzheimer's disease in later life (I sure hope I don't get Alzheimer's—that would really suck), probably due to the constant mental exercise of trying to remember what the hell they were talking about before that last tangent, an effort not dissimilar to that of climbing up and out of a mine shaft into the light of day, which brings us—albeit in a transparently glib fashion—back to the subject at hand.])

There are two reasons that environmentalists don't get more upset about mining. The first is because at least some of them are already so bent out of shape about it that they couldn't get more upset without having their heads explode. Strip-mining coal, for example, is about the most environmentally noxious thing you can do without a thermonuclear device at your disposal.

If you've got a bone to pick with Mother Earth, strip-mining is a great way to settle the score. First, you get to raze hundreds of acres of land with huge bulldozers, destroying any and all life-forms that foolishly neglected to acquire mineral rights to their habitat before settling there. Then you get to gather up the coal in great big trucks with faulty exhaust systems and big, bunny-crushing tires, cart it to your friendly neighborhood coal-fired power plant, and burn it, releasing copious quantities of greenhouse gases and acid-rain-inducing sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere in the process. Now how much would you pay? But wait! There's more: Coal-fired power plants often require a man-made lake handy to provide steam for the turbines, which is great if you're a coal miner with a pontoon boat and a Jet Ski, but not so hot if you happen to be a lowland-dwelling field vole who never learned how to swim.

All of this is the sort of thing that makes blood squirt out of the eye sockets of dues-paying Sierra Club members, but I admit it's a worst-case scenario. Let's consider an ostensibly less invasive one— diamond mining. Here, one simply digs a small but very deep hole and sends down a contingent of one's least risk-averse and most socioeconomically disadvantaged citizens, who return at the end of the day with a product that pollutes nothing more than the dressing tables of rich old ladies who have opera houses named after them.

That said, what goes on in that hole is every bit as irreversible and damaging to the planet as clear-cutting an old-growth forest. In both cases, you're removing big chunks of stuff that you have neither the inclination nor the ability to replace. So why does it seem so much worse to wipe out trees than rocks?

The answer lies in the fact that what people refer to—with varying degrees of sincerity—as their environmental conscience is fundamentally driven by self- interest. Some of this self-interest is rational (if we render the planet uninhabitable by vertebrates, we're going to find ourselves in pretty deep shit), and some of it is less rational (that cute little harp seal looks just like my puppy—don't you dare kill it!), but it's all fundamentally about saving your ass or the asses of things that you personally identify with.

Since no one has been able to show (yet) that the few weird bacteria that live 1,000 feet underground are necessary to life as we know it, and because very few people—with the possible exception of John Madden—identify personally with rocks, what may very well be fascinating and unique geological structures are blasted into oblivion every day, while you sip your latte, unconcerned, and mourn the noble dodo.

Questions about aliens, meteors, or sleepwalking? Write or 1008 Western Ave., Suite 300, Seattle, WA, 98105.

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