Category Archives: climate change

Coal: A Personal History

It’s January, and much of the country is confronting freezing temperatures, snow, and ice.  I live in San Francisco now, but I vividly remember what life is like in cold-weather climates.

When I was growing up on the North Side of Chicago, my winter garb followed this pattern:

Skirt and blouse, socks (usually short enough to leave my legs largely bare), a woolen coat, and a silk scarf for my head.  Under my coat, I might have added a cardigan sweater.  But during the freezing cold days of winter (nearly every day during a normal Chicago winter), I was always COLD—when I was outside, that is.

My parents were caring and loving, but they followed the norms of most middle-class parents in Chicago during that era.  No one questioned this attire.  I recall shivering whenever our family ventured outside for a special event during the winter.  I especially remember the excitement of going downtown to see the first showing of Disney’s “Cinderella.”  Daddy parked our Chevy at an outdoor parking lot blocks from the theater on State Street, and we bravely faced the winter winds as we made our way there on foot.  I remember being COLD.

School days were somewhat different.  On bitter cold days, girls were allowed to cover our legs, but only if we hung our Levi’s in our lockers when we arrived at school.  We may have added mufflers around our heads and necks to create just a little more warmth as we walked blocks and blocks to school in the morning, back home for lunch, then returning to school for the afternoon.

Looking back, I can’t help wondering why it never occurred to our parents to clothe us more warmly.  Weren’t they aware of the warmer winter clothing worn elsewhere?  One reason that we didn’t adopt warmer winter garb–like thermal underwear, or down jackets, or ski parkas–may have been a lack of awareness that they existed.  Or the answer may have been even simplerthe abundance of coal.

Inside, we were never cold.  Why?  Because heating with coal was ubiquitous.  It heated our apartment buildings, our houses, our schools, our stores, our movie theaters, our libraries, our public buildings, and almost everywhere else.  Radiators heated by coal hissed all winter long.  The result?  Overheated air.

Despite the bleak winter outside, inside I was never cold.  On the contrary, I was probably much too warm in the overheated spaces we inhabited.

Until I was 12, we lived in an apartment with lots of windows.  In winter the radiators were always blazing hot, so hot that we never felt the cold air outside.  The window glass would be covered in condensed moisture, a product of the intensely heated air, and I remember drawing funny faces on the glass that annoyed my scrupulous-housekeeper mother.

Where did all that heat come from?  I never questioned its ultimate source.

I later learned that it was extracted from deep beneath the earth.  But what happened to it above ground was no secret.  More than once, I watched trucks pull up outside my apartment building to deliver large quantities of coal.  The driver would set up a chute that sent the coal directly into the basement, where all those lumps of coal must have been shoveled into a big furnace.

Coal was the primary source of heat back then, and the environment suffered as a result.  After the coal was burned in the furnace, its ashes would be shoveled into bags.  Many of the ashes found their way into the environment.  They were, for example, used on pavements and streets to cope with snow and ice.

The residue from burning coal also led to other harmful results.  Every chimney spewed thick sooty smoke all winter, sending into the air the toxic particles that we all inhaled.

Coal was plentiful, cheap, and reliable.  And few people were able to choose alternatives like fireplaces and wood-burning furnaces (which presented their own problems).

Eventually, cleaner and more easily distributed forms of heating fuel displaced coal.  Residential use dropped, and according to one source, today it amounts to less than one percent of heating fuel.

But coal still plays a big part in our lives.  As Malcolm Turnbull, the former prime minister of Australia (which is currently suffering the consequences of climate change), wrote earlier this month in TIME magazine, the issue of “climate action” has been “hijacked by a toxic, climate-denying alliance of right-wing politics and media…, as well as vested business interests, especially in the coal industry.”  He added:  “Above all, we have to urgently stop burning coal and other fossil fuels.”

In her book Inconspicuous Consumption: the environmental impact you don’t know you have, Tatiana Schlossberg points out that we still get about one-third of our electricity from coal.  So “streaming your online video may be coal-powered.”  Using as her source a 2014 EPA publication, she notes that coal ash remains one of the largest industrial solid-waste streams in the country, largely under-regulated, ending up polluting groundwater, streams, lakes, and rivers across the country.

“As crazy as this might sound,” Schlossberg writes, watching your favorite episode of “The Office” might come at the expense of clean water for someone else.  She’s concerned that even though we know we need electricity to power our computers, we don’t realize that going online itself uses electricity, which often comes from fossil fuels.

Illinois is finally dealing with at least one result of its longtime dependence on coal.   Environmental groups like Earthjustice celebrated a big win in Illinois in 2019 when they helped win passage of milestone legislation strengthening rules for cleaning up the state’s coal-ash dumps.  In a special report, Earthjustice noted that coal ash, the toxic residue of burning coal, has been dumped nationwide into more than 1,000 unlined ponds and landfills, where it leaches into waterways and drinking water.

Illinois in particular has been severely impacted by coal ash.  It is belatedly overhauling its legacy of toxic coal waste and the resulting widespread pollution in groundwater near its 24 coal-ash dumpsites.  The new legislation funds coal-ash cleanup programs and requires polluters to set aside funds to ensure that they, not taxpayers, pay for closure and cleanup of coal-ash dumps.

Earthjustice rightfully trumpets its victory, which will now protect Illinois residents and its waters from future toxic pollution by coal ash.  But what about the legacy of the past, and what about the legacy of toxic coal particles that entered the air decades ago?

As an adult, I wonder about the huge quantities of coal dust I must have inhaled during every six-month-long Chicago winter that I lived through as a child.  I appear to have so far escaped adverse health consequences, but that could change at any time.

And I wonder about others in my generation.  How many of us have suffered or will suffer serious health problems as a result of drinking polluted water and inhaling toxic coal-dust particles?

I suspect that many in my generation have been unwilling victims of our decades-long dependence on coal.

 

 

The Old Man and the Movies

The Sundance Kid rides again!  Not on horseback but in a 1970s sedan.

In his most recent film (and perhaps his last), The Old Man and the Gun, Robert Redford plays a charming real-life bank robber.  Announcing his retirement from acting, he told Ruthe Stein of the San Francisco Chronicle that he chose the part because he identified with the bank robber’s rebellious spirit, and he wanted his last film to be “quirky and upbeat and fun.”

I have a special fondness for Redford that goes back to his role in his first memorable film, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  Redford has called it the “first real film experience I ever had” and “the most fun on any film I’ve had.  It changed my life.”

When I saw the film in Chicago shortly after its release, I was struck by the performances of both Paul Newman (my perennial favorite) as Butch Cassidy and newcomer Redford as the Sundance Kid.

Unbeknown to me, there was a real live double of the Sundance Kid out there, waiting to meet me when I moved to LA a short time later:  my soon-to-be husband.  Once he added a mustache to his otherwise great looks, his resemblance to Redford in that film was uncanny, and I dubbed him the Sundance Kid.  I even acquired a poster of Redford in that role to affix to my office wall as a reminder of my new-found love.

The 1969 film, now fifty years old, holds up very well.  In perhaps its most memorable scene, the two leading men plunge from a cliff into roiling waters below, shouting a now more commonly accepted expletive for probably the first time in movie history.

Newman and Redford play leaders of the “Hole in the Wall Gang,” a group that robs banks, successfully for the most part, until robbing a train gets them into serious trouble.  They alienate Mr. E. H. Harrison of the Union Pacific Railroad, who hires special trackers who relentlessly follow Butch and Sundance.

An endearing scene takes place when the two men approach the home of Etta Place, Sundance’s wife.  News stories have alarmed Etta.  “The papers said they had you.  They said you were dead.”  Sundance’s first reaction:  “Don’t make a big thing of it.”  He pauses and reflects.  Then he says, “No.  Make a big thing of it.”  And they enthusiastically embrace.

Redford’s brilliant career includes a large number of notable Hollywood films.  It’s easy for me to name some favorites:  Downhill Racer in 1969, The Candidate in 1972, The Way We Were and The Sting in 1973, All the President’s Men in 1974, The Natural in 1984, and Out of Africa in 1985.  (A few of these especially resonate with me.)  And in All is Lost, as recently as 2013, Redford shines as an older man on the verge of dying alone in troubled ocean waters. Outstanding performances, each and every one.

In recent years, as I became an active supporter of NRDC (the Natural Resources Defense Council), an entity vigorously working on behalf of the environment, I began hearing from Redford, who aligned himself with NRDC’s goals and requested additional donations.  I commend him for his strong support for protecting the future of our country and our planet.  His efforts on behalf of the environment seem even more critical now, as we face increasingly dire problems caused by climate change.

As for Redford’s movie career, my hope is that he chooses not to retire.  Most movie-goers would welcome seeing new films that include him, even in a small role.  In the meantime, I encourage every film buff to see The Old Man and the Gun.  Featuring a number of brief scenes from his earlier movies (plugged into the movie by director David Lowery), the film is a great reminder of a storied Hollywood career.  A career that began with the Sundance Kid.