Share
From the Ashes

From the Ashes

Welcome to the third world. Living in the United States doesn’t mean what it used to.

From the Ashes

3.5 / 5

Do you remember the plot of Erin Brockovich? A down and out single mom/legal assistant discovers that Pacific Gas and Electric has secretly poisoned the water of the small town of Hinkley, CA and works to bring justice to its residents. Well, in National Geographic’s new documentary From the Ashes, the American people are the residents of Hinkley, the coal industry is PG&E and, metaphorically speaking, there is no Erin Brockovich. In fact, the interests lining up to preserve coal’s part in America’s energy cocktail are so powerful that the Sierra Club would need an incalculable amount of voluptuous, iconoclastic Brockovichs to forestall the deregulation that will lead this country to climate ruin.

Directed by Michael Bonfiglio, the documentary spans the history of the coal industry from the fuel that powered the Industrial Revolution to a zombie consortium that refuses to be shot in the head while being the greatest source of pollution in the world. Carbon dioxide, cyanide, mercury and sulfur dioxide are just a few of the toxic greatest hits that come from burning coal. Coal power is so destructive that China and India – the boogeymen the coal companies and politicians like to trot out when the topic of phasing out this awful fuel source is brought up – are heavily invested in solar and wind. Both countries are, in fact, leading the way on renewable energy while the United States has decided to sever its ties with the Paris Climate Agreement and undo the Environmental Protection Agency. The boney hands of the nineteenth and twentieth century refuse to let go of the present and the future. To extend the many ghoulish metaphors, we are whistling through our own graveyard.

That this movie exists not as a document extoling the death of coal but as a warning of its potential rise like the mythic phoenix is enraging. That any resurrection of coal mining would extend to a resurrection of employment levels in coal states like Wyoming and West Virginia is a cruel fallacy. Automation has ended the need for mass employment at the mines, yet mining families hold out hope, clinging to the campaign promises of the man in the White House. Bonfiglio introduces us to such a family, the Lillys of Lincoln County. We see the squalor in which they live and hear their stories first hand. Their local mine has closed and there’s a new child to feed. Regina Lilly and her husband tearfully recount their fears of poverty and that of their neighbors. Your heart will go out, but you might also find your blood boiling when you ask yourself “Why does this industry still exist?” An even better question would be why are the people whose family histories are littered with deaths in the coalmines so loyal to this industry?

Mine companies used to have a saying: The mule is more important than the man. In case of an emergency, save the animal before the human. It has more value. Furthermore, the history of coal mining is replete with labor abuses and the abandonment of communities that service the mining companies. Mines close and communities crumble. Some of the causes for closures have been lawsuits. Another pervasive trend is closing a mine due to some environmental regulation and opening a new one in a more industry friendly state. The acid rain issue of the early ‘80s is an excellent example of coalmines shuttering and abandoning workers in West Virginia to open mines in Wyoming where burning coal produced less sulfur dioxide. Yet the miners interviewed spoke with pride about their role in powering America, displaying a generational Stockholm syndrome while blaming Obama and the government for the “War on Coal.” The truth is no such war exists. Cheaper alternatives have lessened the need for coal and the fact that the rest of the world is moving away from coal as a fuel source makes it non-exportable. But the mining companies will not be deterred.

The documentary is rife with heroes, battling against the environmental and health crises caused by burning coal. Bonfiglio follows the typical model of trying to humanize everybody and avoiding condemnation, at least on the human level. The images of small children on respirators in Dallas, TX, a city downwind of several coal burning power plants, speaks to the amorality of this industry and Rick Perry, who sued the federal government for demanding that those plants meet decades old emissions standards. We meet people who we later discover have died from their respiratory illnesses shortly after their interviews. These were not people who worked for the coal industry but people who had the inconvenient habit of breathing.

Earlier this year I reviewed a French documentary pertaining to climate change called Demain and it filled me with hope by the end credits. From the Ashes filled me with rage. If you think you’ve maxed out on that particular emotion spend 82 minutes awash in the cruel, craven stupidity of the coal industry and their allies to find out how hot you can burn. To quote Deborah Graham of Salisbury, North Carolina, victim of the Duke Energy toxic waste dump of 2014:

“We live in constant fear every day. Who fears their water? We don’t live in a third world country. I mean, this is the United States of America here! And we’re fearing our water.”

Welcome to the third world. Living in the United States doesn’t mean what it used to.

Leave a Comment