Burning the Future: What Do You Know About Coal in America?

John ArmstrongEnvironmentalism, Film

I have frequently noted that documentary films are almost always biased. This does not mean they are worthless, not in the least. It just means they take a stance, in advance of the making of the film, and then pursue demonstrating the rightness of that stance through the medium of film. This is not true of all documentary films but it is clearly true of most.

Burning the Future This is surely the case in Burning the Future: Coal in America (2008). Coal provides half of the electricity in the United States. This is fact. But how is this coal extracted from the ground and at what cost to people, nature and the environment? In the 2008 presidential campaign we heard both candidates talk a lot about “clean coal.” What is that? Most of us, I would guess, know next to nothing about coal and how it is used.

Consider, for starters, that 36% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the U. S. come from coal. Consider, that it takes 5 tons of coal to provide electricity for each one of us every year and you see how dependent our way of life is on coal. And consider that every eleven-plus days the explosive equivalent of the Hiroshima atomic bomb is exploded upon the mountains of southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, all for extracting coal from the land. Burning the Future examines this controversial subject in a controversial but highly useful way. It shows that there is a strong human struggle between the coal industry, a multi-billion dollar boom to investors, and the resident of Appalachia. The residents of these areas have been forced to deal with toxic ground water (the scenes which show this are so graphic no one could doubt the problem) and the obliteration of 1.4 million acres of mountains. Their health has clearly suffered and their families face problems few of us can understand. At the same time our government looks the other way, at least in many instances.

Burning the Future tells the story of how ordinary citizens have organized themselves to fight back. How they want to protect their water supply, their mountains, their land, their families. Mountaintop extraction of coal strikes me as a profitable industry with incredible problems for real people. This is a political problem but it seems, to me at least, that both parties care very little about the problem.

This was underscored for me when I flew home recently and chatted with the man in the seat next to me who worked as a major executive for BP (British Petroleum). I had not yet seen this film and I think my conversation actually made me want to see it now looking back on what we discussed. I asked this executive: “Can the petroleum industry change its ways and make profits?” He was sure they could and that eventually they would have to do this. I then asked him why the United States was so slow to adapt? His answer was simple: “Lobby groups and money.” If you watch Burning the Future: Coal in America you will see a graphic illustration of the truth of what he said to me and what the consequences are for some of our fellow Americans.

This film is 89 minutes in length and includes several additional feature interviews.