Cloud Atlas: Fiction is Immortal

The third story in the Cloud Atlas sextet is “Half Lives: A Luisa Rey Mystery,” which the reader later finds out is a work of fiction being read by one of the later characters in the novel. Luisa Rey is a serious reporter who is stuck working for a tabloid in the fictional Buenas Yerbas, California, 1975. Luisa meets Rufus Sixsmith by chance one night. Sixsmith was formerly a scientist at the Seaboard HYDRA nuclear power plant on nearby Swannekke Island. Sixsmith tells Luisa that he was fired from Seaboard for expressing his belief that the plant is not safe. Luisa attends the unveiling of the plant at Swannekke and listens to a speech by Seaboard CEO, Alberto Grimaldi. Grimaldi claims the Swannekke plant will help end the United States’s dependence on oil for fuel:

“Our great nation suffers from a debilitating addiction.”

Alberto Grimaldi, Seaboard CEO and Newsweek Man of the Year, is king of the dramatic pause.

“Its name is Oil.”

He is gilded by the podium lights.

“Geologists tell us, just seventy-four billion gallons of this Jurassic ocean scum remain in the Persian Gulf. Enough, maybe, to see out our century? Probably not. The most imperative question facing the USA, ladies and gentlemen, is ‘Then what?’”

Alberto Grimaldi scans his audience. In the palm of my hand.

“Some bury their heads in the sand fantasize about wind turbines, reservoirs, and”— wry half smile—” pig gas.”

Appreciative chuckle.

“At Seaboard we deal in realities.”

Voice up.

“I am here today to tell you that the cure for oil is right here, right now, on Swannekke Island!” He smiles as the cheers subside.

“As of today, domestic, abundant, and safe atomic energy has come of age! Friends, I am so very, very proud to present one of the major engineering innovations in history … the HYDRA-Zero reactor!” (103)

Sixsmith watches the same speech from the television in his home and feels even more compelled to expose that the Swannekke plant is unsafe:

Frustrated and weary, Rufus Sixsmith addresses the TV.

“And when the hydrogen buildup blows the roof off the containment chamber? When prevailing winds shower radiation over California?”

He turns the set off and squeezes the bridge of his nose. I proved it. I proved it. You couldn’t buy me, so you tried intimidation. I let you, Lord forgive me, but no longer. I’m not sitting on my conscience any longer. (107)

Shortly after his vow, Sixsmith is murdered by Bill Smoke, an assassin for Seaboard.

Luisa begins to investigate Sixsmith’s murder and realizes that he had written a report with all of his findings and was going to go public with it just before his death:

“He was murdered, Jakes.”

Jakes represses a here-we-go-again face.

“Who by?”

“Seaboard Corporation. Of course.”

“Ah. His employer. Of course. Motive?”

Luisa forces herself to speak calmly and ignore Jakes’s mock conviction.

“He’d written a report on a reactor type developed at Swannekke B, the HYDRA. Plans for Site C are waiting approval. When it’s approved, Seaboard can license the design for the domestic and overseas market— the government contracts alone would mean a stream of revenue in the high tens of millions, annually. Sixsmith’s role was to give the project his imprimatur, but he hadn’t read the script and identified lethal design flaws. In response, Seaboard buried the report and denied its existence.”

“And your Dr. Sixsmith did what?”

“He was getting ready to go public.” Luisa slaps the newspaper. “This is what the truth cost him.” (p. 114)

Luisa befriends Seaboard scientist Isaac Sachs who gives her a copy of Sixsmith’s report: “some five hundred pages of tables, flowcharts, mathematics, and evidence” (140). However, before she can use it to expose Seaboard, Bill Smoke pushes her car containing both her and the report off a bridge. Luisa manages to the escape but is unable to save the report. Meanwhile, a plane with both Grimaldi and Sachs as passengers explodes mid-flight, killing everyone onboard. Seaboard’s head of security, Joe Napier, seeks out Luisa after she is attacked by Smoke. He pleads with her to drop the story and save herself. Federal Power Commissioner, Lloyd Hooks takes over as CEO of Seaboard. It becomes apparent that Hooks hired Smoke to kill Luisa, Sixsmith, Sachs and Grimaldi to ensure the success of his coup. Luisa receives the location of another copy of the report in a letter from Sixsmith delivered after his death. She is able to get it but Smoke and Napier kill each other in the process. Luisa is able to expose Hook and the following article is printed about him:

LLOYD HOOKS SKIPS $ 250,000 BAIL PRESIDENT FORD VOWS TO “ROOT OUT CROOKS WHO BRING IGNOMINY TO CORPORATE AMERICA” A BYPD spokesman confirmed the newly appointed CEO of Seaboard Power Inc. and former Federal Power Commissioner Lloyd Hooks has fled the country, forfeiting the quarter-million-dollar bail posted Monday. The latest twist to “Seaboardgate” comes a day after Hooks swore to “defend my integrity and the integrity of our great American company against this pack of nefarious lies.” President Ford entered the fray at a White House press conference, condemning his former adviser and distancing himself from the Nixon appointee.

“My administration makes no distinction between lawbreakers. We will root out the crooks who bring ignominy to corporate America and punish them with the utmost severity of the law.”

Lloyd Hooks’s disappearance, interpreted by many observers as an admission of guilt, is the latest twist in a series of revelations triggered by a Sept. 4 incident at Cape Yerbas Marina Royale in which Joe Napier and Bill Smoke, security officers at Seaboard Inc.’ s controversial Swannekke Island atomic power stations, shot each other. Eyewitness Luisa Rey, correspondent to this newspaper, summoned police to the crime scene, and the subsequent investigation has already spread to last month’s killing of British atomic engineer and Seaboard consultant Dr. Rufus Sixsmith, the crash of former Seaboard CEO Alberto Grimaldi’s Learjet over Pennsylvania two weeks ago, and an explosion in Third Bank of California in downtown B.Y. which claimed the lives of two people. Five directors at Seaboard Power have been charged in connection with the conspiracy, and two have committed suicide. Three more, including Vice CEO William Wiley, have agreed to testify against Seaboard Corporation. The arrest of Lloyd Hooks two days ago was seen as vindication of this newspaper’s support for Luisa Rey’s exposé of this major scandal, initially dismissed by William Wiley as “libelous fantasy culled from a spy novel and wholly unworthy of a serious response.”  …   Cont. p. 2, Full Story p. 5, Comment p. 11.  (434-435).

This part of Cloud Atlas is yet another example of the life and energy equivalency. Hooks has chosen his human sacrifices to pay for energy, very similar to what the Capital does in The Hunger Games. However, he is unable to murder Luisa and so his plan for that energy fails.

Also, I like to think that the reason that “Half Lives” is described as fiction in Cloud Atlas (character Timothy Cavendish receives a “Half Lives” manuscript later in the novel) is the same as my own reason for reviewing works of fiction about energy. It is far more likely, however, that the work is fictitious so that the audience will consider whether souls can just as easily be contained in characters in fiction as they can in live persons. Stories may in fact be alive, in a sense. Regardless, the fictitious nature of “Half Lives” allows for later characters such as Timothy Cavendish, Somni and Zachry to interact with the story on some level. Cavendish reads “Half Lives” and then his memoirs are made into a film about his life. Somni watches that film and then Zachry’s people deify Somni. Major events of human history are hidden from Somni and Zachry but both are able to interact this text. Fiction is immortal. If this is true, than fiction is great rhetorical tool for moving ideas throughout history.

 

Energy narrative characteristics found in this novel: life=energy, environmental degradation, corporate ruthlessness, exaggerated inequalities, impedes labor unions/civil rights campaigners, segregation, insurrection

Accident: A Day’s News. Energy Narratives in Real Life

The narrative structure of this novella by East German author, Christa Wolf, is relatively simple in comparison to most energy narratives. However, it is this simplicity that makes this narrative truly insightful. The main character watches and listens to the news on the day that the rest of Europe learned about the disaster at Chernobyl, while at the same time she worries about her brother who is undergoing brain surgery. The narrator constantly addresses her brother throughout her stream of consciousness. In addition, the narrative switches back and forth from the narrator worrying about her brother to her worrying about the effect that the radiation on her health, the health of her neighbors and most of all the food she eats:

Where are you now I hear that the pollutant emissions following the reactor accident are more concentrated than here. Should we be outraged? Uneasy? Should we allow our feeling to become confused; worse still should we repress them as being insignificant? Insignificant values when measured with a Geiger counter? I know what you’re going to say. Don’t say it. Starting tomorrow, I have decided to cut down on milk and avoid lettuce. Today I’ve resolved to eat and drink everything one last time without a trace of bad conscience. (55-56).

The narrator associates her paranoia about her brother’s surgery with her lingering fear about the radiation from Chernobyl. In order for her to start thinking about her fears logically, she needed to receive a phone call from her sister-in-law about her brother’s status:

The telephone, not a second too soon. I hear that most important of all words: normal. Completely normal, did the nurse say? Really? We can stop worrying? The operation was a success? Oh. Really. I knew it. You, too? Of course he’s not awake yet. That’s the least of our concerns, don’t you think? I heard you were doing well, brother, circumstances considered. I was prepared to bless the circumstances…Now I make myself something to eat. Can listen to the radio. In Sweden the radioactive contamination of the air had gone down further. And the contamination of the ground had gone up in turn. (53).

The concentration on domesticity in this novel allows the reader to think about how she would react to a distant, looming danger. Most of us do not live near a nuclear plant, work in a coal mine or work for a major oil corporation, so we cannot always relate to what the characters in these energy narratives experience. However, this novel discusses everyday life: what the narrator has for dinner, the fact that she doesn’t want to work in her garden with gloves on as the reporters suggest that she should, and even the nervousness she feels sitting by the phone waiting for news of her brother.

I learned about this novella from reading Ursula K. Heise’s Sense of Place and Sense of Planet. Heise analyzes several environmental texts in terms of risk. She argues that the average person’s sense of risk is skewed to consider situations with more dangerous although less probable consequences to be more risky than situations with less dangerous but more common consequences:

Statistical considerations, usually the probability of a particular adverse event multiplied by the magnitude of its consequences, tend to shape expert opinions, while the public’s view quite often defies such numerical calculation. The risks associated with nuclear power plants provide an obvious example: based on the very limited number of actual accidents and deaths nuclear plants have so far caused, experts tend to rate their risks as relatively low, while nonexperts, regardless of the low statistics, assess them as much more hazardous than, say, coal mines or highways, which cause a much larger number of fatalities annually. (Heise 124-125).

Wolf’s text tends to follow that argument. The narrator perceives nuclear power as being a larger risk than fossil fuels:

Well we heard [the reporter] say, there was no such thing as an absolutely faultless prognosis in such a young branch of technology. As always with new technological developments, one would have to take certain risks into account until one fully mastered this technology as well. That was a law that also applied to the peaceful utilization of nuclear energy. Now I should have grown cold. Now I should have been shocked or outraged. No such thing. I knew very well that they knew it. Only, I had not expected that they would also say it—be it only this one time. The text for a letter went through my mind in which I—imploringly, how else—was to communicate to someone that the risk of nuclear technology was not comparable to any other risk and that one absolutely had to renounce this technology if there was even the slightest element of uncertainty. I could not think of a real address for the letter in my mind, so I swore out loud and switched channels (Wolf 103).

According to Heise, this novella inspired dozens and scientists and intellectuals to fight over whether her critique of nuclear power is justified (Heise 182). Some agreed with Wolf and others asked how she can critique nuclear energy without commenting on the risks associated with burning fossil fuels. The point is, however, that they talked. A work of fiction inspired a conversation, and that is the purpose of any energy narrative.

 

In spirit of that conversation, what do you think? Are the risks associated with nuclear power justified? Is nuclear power more or less risky than burning fossil fuels, especially considering the global warming debate? Is there a better alternative to both energy sources?

 

Energy narrative characteristics found in this novel: life=energy, environmental degradation, corporate ruthlessness, exaggerated inequalities, segregation.

The Hunger Games

The plot of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is driven by coal. The main characters in the series, Katniss, Peeta, and Gale, all live in District 12, which was formerly known as Appalachia: “Even hundreds of years ago, they mined coal here. Which is why our miners have to dig so deep” (42).  In this post-apocalyptic world, District 12 provides all of the coal for a country called, Panem, which is ruled by “the Capitol.” District 12 is one of the poorest districts in Panem, and is divided into two social classes, the coal miners of the Seam and the merchant class that sells to them, a clear example of exaggerated inequalities and convenient racism. The worlds of both classes revolve so entirely around coal, that the curriculum in District 12 schools is entirely based on it:

Somehow it all comes back to coal at school. Besides basic reading and math most of our instruction is coal-related. Except for the weekly lecture on the history of Panem. It’s mostly a lot of blather about what we owe the Capitol. I know there must be more than they’re telling us, an actual account of what happened during the rebellion. But I don’t spend much time thinking about it. Whatever the truth is, I don’t see how it will help me get food on the table. (41-42)

The descriptions of the coal miners in District 12 are quite similar to the ones in King Coal: “Men and women with hunched shoulders, swollen knuckles, many who have long since stopped trying to scrub the coal dust out of their broken nails, the lines of their sunken faces” (4). Not only is it uncomfortable work, coal mining appears to have returned to being just as dangerous as it was during Sinclair’s time:

Then there are the mine accidents…A family once brought in an unconscious young man pleading with my mother to help him. The district doctor who’s responsible for treating the miners had written him off, told the family to take him home to die. But they wouldn’t accept this. He lay on our kitchen table, senseless to the world. I got a glimpse of the wound on his thigh, gaping, charred flesh, burned clear down to the bone, before I ran from the house. I went to the woods and hunted the entire day, haunted by the gruesome leg, memories of my father’s death. (178-179).

As she references in this passage, Katniss’s father died in a mine explosion, leaving her to be the provider for her family. Without Katniss’s help her family would starve:

Starvation’s not an uncommon fate in District 12. Who hasn’t seen the victims? Older people who can’t work. Children from a family with too many to feed. Those injured in the mines. Straggling through the streets. And one day, you come upon them sitting motionless against a wall or lying in the Meadow, you hear the wails from a house, and the Peacekeepers are called in to retrieve the body. Starvation is never the cause of death officially. It’s always the flu, or exposure, or pneumonia. But that fools no one. (28).

Katniss had to sign up for the “tesserae” at an early age. Beneficiaries of the tesserae receive a year’s supply of grain and oil in exchange for their submitting their name into the Hunger Games lottery additional times. The Hunger Games is a battle royale between young adult representatives of each district. The Capital hosts it every year as punishment for the rebellion of the districts many years earlier. Naturally, Katniss and Peeta win the famous lottery and are sent to kill each other and kids from other districts in the Hunger Games arena. With some clever survival techniques and a political romance, both Katniss and Peeta make it out alive, but it seems that they might have accidentally inspired a revolution in the process.

In Catching Fire this revolution plays out. The Capital cracks down on each of the districts, especially District 12. They close the mines, introduce more capital punishment, try to starve the citizens and eventually send Katniss and Peeta back into the Hunger Games arena. However, these tactics only cause the rebellion to spread:

As the days pass, things go from bad to worse. The mines stay shut for two weeks, and by that time half of District 12 is starving. The number of kids signing up for tesserae soars, but they often don’t receive their grain. Food shortages begin, and even those with money come away from stores empty-handed. When the mines reopen, wages are cut, hours extended, miners sent into blatantly dangerous work sites. The eagerly awaited food promised for Parcel Day arrives spoiled and defiled by rodents. The installations in the square see plenty of action as people are dragged in and punished for offenses so long overlooked we’ve forgotten they are illegal. Gale goes home with no more talk of rebellion between us. But I can’t help thinking that everything he sees will only strengthen his resolve to fight back. The hardships in the mines, the tortured bodies in the square, the hunger on the faces of his family (Catching Fire 131-132).

Finally at the end of Catching Fire, full-blown rebellion brakes out. The Capital firebombs District 12 in retaliation and most of the population dies. A few people are able to escape including Katniss, Peeta, Gale and Katniss’s family and eventually in the final book, the districts are able to overturn the Capital and establish a new government for themselves.

The Hunger Games series is one of the clearest examples of the life and energy equivalency that I have studied. The Capital does not care about District 12 as long as they meet their coal quotas. They do not have any safety laws in place. They do not care if there are accidents or deaths in the mines, as long as their coal quotas are met. To ensure that their energy is paid for, as all energy must be paid for with life, the Capital creates the Hunger Games, which requires two human sacrifices from District 12. Their deaths make sure that the coal is paid for. In the year that there are no deaths from District 12 in the arena, the Capital loses their energy, and in order to get it back they must go to war. However, the rebels realize that they can pay for it with their own lives and so the Capital is destroyed in this pretty bleak energy narrative.

 

Energy narrative characteristics found in these novels: life=energy, environmental degradation, political oppression, exaggerated inequalities, impedes labor unions/civil rights campaigners, segregation, convenient racism, nomadic existence, insurrection.

Damages Season 2

In the second season of Damages, the ruthless Patty Hewes is back and this time she is taking on an energy corporation. Patty believes that Ultima National Resources (UNR) may have had her friend Daniel Purcell’s wife killed because he could prove that a substance they use in their coal plants, called aracite, is toxic to both humans and animals. Ultima has had come through many class-action lawsuits, like the one that Patty intends to bring to their doorstep, unscathed with the help of hotshot lawyer, Claire Maddox.

Tom: “Ultima National Resources is destroying the environment. [hands Patty a photo] West Virginia. Acid rain from coal burning powerplants has pushed mercury levels to 87 times the national average. Residents tried to bring a class action the judge through the case out of court.”

Patty: “So they’ve had more than 200 lawsuits filed against them in the past three years?”

Tom: “And they’ve lost exactly one of them. They didn’t even bother to appeal. Know why? It was for 100 million. That’s two days’ profit for them. You’re right, this is huge. But what does it have to do with defending Purcell?”

Patty: “I have no idea whether Daniel killed his wife but his consulting firm has worked for UNR for more than a decade. He must know more than he’s telling me.”

After receiving a tip from Purcell, Patty sends Ellen and Tom down to a UNR coal plant in West Virginia to find a journalist who is doing research on the toxicity of aracite. Purcell contacted the journalist about aracite after reading one of his obituaries. Josh has been attempting to gather information about aracite ever since and has been routinely thwarted by Ultima CEO Walter Kendrick’s thugs.

Josh: “One of the county’s largest hog farmers hanged himself after his whole stock got wiped out. Mr. Purcell thought he knew what was killing the animals.”

Tom: “When we first got here there were fires alongside the road and there was a smell.”

Josh: “Yeah, that’s the dead livestock. They burn them at night. Draw a circle around the county, and every quarter mile closer you get to Ultima’s facilities, there’s a 30 percent increase in livestock fatalities.”

Tom: “Can you prove that?”

Josh: “Yeah, I’ve got the research. But it’s not only affecting livestock. Leukemia rates around here are 145 percent above the national average. And anyone who speaks out against them, anyone who speaks out against them gets silenced.”

Tom and Ellen take back a water sample that Josh managed to grab. Patty has Purcell test the water, but he dumps the sample into the lake behind his house instead. Purcell flips on the stand and says that aracite is not toxic and forces Patty to drop the case. It is later revealed that UNR personnel helped Purcell cover up his murder of his wife after she threatened to go to the EPA with evidence that aracite is toxic and so ruin the deal Purcell struck with UNR for money in exchange for his silence. However, Purcell does make Kendrick promise to clean up aracite in West Virginia and to stop using it all together. Kendrick assures him it will be done and asks Purcell to come work for him. The murder of Purcell’s wife is yet another example of the life and energy equivalency. Her life pays for energy.

It becomes apparent that Kendrick wants to go through a merger and Patty’s investigation into aracite is preventing that, and with Patty’s case now out of the way the merger goes through. Later, Maddox discovers that Kendrick is involved in a trading scheme and tries to have him ousted from the company. She fails and is fired herself but she tips Patty off about energy trader, Finn Garrety, whom Kendrick is using to control energy prices:

Claire Maddox: “A couple weeks ago, Walter Kendrick asks me to defend a prostitute on cocaine charges. The john’s name was Finn Garrety.”

Purcell: “I don’t know that name.”

Maddox: “I did some research. Turns out he’s a big player on Wall Street. He trades energy futures.”

Purcell: “Since the merger I’ve been watching UNR.”

Maddox: “And?”

Purcell: “They’ve had some unusual power outages across the country.”

Maddox: “I was told that too much energy demand was placing a strain on the grid.”

Purcell: “Maybe. But what if someone at UNR was purposely shutting off the supply?”

Maddox: “The price of energy would go right up. If Walter Kendrick is leaking information about the timing of the shutdown, an energy trader would know exactly when to place a bet.”

Purcell: “They’d make a fortune.”

Eventually, all of the events play out and the EPA starts to clean up aracite in West Virginia.

 

Energy narrative characteristics found in this novel: life=energy, environmental degradation, corporate ruthlessness, political oppression, exaggerated inequalities, impedes labor unions/civil rights campaigners, segregation, convenient racism, insurrection.

King Coal: Undercover Boss

“Mary,” he said, “did you ever read about ants in Africa?”

“No,” said she.

“They travel in long columns, millions and millions of them. And when they come to a ditch, the front ones fall in, and more and more of them on top, till they fill up the ditch, and the rest cross over. We are ants, Mary” (58).

In King Coal by Upton Sinclair, Hal Warner, the son of a rich coal tycoon, decides to go undercover to learn about the mining business from the workingman. Hal dons the name “Joe Smith” and gets a job with the General Fuel Company (GFC), the company of one of Hal’s college friends, Percy Harrigan’s father, so that his own employees will not recognize him. In order to get the job Hal has to swear that he does not belong to a union. Over time, Hal befriends the miners and begins to realize the corrupt business practices taking place. For example, the bosses show favoritism to certain workers because of their ethnicity, which causes racism to be rampant in the coal camp. Hal also laments about the difficulty of the work itself, after he changes positions from taking care of the mules to working directly in the mines:

If any one had told him the horror of attempting to work in a room five feet high, he would not have believed it. It was like some of the dreadful devices of torture which one saw in European castles, the “iron maiden” and the “spiked collar.” Hal’s back burned as if hot irons were being run up and down it; every separate joint and muscle cried aloud. It seemed as if he could never learn the lesson of the jagged ceiling above his head—he bumped it and continued to bump it, until his scalp was a mass of cuts and bruises, and his head ached till he was nearly blind, and he would have to throw himself flat on the ground…It was amazing how many ways there were to bruise and tear one’s fingers, loading lumps of coal into a car. He put on a pair of gloves, but these wore through in a day. And then the gas, and the smoke of powder, stifling one; and the terrible burning of the eyes, from the dust and the feeble light. There was no way to rub these burning eyes, because everything about one was equally dusty. Could anybody have imagined the torment of that—any of those ladies who rode in softly upholstered parlour-cars, or reclined upon the decks of steam-ships in gleaming tropic seas? (38)

Hal also realizes that the coal bosses are cheating the workers out of their commission. The bosses weigh each worker’s cart of coal and determine how much that worker will be paid. The bosses always underrepresent the amount of coal in each cart. Hal notes that the government has passed a law that allows for the workers to appoint a check weigh man to check the bosses’ estimate of the coal weight. Hal argues with one of the miners about whether unions are needed to enforce such laws:

“How do you feel about unions?”

Hal answered, “They’re one of the things I want to find out about. You hear this and that—there’s so much prejudice on each side. I want to help the under dog, but I want to be sure of the right way.”

“What other way is there?” And Olson paused. “To appeal to the tender hearts of the owners?”

“Not exactly; but mightn’t one appeal to the world in general—to public opinion? I was brought up an American, and learned to believe in my country. I can’t think but
there’s some way to get justice. Maybe if the men were to go into politics—”

“Politics?” cried Olson. “My God! How long have you been in this place?”

“Only a couple of months.”

“Well, stay till November, and see what they do with the ballot-boxes in these camps!”

“I can imagine, of course—”

“No, you can’t. Any more than you could imagine the graft and the misery!”

“But if the men should take to voting together—”

“How can they take to voting together—when any one who mentions the idea goes down the canyon? Why, you can’t even get naturalisation papers, unless you’re a company man; they won’t register you, unless the boss gives you an O. K. How are
you going to make a start, unless you have a union?”

It sounded reasonable, Hal had to admit; but he thought of the stories he had heard about “walking delegates,” all the dreadful consequences of “union domination.” He had not meant to go in for unionism!

Olson was continuing. “We’ve had laws passed, a whole raft of laws about coal-mining—the eight-hour law, the anti-scrip law, the company-store law, the mine-sprinkling law, the check-weighman law. What difference has it made in North Valley that there are such laws on the statute-books? Would you ever even know about them?”

“Ah, now!” said Hal. “If you put it that way—if your movement is to have the law enforced—I’m with you!”

“But how will you get the law enforced, except by a union? No individual man can do it—it’s ‘down the canyon’ with him if he mentions the law. In Western City our union people go to the state officials, but they never do anything—and why? They know we haven’t got the men behind us! It’s the same with the politicians as it is with the bosses—the union is the thing that counts!”

Hal found this an entirely new argument.

“People don’t realise that idea—that men have to be organised to get their legal rights” (41-42).

Hal will change his opinion about unions later in the novel, but first he tries to convince the bosses to the change their ways with the law. The miners choose Hal to be their check weigh man, however when Hal tries to work with the bosses, they try to bribe him into keeping his mouth shut. When it becomes clear that the Hal cannot be bought the marshal attempts to frame Hal for accepting a bribe so that the workers will no longer trust him. Though Hal outwits them, he is eventually put into the jail by the marshal. The marshal threatens Hal and tells him that he has two choices: he can admit to stealing money and be fired or he can go to jail for ten years. Hal lets the marshal in on the fact that he is not really a worker but the son of a wealthy businessman. The marshal immediately changes his tune and lets Hal go.

Shortly thereafter, there is an explosion in the mine. The explosion was caused by the dryness of the air, which is saturated with coal dust and allows for sparks with any sort of friction. These explosions can be prevented by the sprinkling of a special chemical around the mine, something that the bosses frequently neglect to do. After the explosion, the GFC seals the mine because it will suffocate the fire and leave much of the coal unburned, however, this seals up many of the workers as well. The bosses are only interested in saving the property, one of them even shouts: “Damn the man! save the Mules!” Hal tells this story to a reporter, who prints the story but claims that since his is from a poor-man’s newspaper that it will not prompt a rescue operation. Hal seeks out Percy Harrigan and tells him and his guests about the horrors of the mine:

“You’ll hardly be able to believe it; but nothing has been done to rescue these men. The criminal has nailed a cover of boards over the pit-mouth, and put tarpaulin over it—sealing up men and boys to die!”

There was a murmur of horror from the diners.

“I know, you can’t conceive such a thing. The reason is, there’s a fire in the mine; if the fan is set to working, the coal will burn. But at the same time, some of the passages could be got clear of smoke, and some of the men could be rescued. So it’s a question of property against lives; and the criminal has decided for the property. He proposes to wait a week, two weeks, until the fire has been smothered; then of course the men and boys will be dead” (137).

Percy agrees to tell his father’s employees to open the mine but they convince him that everything is already being done to do so and that Hal Warner is wrong. The workers organize a strike and a union to demand their rights from the bosses.

Hal pleads with the United Mine Workers to support the strike. They tell him that though they would love to be able to support the workers they do not have the ability to help them, since it would take resources away from strikes they are more invested in:

Don’t misunderstand us!” [the union boss] cried. “It’s heartbreaking—but it’s not in our power to help. We are charged with building up the union, and we know that if we supported everything that looked like a strike, we’d be bankrupt the first year. You can’t imagine how often this same thing happens—hardly a month we’re not called on to handle such a situation. (192)

King Coal is the quintessential novel about the early American coal industry. It exposes the seedy underbelly of big business at the turn of the twentieth century. It is similar to Oil! in that the book is extremely dense and full of important passages about corporate corruption, lack of political oversight, racism and the need for Sinclair’s socialism and unions. Coal was what moved the world before oil and still provides a significant amount of energy to power grids across the United States. While the ruthless and supposedly now, archaic practices of the GFC in the novel can no longer exist to the same degree today in the United States, they still exist around the world, and we support them through our consumerism.

I attended a lecture recently by Prismatic Ecologies author, Jeffrey Cohen on “Geophilia, or the Love of Stone.” His lecture inspired me to think about humanity’s fascination with not only coal but also oil and other energy minerals in a new way. Cohen one of the reasons for humanity’s fascination with stone especially in Medieval thought because it represents immortality. I wonder if it is this obsession with taking an immortal substance from the earth and using it as a life force is just a way for humans to try to rob the mineral of its immortality. This theory would both explain the life and energy equivalency that is so common in energy narratives and the hesitation of humans into looking into alternative energy sources.

Energy narrative characteristics found in this novel: life=energy, environmental degradation, corporate ruthlessness, political oppression, exaggerated inequalities, impedes labor unions/civil rights campaigners, segregation, convenient racism, nomadic existence, insurrection.

Ship Breaker: Is Environmentalism a Rich Man’s Problem?

In Ship Breaker, Paolo Bacigalupi pens the future of a fossil fuel dependent world. Carbon-based fuel has all but run out and humans live on the scraps of old technology. The novel focuses on teenage Nailer, a “ship breaker” on Bright Sands Beach, located somewhere in the former Gulf of Mexico. Ship breakers work for a company called Lawson and Carlson, to scavenge ships that have gotten lost in the gulf. They strip it of metal, technology and most importantly, oil. Ship breakers have work tattoos on their faces that designate what crew they are a part of. Nailer is part of “light crew” and so he strips copper, aluminum and other valuable metals out of the hard to reach places on the ships. The ship breaker crews are highly competitive. For most Bright Sands natives, shipbreaking and begging are the only alternatives to starving, but mostly, everybody just wants to pull a “lucky strike.” Lucky Strike was a ship breaker who stumbled onto a secret pocket of oil. He was able to sell it bucket by bucket until he was rich enough to retire.

One day, while Nailer is on the job he falls into an oil pocket in an old tanker and nearly drowns:

Why can’t I swim? He was a good swimmer. Had never worried about drowning in the ocean, even in heavy surf. But now he kept sinking. His hand tangled in something solid— the copper wire. He grabbed for it, hoping it was still connected to the ducts above. It slithered through his fingers, slick and slimy. Oil! Nailer fought off panic. It was impossible to swim in oil. It just swallowed you like quicksand (24).

This passage is a metaphor for the world’s dependency on oil. Oil seems safe and familiar but one day our dependency on it is going to swallow us like quicksand. Nailer realizes the irony of his situation, he has found a secret oil pocket like Lucky Strike but instead of saving his life, it is going to kill him: “It was a joke, really. Lucky Strike had found an oil pocket on a ship and bought his way free. Nailer had found one and it was going to kill him. I’m going to drown in goddamn money. Nailer almost laughed at the thought” (25-26).

Nailer calls for help from inside the tanker but the only one who hears him is his rival, Sloth. Sloth ultimately decides that the oil is worth more to her than Nailer’s life and she leaves him for dead:

But he knew the calculations she was making, her clever mind working the angles, sensing the great pool of wealth, the secret stash that she might pillage later, if Fates and the Rust Saint worked in her favor. He wanted to scream at her, to grab her and drag her down. Teach her what it felt like to die sucking oil (28).

Nailer manages to escape and Sloth is then kicked out of the crew. Energy depends the price of life and since it cannot have Nailer’s, Sloth must pay for it with hers.

Nailer discovers and rescues a wealthy heiress from a shipwreck. He later learns that Nita is the daughter of one of the major energy tycoons. Nita, who Nailer calls Lucky Girl, is fleeing from her father’s corrupt business partner, Pyce, so that he cannot use him for ransom. Pyce wants to develop more carbon-based fuel from tar sands (oil sands). The process of extracting the fuel from oil sands (called bitumen) generates roughly 15 percent more greenhouse gases per barrel of crude oil than conventional oil extraction. Since the government in this novel has production caps on greenhouse gas emissions because of the now warmer climate, it is illegal for Pyce to complete this project. We are having this same debate in the United States right now about the proposed Keystone Pipeline, which would ship crude oil from oil sands in Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.

“It’s tar sands development and refining. A way to make burnable fuel, a crude oil replacement. The valuation has gone up, because of carbon production limits. Pyce has been refining tar sands in our northern holdings and secretly using Patel clippers to ship it over the pole to China.”

“Sounds like a Lucky Strike to me,” Nailer said. “Like falling into a pool of oil and already having a buyer set up. Shouldn’t your dad just take a cut and let this Pyce run with it?”

Nita stared at him in shock. She opened her mouth. Closed it, then opened it again. Closed it, clearly flummoxed.

“It’s black market fuel,” Tool rumbled. “Banned by convention, if not in fact. The only thing that would be more profitable is shipping half-men, but that of course is legal. And this isn’t at all. Is it, Lucky Girl?”

Nita nodded unwillingly.

“Pyce is avoiding carbon taxation because of territory disputes in the Arctic, and then when it goes to China, it’s easy to sell it untraceably. It’s risky, and it’s illegal, and my father found out about it. He was going to force Pyce out of the family, but Pyce moved against him first.”

“Billions in Chinese red cash,” Nailer said. “It’s worth that much?”

She nodded.

“Your father’s crazy, then. He should’ve done the business.”

Nita looked at him with disgust.

“Don’t we already have enough drowned cities? Enough people dying from drought? My family is a clean company. Just because a market exists doesn’t mean we have to serve it.”

Nailer laughed.

“You trying to tell me you blood buyers got some kind of clean conscience? Like making some petrol is different than buying our blood and rust out on the wrecks for your recycling?”

“It is!”

“It’s all money in the end. And you’re worth a lot more of it than I thought.”

He looked at her speculatively.

“Good thing you didn’t tell me this before I burned the boat with my dad.”

He shook his head. “I might have let him sell you after all. Your uncle Pyce would have paid a fortune.”

Nita smiled uncertainly.

“You’re serious?”

Nailer wasn’t sure how he was feeling.

“It’s a lot of damn money,” he said. “The only reason you think you’ve got morals is because you don’t need money the way regular people do.”

He forced down a feeling of despair over a choice that was made and couldn’t be gone back on. You want to be like Sloth? he asked himself. Do anything just to make a little more cash? Sloth had been both a traitor and a fool, but Nailer couldn’t help thinking the Fates had handed him the biggest Lucky Strike in the world and he’d thrown it away (194).

Nailer is in a unique situation to think about the environment. He is poor, worked-to-death and starving. A little extra money for him might be the difference between life and death. He thinks that it is easy for Nita to take the high ground about the environment because she has money, which is fair point about many environmentalists, including myself during the course of this project. However, Nailer seems to understand where Nita is coming from and tends to agree that the world would be better without more “city-killer hurricanes.”

Energy narrative characteristics found in this novel: life=energy, environmental degradation, nature fights back, religious element, corporate ruthlessness, exaggerated inequalities, impedes labor unions/civil rights campaigners, segregation, convenient racism, nomadic existence, insurrection.

The Windup Girl

Paolo Bacigalupi’s other novel, The Wind-up Girl, is set in post climate-change, 23rd century Thailand. Much of Thailand, including Bangkok, relies on levees and dams to remain above sea level. It appears that countries increased their research into biotechnology to engineer crops and animals and even humans that would survive in the new climate. Therefore, biotech corporations now control most of the food and energy production, since it appears that the oil supply has long-since run out and new technologies like GMO algae-enhanced, kink-spring engines are used for power. These corporations are referred to as “calorie companies,” and this starving world’s thinking has shifted to measure even basic human movements in calories and joules. This novel’s energy theme is much more subtle than Ship Breaker’s but definitely worth a read.

Tell me what you think!

Is environmentalism a rich man’s problem? Are there more pressing concerns? What are some of the ways you have come up with to go green on a budget? Should Congress support the Keystone XL pipeline?

Ain’t My Fault by Gulf Aid All Stars and Balls in Your Mouth by Jimmy Fallon and Eddie Vedder

Mos Def and Ben Jaffe were inspired to rewrite the lyrics to “Ain’t My Fault,” a song written by Smokey Johnson and Wardell Quezergue, after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in New Orleans. Mos Def, Lenny Kravitz and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, recorded the song to raise money for the charity “Gulf Aid.”

The lyrics are written from the perspective of a New Orleans resident who is listening to various companies in the oil industry trying to shift the blame for the spill from themselves: “awwwwwww, it ain’t my fault.” The narrator recognizes that someone is definitely to blame but what is more important is that he or she is confused about how to deal with the spill in his or her daily life.

 

IT AIN’T MY FAULT

Mama no don’t ya say

ah

oil and water don’t mix

petroleum don’t go (go) with no fish

Awwwwwwww, IT AIN’T MY FAULT

BP….big pimpin

Big pile of BAD presses

boiling point

billionaire point pressure

Awwwwwwww, IT AIN’T MY FAULT

Say Man:

Who pushed the marshes back?

It’s where the hurricane shelter

and the gardens at

Awwwwwwww, IT AIN’T MY FAULT

Sing…

from the government’s coast

to the broke levee wall

somptin goin on

and it’s somebody fault…I said

Awwwwwwww, IT AIN’T MY FAULT

said they go to the rock

to hide they face

said the rock cried out

“No Hiding Place!”

said they go to the rock

to hide they face

said the rock cried out

“No Hiding Place!”

said they go to the rock

to hide they face

said the rock cried out

“No Hiding Place!”

Oh no, oh no

“IT AIN’T MY FAULT”

Energy narrative characteristics found in this song: environmental degradation, corporate ruthlessness, political oppression, exaggerated inequalities, convenient racism.

Balls in Your Mouth

The narrative structure of this song is very simple: the narrator is telling his or her audience not to swim in the ocean because there are tar balls in it as the result of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The point behind the simple structure and the silly title is that the fact that there are tar balls in the ocean is utterly ridiculous. Granted, the last thing I want to do is call an accident that called 11 people “ridiculous” when it is in fact “tragic,” but drilling that deep without taking proper safety precautions was an unnecessary and dangerous risk. Now, it may be that I think that because I am looking at the issue in hindsight, like the argument in my most recent post on South Park, but I think that tar balls are a poetic (and deeply unfortunate) consequence to a ridiculous problem.

 

Energy narrative characteristics found in this song: environmental degradation, corporate ruthlessness, political oppression, exaggerated inequalities.