What does it mean to derive electricity that we use, including myself, from fossil fuel deposits? I’ve often thought about this question. I’ve thought about it singularly, as in, using fossil fuels alone. I’ve thought about it comparatively, as in, compared to other, renewable, sources of energy. I’ve thought about it historically, presently, and futuristically. I’ve thought about it fatalistically, whimsically, and deterministically. There are many ways to consider humanity’s love affair with Earth-extracted energy sources.
This time, I’m considering the question artistically. Now, I’m certainly no art expert, but I enjoy art. As a photographer, I make artistic decisions constantly in producing an image. So there come times when artistic comparisons come to mind while photographing or writing, as here, about my photographic subjects. So while researching the story behind my set of images on the subject of the San Juan Generating Station and the Four Corners Power Plant, on opposing sides of Highway 64 in northwestern New Mexico near Farmington, and knowing of other area fossil fuel problems, the impression that research led to was Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.”
What led to this disturbing image of a virtually genderless figure writhing in a screaming agony at the edge of nature? When I read what the artist wrote about his own inspiration for this image, I couldn’t help but feel as if, after my research, I felt the same about the views I’ve seen in these images. That view? A mental image, or video, if you will, of the “cradle to grave,” or “life-cycle,” of the coal that fires the boilers of these two power plants. When I read this…
“I was walking along the road with two friends – the sun went down – I felt a gust of melancholy – suddenly the sky turned a bloody red. I stopped, leaned against the railing, tired to death – as the flaming skies hung like blood and sword over the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends went on – I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I felt a vast infinite scream through nature.” –BBC, accessed 7/29/2016.
…a passage from Munch’s diary on 1/22/1892, I, too, felt that vast (great, or other translations exist) infinite scream through modern nature.
And it all begins with us. “We” start by mining for coal, extract it from the earth, pile it in a series of stages in preparation for transit, load it into a train, drop it at a power plant, shove it onto a conveyor belt, pulverize it, atomize it, and burn it. But that is not the death of extracted coal. This was just the scarring cut into nature that becomes a legacy liability, the initial scream of nature’s shock, thundering through a supercritical furnace.
Only after that momentary burn, the split-second flame of the coal particles when we humans derive our intended use of heat from this matter, does the plummeting abyss of an “infinite scream through nature” curdle through the ages. Coal is matter, made up from star dust, just like you and me, so coal is bound by the law of conservation of mass, whereby the billions of global tons of coal going into power plants come out as equally billions of tons of atmospheric gasses, particles, wastewater, or ash. Once those atomized coal particles have released their flamed energy as heat, which boiled the water into pressurized steam that turned the turbine generator to create electricity, our centuries-old technology, then the re-organized matter, – ash and gasses – get processed through the coal plant’s regulated inner-workings to separate out the various “waste.”
The scream bellows through the smokestacks of the plant into the sky as carbon dioxide, mercury, sulfur, and many other particles, mixing with other particles in the environment to create carbonic acid, methylmercury, sulfuric acid, and others. The scream aches through ash piles that are landfilled nearby, with the potential and actual examples of screaming coal ash waste breaking through barriers and laying waste to communities and rivers, if it doesn’t simply whimper a poisonous scream as a toxic leak into the groundwater below where it is stored. The scream flows out of the plant’s pipelines of hot water into nearby lakes and streams as selenium toxicity, among many other potential poisons.
The infinite scream of coal passing through nature becomes compounded by the screaming echoes of poisons in our environment, from greenhouse gasses from the coal mine methane released during mining, to the carbon dioxide that circles the planet through the atmosphere, and often mirrors the “bloody red” smoggy sky of Munch’s masterpiece.
The infinite scream of coal poisons pass through water locally, into the biosphere and bio-accumulates, even bio-magnifying through multiple flora and fauna, including you and me – with dire consequences, and continues running downstream into ever-larger bodies of water. In fact, the infinity symbol itself is closed as the scream of carbon and mercury in the sky are absorbed and deposited into otherwise distant and isolated oceans, lakes, rivers, and forests, and intermingling with the land and water-based screams of pollution saturated from below. A chorus of infinite screams. These return again to the sky through warm seas generating hurricanes, or burning forests returning mercury and carbon to the sky.
And the infinite scream also sits there, bottled, in a heap of coal ash, waiting for a barrier weakness to release its wail. Forever. Coal has no grave. Coal is the zombie we created to roam the planet indefinitely in its many burned forms.
No amount of “scrubbers” or “bag houses” can completely muffle this scream through nature, because no current technology muffles all pollution streaming out of a fossil-fueled power plant. Though, to end the scream, many try using the Judicial system to find an end. I’ll bet every trembling child, adult, and senior with asthma or other respiratory ailments caused by these power plants feel the “blood and sword” of the “flaming skies” with every wheezing, painful, tired to death, and anxiety-ridden breath.
Munch’s melancholy is our reality, if you pay attention to the screams of coal, or any non-renewable energy source, through nature, through us. We become the unidentifiable, the afflicted, the forever-changed figure in his masterpiece, if you hear the scream and know your place in what we’re doing to nature 24 hours a day as these coal-fired power plants operate. Or you could be the ambivalent, un-hearing, oblivious background figures walking along and enjoying a pretty sunset as you play Pokemon Go on your coal-fired cell phone.
For the full gallery of images from the Farmington, NM area power plants and coal mines, go to Climate Photography.