A Mom’s Ecological Wisdom

“Turn Out the Lights”

A story dedicated to all Moms who somehow knew the true ecological cost of our decisions.

By Kevin Stack

Everyone’s Mom is special but I would like to tell you a story about my special Mom and how her gentle words taught me the ecological value of our everyday decisions.

I can still remember her words as if it were yesterday telling all of us, and there were 8 of “us”, to turn out the lights whenever we leave the room. Whether we were on the third floor in the attic of the old colonial where I slept with my 4 brothers, or in the next room with my 3 sisters her tone was always one of conservation.

Many years later I only now realize the importance of her words and the real meaning behind “turn out the lights”.

My Mom had ingrained in her children the essence of becoming a “doer” as Teddy Roosevelt had earlier referred to as “The Society of Doers”. So rather than become one who merely speaks of the impacts resulting from our actions, I sought to experience for myself the real consequences of our decisions. To see and do before I say. So I began my journey to follow and literally trace these unintended consequences to better understand the impact of our decisions on all life’s creatures.

My journey begins by traveling backwards from the end use to the source, the light that never got turned off to the primary energy that allowed it to bring brightness to the night. My earliest experience in taking over my Mom’s quest for conservation dates back many years when I was first asked by a potential young tenant in an office building if she could install a lighted sign for marketing and security purposes and leave it illuminated all day. I thought this a good idea and immediately set out to see what the cost would be. After some simple calculations I arrived at a very insignificant dollar amount of maybe $ 15.00 – $20.00 per year and almost said yes to her request, almost. I began to think deeply and after a few more calculations I knew that the bulb would need replacement the sign repaired and of course the cost of electricity would certainly go up and realized that the cost may actually be more like $45.00 – $50.00 per year, an amount I had no argument with and should agree to provide.

Then out of nowhere Mom’s words arrived as if falling softly from the heavens like snowflakes on a cold winter’s night, “turn out the lights”. As I sought out the meaning behind her words, my thoughts began to reveal the ecological cost of leaving just one light on for 24 hours a day over the course of an entire year. How would I experience this and where would I begin actually was as easy as taking out a road map. So I began on my sometimes real and at times imaginary adventure into the light of just one 100 Watt incandescent bulb burning for a year. I start my journey in reverse actually by traveling to the primary source of the energy required to keep the light on.  After preliminary research by my son Josh, I climb into my black pickup truck and head south towards West Virginia where much of the coal is mined to produce the power in Upstate New York; actually almost 60% according to many experts, of our electricity comes from this ancient sunlight buried beneath seas that no longer exist.

After a few hours of driving, I come to a detour and decide to follow the road less traveled to gain a better understanding of the historical culture in the surrounding countryside. Little did I know that I would soon learn about the ecological culture as well when I was abruptly introduced to the town of Centralia, Pennsylvania. It is one of gloom, the land beneath Centralia has been burning for over 40 years.  Long ago, coals from a small road side fire fell into an abandoned coal mine which ignited a smoldering abyss that most feel will never die.

Over the years many calculated the costs and decided it was cheaper to abandon the town than to try and douse the flames.  Now the town remains vacant except for a few families that refused to go, and the State now owns the lands that many had once called home. Many believe that the fires will never cease and no amount of effort and money will stop the flames beneath their feet. The temperature can reach 1000 F. degrees or more as the smoke smolders underneath as it slowly undermines the ground by the fires that seem to never stop.  I wonder how the ecology and the soil biology of the area must have changed throughout these past 40 years and more importantly what is to become of this place. This place that will never be home again.

I climb back into my truck and leave with a greater sense of what others have suffered to provide us the light that my Mom would so softly remind us to turn off. My travels now take me toward the coal mines in West Virginia, the source of our ancient light.  As daybreak arrives, I find myself gazing into the distant mountains in awe of the wildness, shadows of deep green cloaked in fog.  As I turn the corner I am struck, “can this be, have I taken the wrong turn, where has the wildness gone, the deep green shadows of the mountains are gone. Their tops removed.”

My thoughts travel back in time to words spoken by many but heard by few, “turn out the lights”, as I witness my first sight of the shear destruction of one of the most biologically diverse temperate regions on earth, and perhaps the richest temperate fresh water ecosystem in the World.  I begin to realize my Mom’s deepest concerns were not for just her 8 children, but for each and every one of us and for all of God’s creatures who share this life with us. Our friends, the mountains who have looked over us and shared their glory with many generations are gone.  Forever.  Mountains that formed over the eons have disappeared and like the great dinosaurs that once walked on this planet 65 million years ago, they will not return. The pines and spruce, the proud maples and the sturdy oaks have lost a battle they never knew would be fought. The battle for light.

My journey must continue, I am told my single light bulb needs 720 pounds of coal if it is to shine bright for one year.  So that is the amount I shall load into the back of my truck for the trip 300 miles to the west to the place where the chemical energy of my coal will be transformed into power. But first I must wait as the coal is rinsed clean of the toxins from its surface, the mercury, lead, and arsenic; the very same compounds we learned of from the periodic chart in eleventh grade, you remember, the elements so toxic we were frightened if ever we came in contact with or so help us if we inhaled our souls may be lost.
As I haul the 720 pounds of coal over to the slurry pond to be washed my curiosity overcomes my most common of senses and I ask those who live in this land, “have the impoundments ever given way, have they ever failed?”  I listen closely as the safety measures in place are explained, and the margins of error seem almost nonexistent.  I ask again, and the slow nods all around are immediately clear.  The fear is palpable.   Yes, I’m told, “the impoundment at the Kingston Fossil Plant in Harriman, Kentucky failed, releasing 500 million gallons of radioactive coal ash slurry, 100 times larger than the Exxon Valdez,” with the very same toxins washed from my coal.  The periodic chart with all its information on the dangers we knew about all along, did not educate us as well as our Moms, and we are reminded that there is no fooling with Mother Nature.  If we break her laws we are doomed to fail.

My freshly washed coal is now safely tucked into the back of my truck as I head due west towards the Ohio River Valley, the place where my coal will end its long journey.  As I travel I think of all the energy and work I am expending just to transport my 720 pounds of coal and mentally begin to piece together the many steps required of this process I have sought to experience. What some call the pre-combustion process and all its energy that never seems to be accounted for in our financial world. The removal of mountains and extraction of seams of coal by excavators the size I could never have imagined, the earth movers that take the coal from place to place to wash and load and wash and load again and again.

After many hours of travel, and oh the sights we have passed on our journey we finally arrive. I shovel the coal onto large piles left by the seemingly never ending lines of trains, train car after train car, their bellies loaded to the top, bringing their short tons of  coal from faraway places to its final resting place, where life’s ancient plants unearthed from the grave will  rise to give power to our light. The coal that was once created by light becomes light again.  I watch as the coal is pulverized into dust then ignited, and as the water temperature reaches 212 degrees it absorbs 970 Btus and is completely evaporated into steam and the great turbines slowly begin to spin and the generators turn as the once clear blue sky begins to turn to dusk as coal overtakes daylight. The change of energy of one source to another creating seemingly unrelated emission does not escape me and certainly not my Mom who knew all along; you see, as most of the children growing up in rural Pennsylvania, she was among the first to witnesses the beginning of the great industrial revolution and all it brought with it. This revolution from ancient sunlight to current light brought fortunes to a few but impoverished all.

My coal has undergone its second metamorphosis as it first began as sunlight and plants and now has continued on its journey, from potential energy to kinetic energy.  It is now “useful” energy, we are told, but again another lesson from high school, “the first law of thermodynamics”, warns me that energy is neither created nor destroyed, it merely flows from place to place as it changes form. So what then has it really become, I cringe, as I wonder aloud?
I leave the fiery power plant and head towards home to complete the last leg of my long journey.  I am done, I believe, as I have found the source of the energy for my light and have begun to understand the true cost of the conversion of power necessary to light one 100 watt incandescent bulb for one year.  I have found that it is not merely the cost of the kilowatt we see on our monthly utility bill.

On the long easterly drive home on I-90, I begin to reflect on my journey and all it has taught me, I glance up only for a moment and notice the snarling tangle of power lines running overhead and sadly realize that only 30% of the electrons produced from the 720 pounds of coal is actually going to be available to power my light. This is the greatest efficiency of our great power plants I am told and we should all be pleased.

As I ponder this fact I feel I have missed something, maybe something of even higher importance. My thoughts drift as I look deeply into the night sky. I slowly begin to feel the presence of another source of energy following me home, moving as slowly as I, all the way back to my home in Upstate New York. Remember the first law has taught us that energy is neither created nor destroyed but merely changed into another form.  As I had watched the dark clouds forming above the power plant as my 720 pounds of coal were burned, the emissions I knew only as smoke a short time ago are now high above me in the form of sulfur and nitrogen oxides.  And as it reacts in the atmosphere it becomes sulfuric and nitric acid.

My good friend Charle-Pan was always quick to thank me for letting my (our) mountains, the great Adirondacks, the Catskills to the south, and the White and Green Mountains to the north, clean the air for the east coast and now I know of what she spoke.  As the Sulfur and Nitrogen released from the burning of my coal follow the easterly winds home with me, our mountains unknowingly reach up to catch the water vapors and it begins to rain down upon our lands depositing acids and heavy metals into the farthest reaches of our wilderness impacting areas never thought to feel the power of man’s touch for they are to remain “forever wild” never to be altered.  Oh so little we know. If we had only paid attention to Rachel Carson we may have seen this coming. In her book Silent Spring, Rachel cautions that “a change in one molecule may reverberate throughout our entire system causing changes in seemingly unrelated tissues and organs.” How very true today for as we transform coal, it begins to transform us. Her story tells of the impact on human health and performance associated with our thoughtless decisions and as with most, once set in motion difficult to stop.

This rain that we have learned to call Acid Rain first lands on the leaves and needles high in the forest canopy where they begin to strip the waxy surface off our large red spruce needles, as if removing their winter coats on the coldest of days, exposing their life-giving fluids to the cold to never flow again. Here many miles away the trees begin to suffer the same fate as their cousins to the south that lost their lives to Man’s efficient mountain removal machines. It is as if the loop has closed as I compare the fate of the trees to the north who have suffered the same fate as those in the south. Life taken for the same purpose, to light the human world.  As the acids and heavy metals make their way back to the earth, they begin to settle onto the granite slopes and enter our waters sterilizing our ecosystems, creating a trophic collapse we have yet to understand. The soils stay quiet as they absorb the rains and can only watch as chemical bonds are broken, and calcium and magnesium are released to begin a slow journey into the far depths of the soil where the roots of the Northern Forest cannot venture for the nourishment it so very much needs for survival.  We learn of this happening beneath our feet and in our waters where our ecosystems are now battling the consequences of our seemingly innocuous search for light, a financial cost of a mere 10 to 14 cents a kilowatt, but an ecological cost that has no value on Wall Street. If Rachel were here she would caution us about the stillness of our lakes and streams, for they have been silenced much like the songs of our birds in the spring.

The living environment now faces one of the toughest battles of its lifetime, the opponent is none other than his brother, the physical environment. The time has come for E.O. Wilson to carry the torch of Rachel’s dire warning as he asserts his Law, “if we only save the living environment you will also save the Physical environment too, if we only save the physical environment you will ultimately lose both.”

We know these truths, for our Mom’s have always been life’s greatest teachers.  These same messages have been told to children in many ways over the years, but perhaps none no more important than the message of “turn out the lights.”

Thank you Mom………… now about those vegetables.

This entry was posted on Saturday, May 7th, 2011 at 10:57 am and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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