Who says coal and environmentalists -- even the most hardcore take-no-prisoners kind of activists -- can't get along? Or at least listen to each other. And who says that just because coal companies can rally under deceptively-titled front groups like Americans For Balanced Energy Choices, green groups do the same?
That's exactly what happened this week, when members of Greenpeace crashed a major coal conference, Coal USA 2008 -- by co-sponsoring the event under the buttoned-up moniker “Institute for Energy Solutions." When organizers discovered that the group's site redirected to Coal is Dirty, they not only grudgingly permitted Greenpeace to keep their booth (where, of course, they handed out asthma inhalers, gift baskets of coal, and water samples from coal mining regions) but even invited the green agitators to address the gathered audience of coal executives.
The big moment came yesterday, when Greenpeace spokesman Carroll Muffett was asked to speak to an audience not of "evil, mustache-twirling Snidely Whiplash impersonators" but of "(mostly) normal people." Here's the advice and question he posed just before being whipped off the stage by a security guard ...
Perhaps you can explain to your kids: "I polluted the air because my boss made me do it. I poisoned the water to increase shareholder value. I denied global warming because the board demanded it. I supported CCS because it was the industry's only hope. And I refused to believe in solutions, because I was paid to believe in coal."
Will that answer make your kids happy? Will it make them proud? Will it help them forgive you?
We can just imagine the shifting in the seats, the loosening of ties, the clearing of throats, and the whisper to the guy with the thick neck, telling him to get those rascals off the stage. Still, there was some quiet applause from what Muffett called a mostly "polite" audience. (People were less happy to see children at the Greenpeace booth handing out asthma inhalers.)
That the organizer of the conference -- Gerard McCloskey of McCloskey Group -- was willing to let Greenpeace air a litany of the environmental costs of coal to its biggest promoters came as a bit of a shock.
Then again, this was coal's home turf, and letting the green guys speak their piece looks better than trying to shut them down. Given Greenpeace's proclivity for dramatic measures (interrupting industry dinners, shutting down power stations, scaling buildings) the conference organizers might have caused even more of a scene had they forced Greenpeace out.
And it was just the right thing to do. "I thought what we should do was engage them," McCloskey told Reuters. "All of us have children, grandchildren. It was good to see Greenpeace here willing to put their argument out."
The decision by the coal promoters to let Greenpeace speak about the damage wrought by their product also illustrates a larger fact: "Green" has become so mainstream, and the dangers of energy production so apparent, that the companies that once worked hard to deny their role in pollution, or downplay the impact of climate change, now have little choice but to become part of the solution.
For his part, Muffett was pleased to be allowed to speak after decades of the industry's denial and then sugar-coating of climate change, but he still saw it as a mere gesture. On his blog, Muffett dismisses the idea that coal could be "part of the solution" through carbon capture and storage (CCS), which Fred Palmer, of industry leader Peabody Coal, called at the conference an "enabling" technology. " I couldn't agree more," Muffett wrote on his blog.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, an "enabler" is someone or something that "enables another to persist in self-destructive behavior (as substance abuse) by providing excuses or by making it possible to avoid the consequences of such behavior." And that's precisely what CCS does: its a dangerous myth that provides America with a convenient excuse to keep burning coal and pumping carbon dioxide into the air, rather than confronting its fossil fuel addiction and taking real action to stop global warming.
Muffett was also glad, he said, to learn some gems about big coal from the inside:
For instance, did you know that Alaska is now a target for new coal mines? ("Shhh. It's our secret", said the coal traders.) Or that you can expect your home energy costs to go through the roof because coal companies are finding it much more profitable to export "excess supply" to foreign markets than to sell it here at home? Or that the only thing the coal industry hates more than environmentalists is the natural gas industry?
Or that "the United States is a developing country." That one from Fred Palmer again. I could listen to that guy talk all day. He's like a Crazy Quote Machine. According to Fred, using MORE coal is in the public interest because "Coal is Life itself (through the medium of electricity)." Wow! Who knew? See, I told you we were learning stuff!
Apart from the apparent tolerance of green activists, the real surprise may have come from Greenpeace. The group known for its radical interventions -- perhaps none more famous than its high-seas battle with Japanese whaling ships -- may be finding more subtle and clever ways to get its message across (much like the companies it lobbies against). This week, we wrote about the cheeky Alberta Tar Sands Resort, for instance; last year, it put out this great fake iPod ad.
In an era of both green obsession and green fatigue, these more playful kinds of tactics will become more appealing. And talking directly to the people who control things like the coal industry, and listening to them too, sounds much more productive than yelling at -- or throwing shit at -- the problem.
"It's easy to do anything if you do it for a company, because then the company can be evil for you, while you just go on being a normal, decent person," Muffet writes on his blog.
But what we easily forget is that a company, at heart, is simply a collection of people. Companies aren't real in a human sense--they aren't alive; they don't have souls. A company can't choose to be evil any more than it can be good. Only the people within it, individually and together, can make that choice.