Notes from the Perimeter

Thursday, March 26, 2009

A Matter of Words


A reader, in a recent letter to the editor of one of the papers in which my column appears, referred to me as an “Obama sycophant.” Where I come from, them’s fightin’ words so I figured I better confirm what sycophant actually means.

According to Microsoft Word’s thesaurus, a sycophant is “somebody who servilely or obsequiously flatters a powerful person for personal gain.” Flattery is characterized by two essential qualities: excessiveness and insincerity.

It would seem that I face several challenges in my quest to become a sycophant, the most daunting being that President Obama has nary an inkling of my existence. How can I disproportionately and falsely flatter him into bestowing benefit upon me if he doesn’t even know who I am? Furthermore, unless my reading of this president is way off, he seems particularly impervious to sycophancy. Hard times for us sycophant wannabees.

Words matter. To be accurate, I am an Obama apologist. Look it up: an apologist is a defender, a supporter, an ally. In light of the dire circumstances Obama inherited, I believe he’s doing as fine a job as anyone could. I’m thrilled that stem cell research restrictions have been lifted, Gitmo will be closed, and we’ll soon be leaving Iraq. I’m convinced that health care, education and the economy are in good hands. I’m grateful he’s in charge. But my patronage isn’t blind. On at least one issue, President Obama and I part ways.

During the campaign, Obama espoused his support for “clean coal technology” as one element of a comprehensive energy policy. “Clean coal” sounds like a good thing. Clean is good. And, despite the fiscal crisis, we still need to wean ourselves from foreign oil and increase domestic as well as alternative sources of energy. The United States is laden with coal deposits. If technologies, such as scrubbers and “carbon capture and sequestration,” can be developed to reduce the pollution that coal-fired plants produce – primarily CO2 and sulfur dioxide (contributors to global warming and acid rain respectively) – then it’s a win-win. Right?

Not so fast. The term “clean coal” is deliberately defined narrowly, referring only to the burning of coal in electric generation. However, the whole lifecycle -- mining, transport and combustion -- must be examined, and even the most rudimentary research reveals numerous troubling issues.

Scrubbers might lessen smog but they do nothing to reduce greenhouse gasses and are energy intensive, as is transporting coal from mining sites to power plants. Questions persist about the safety, environmental impact and long-term viability of carbon storage, which involves the untested technology of permanently burying CO2 emissions from coal-fired plants deep underground. Nobody knows what might happen should the containment crack or gasses escape into aquifers or the atmosphere. Projects such as FutureGen, intended through carbon storage technology to be the first near-zero-emissions U.S. coal-fired power plant, have faltered due to cost overruns.

Most disturbing of all is the method of coal extraction known as mountaintop removal. This environmentally devastating procedure, in which draglines literally remove entire mountain ridges and dump the resultant debris into valleys and streams, is decimating land and communities throughout Appalachia. Perhaps coal can play a role in our energy future, but it must be without these destructive mining practices. For an eye-opening video, visit the website of my friend: writer/musician/activist extraordinaire CD Collins, a native Kentuckian: www.cdcollins.com.

Words matter. Characterizing coal as “clean” is inaccurate at best, deceptive at worst. Those who promote coal, clean or otherwise, are primarily mining industry types who stand to profit. Terms like “clean coal” constitute a kind of rebranding, designed to manipulate, play on our fears of energy cost and dependence, and persuade us to focus on a reassuring image and not the upsetting substance.

Words matter, so I say to my president: reject the lie of “clean coal.” Resisting the supplications of the mining industry: now, that would constitute real change. I ask for the benefit of the staunch folks, misty mountains and verdant hollows of Appalachia. And yes, I stand to gain, in the only way that really matters.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep working on the sycophant thing.

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