Let me thank the class of 2011 and this fine institution for inviting a coal mining executive to speak to you on this hopeful occasion.
It wasn’t that long ago I was sitting down there where you are, listening to someone up here like me. Recalling that experience now, I promise that, as Henry the 8th said to his wives, “I won’t keep you long.”
If I ask for a show of hands of how many of you consider yourselves to be environmentalists, I’m certain virtually all hands would go up. That’s great. It’s a sign of how deeply entrenched environmental awareness has become in our culture. And a sign too of the affluence that allows us to look beyond our immediate needs to worry about the natural world and lighten the burden we place on it.
But I don’t need a show of hands to know something else about you. I know an equal or greater number of you are also consumers. This too is a good sign. It signifies a society that provides for many of the wants, not just the needs, of its people.
You may be less enthusiastic about acknowledging your membership in the consumer club of America. But all of you, I’m sure, are members in good standing nonetheless.
Over the course of your lifetimes each one of you will consume, consciously or not, 3.5 tons of coal on average, and additional tons of minerals and metals. Not directly of course, but these are essential ingredients for the electricity that provides you with round-the-clock light, heat and air conditioning…for the cars you will drive…for the laptops and cell phones that are staples of your lives. All of these products and services are hallmarks of the good life. And they all rely on rocks mined from deep underground.
Without coal and uranium, copper and nickel, none of this would be possible. Your lives would be immeasurably poorer. Sure we can use more renewable fuels. But wind and solar power together comprise a tiny fraction of the energy needed to power our economy. Some say we need to reduce carbon emissions. Fine, then let’s develop the technology that enables us to use our coal more responsibly. Others worry about global warming, which is why the biggest coal-using countries—China and India—need that technology as much as we do.
Of course, it’s true that if we just stopped using coal and minerals, our lifestyle would be less energy-intensive, too. Wonderful. This achievement will console us while we swelter without air-conditioning on a 90˚ summer day…wear gloves indoors on a frigid January night…and cultivate a taste for warm beer. I doubt we would find this consoling for long.
Once you accept that each of us is an environmentalist and consumer both, you will see more clearly the challenge before us. The challenge is to devise policies that balance environmentalism with the good life so neither goal triumphs at the expense of the other. Achieving either one without the other will inevitably lead to a declining quality of life.
This is why there is no real incompatibility with being an environmentalist and a consumer. On the contrary, the recognition that we are both environmentalists and consumers signals the beginning of mature thinking about how we can reconcile our energy needs with an environmental ethic. You can be a sincere and conscientious environmentalist, actively practicing conservation and efficiency, and at the same time enjoy the blessings of an advanced technological society.
I don’t say this is easy to do. It isn’t. But because you value both, I know you can do it.
Popovich is a spokesperson for the National Mining Association, the industry’s trade group based in Washington, D.C.