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Coal Veins: Culture, Policy, and Dependency in the Contemporary United States

Sat, April 1, 1:15 to 2:45pm, The Drake Hotel, Superior

Session Submission Type: Panel


Coal veins run deep in the geography and body politic of the United States. Yet, we tend to treat coal as a historic object, as if it referred to an earlier era of company towns, unregulated capital, and raw battles between paid henchmen and fed-up miners. Coal feels like it is on the way out. To some extent, that assessment is reasonable. After all, coal once accounted for 88% of the nation’s energy budget, whereas today its share has slipped to a lowly 20%, and much of its use has shifted to generating electricity, which tends to beautify coal on the consumer’s end. But while coal’s relative importance has slipped, its absolute production has grown. In fact, the peak year of output was not long ago, c.a. 2009, by which point, the US was burning almost twice as much coal as it did when coal was king. And that trend has only been revised marginally downward since.

This panel focuses on the American relationship to coal from the 1970s energy crisis through contemporary public debates. Robert Lifset’s paper, “Jimmy Carter and the Renaissance of American Coal,” examines the policy shift that occurred during the 1970s Energy Crisis to accelerate the US commitment to coal and thus to increased emission of greenhouse gasses. Petra Dolota’s paper, “The Transnational Veins of Coal,” approaches that revival from an internationalist perspective by comparing its impact, socially and ecologically, on the coal regions of the US and West Germany. And, finally, Bob Johnson’s paper, “Coal TV: The Hyper-real Mineral Frontier,” examines how this deep commitment to coal has been framed within a neoliberal imaginary that erases its ecological and human costs in American popular culture.

Together these papers document the vibrant contemporary landscape in which coal circulates today as an object of debate and regulation.

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