Jim looked over his shoulder at the men and women behind him. They all had coal smeared faces and the bright LED glow from their hardhats only illuminated the immediate area. The darkness of the mine shaft a few feet in front of Jim was black. He knew them all even though he couldn’t pick out their faces from the dirt and glare of the light. The smell of humans who have been breaking their backs for weeks to advance the shaft this far mingled with the cold earthy smell emanating from the walls. It was the smell of the last coal mine in Kentucky.
They had tapped out the last seam for all the coal worth mining weeks ago. This foray into the unknown was quickly burning through the last remaining capital they had at the bank. All the miners in that shaft with Jim were also the owners. After the clean energy revolution had changed the world faster than the existing industries could adapt the coal companies had started to shutter mines all over the world. First it was China, Europe, the US, and even India followed. To Jim and his community it was like watching dominoes fall, but the weight of those dominoes carried their whole livelihood. Jim and his neighbors lost all their jobs in the same week. After a year of scraping by on savings and vegetable gardens they put everything they had into their own cooperative mine.
No fancy machinery. Not fancy lights. Just explosives, rail track, and hard work.
Despite all the wind turbines, solar roofs, geothermal, battery packs, and electric cars there was still a small demand for coal. And while they were putting out small volumes all the profits went to the miners. Due to the mine closures the price of coal actually went up as opposed to staying low as it had been their whole lives.
They were artisans now in a world where coal was becoming rare. They sold to coal oven pizza parlors, small metal foundries that couldn't afford the new fancy heaters. It wasn’t that they had the last coal on the planet but they were the only ones that could go in legally to get it. China’s coal reserves were still plentiful, but government decrees had made mining of coal a crime in order to reduce the Chinese carbon footprint. India had also outlawed coal in order to transition their developing economy to renewable energy completely.
Jim’s collective had received a special dispensation from Congress. Coal mining was part of their culture just like bourbon and horse racing. They were allowed to mine by hand with limited tools. No heavy machinery. No big trucks. Mining like their ancestors had when they first discovered coal.
“Alright, the last of the explosives are planted. This is it. Either we find coal or we gotta figure something else out. Just a few more years till we can collect social security right?” Jim asked everyone behind him.
Jim heard a few muttered agreements. Everyone was on edge. There was no backup plan. Coal or bust.
“Fire in the hole,” Jim yelled.
Jim pushed down on the detonator and a second later a muffled boom and the resulting vibrations in the wall reverberated throughout the mine. Jim could feel it in his bones. The vibrations started to settle. They all waited a few minutes listening for any secondary vibrations. Sometimes things weren’t finished moving after a blast.
Jim looked back and gave the signal.
The miners walked down the shaft and took the tunnel they had been carving into before the blast. The dust hadn’t full settled, but they could taste it in the air. The rough feel of coal dust hitting the nose and tongue was the taste of their way of life being preserved.
Everyone was quiet, happy, they didn’t want to cheer because in mining things can turn bad to worse in a heartbeat. They all hoped it was enough to buy time so their children could go on to something other than mining. They were the last coal miners in the world.
So I’ve been working on this one for awhile. For some reason it was difficult to finish. I’m not sure I’m totally happy with how it turned out. I was trying to show a few things by telling a short story. Namely, that even though coal is a very dominant energy source now it will likely change in the future and it will have profound effects on communities around the world. I was also trying to show that we are all more similar than we think, especially if our faces are covered in dirt or coal dust. We are all still just humans scratching at the earth. We are trying to weave together a life that is better than the ones our parent’s had and one that is better for our kids than we have had.
If you wanted to read more fiction then please check out:
For Non-Fiction check out my post about why I think Oil (and any fossil fuel) will likely go the way of the dinosaur:
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