The 2,000-Foot View of Coal Country with James Fallows


A few weeks ago, James Fallows and I took his elegant little plane out of the Montgomery County Air Park and into the sky above the mountaintop-removal coal mines of Appalachia. Fallows had just completed a masterful piece on the future of coal and the productive relationship emerging between Chinese and American researchers trying to clean up the mining and usage of burnable rocks. To accompany the article, Fallows suggested we make a video of a flight over the region most impacted by coal mining.

Among coal's many downsides is the incredible toll it takes on the land where it's mined. Walk across an abandoned oil field and aside from the dinosaurian oil derricks, it doesn't look much different from how it did before people took its buried treasure. Oil pools underground and you slurp it up (like a milkshake) with snaking wells. The land stays intact.

Coal, on the other hand, is the land in some places. When you mine it from the surface, the land is just gone, hence the name "mountaintop-removal" coal mining, one of the few brandings environmentalists have really gotten to stick.

I'd seen satellite photos that implied the scale of the problem was enormous, but I didn't really understand what it was like until we flew over the area southwest of Charleston, West Virginia. Take this mine near Kayford, WV. If it was located in Washington, DC, the mine would stretch from Capitol Hill and Anacostia all the way through the city to Cathedral Heights.

coal mine.jpg

What's more amazing (or appalling) is that this is just one of many, many mines. From the plane, you can see them stretching out to the horizon in almost every direction. And in a small but important way, that's actually what your laptop is plugged into.

So, take a look at the video. I hope it captured some of the feeling of flying over this landscape. Fallows has a Goldilocks theory that the 2,000 foot-view of small-plane flight is special. On a road, down on the ground, you don't have a proper sense of scale because you're too close. But from a commercial airliner, you're so high that all the land becomes abstract patterns. It's only a few thousand feet up where you can see large-scale land deformations for what they really are. Quarries, suburbs, coal mines. You can grasp them from that sweet spot in the air.

Obviously, I'm a convert. I'll also note that I think James Fallows is the very best at the 2,000-foot view in his journalism. His ability to work real detail into big perspective pieces is unparalleled. "Why the Future of Clean Energy Is Dirty Coal" is no different. While tackling the most global of issues, Fallows shows the texture of Chinese-American cooperation between researchers. At a time when a political climate compromise -- or any coordinated global environmental effort -- seems to be receding into the future, it's heartening to know serious researchers haven't given up.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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