(China’s Coal: Part 3)

There is an analogy that creeps around in the back of my mind. Walk through a Chinese market with carcasses hung across the stalls and there is little doubt that the Chinese know the source of their food. The same could be said for their energy—particularly in Shanxi. For many the coal that brings them electricity is mined from directly underneath the villages and towns of the countryside. Homes have piles of coal stacked along their front walls or stacked in courtyards.

One reporting day, a young man and his father prepare a meal of homemade noodles for lunch while I observe. The small brick stove in the kitchen has a tiny metal portal on the top. After placing a crude metal pot atop the stove, the father grabs a small shovel and scoops a chunk of shiny black coal — larger than a grapefruit — from a bin under the counter, then crams it through the portal. The fire brightens and lights his face. A storage room off the courtyard holds a pile waist high and some five feet deep. In the bedroom area, a second brick stove abuts a low platform used for the family’s bed. An intricate flue system from the stove runs underneath the platform to fend off the cold Shanxi winters. The coal that keeps them warm and cooks their meals had been several hundred feet below their village streets just a year ago.

Through the house, the lights are compact fluorescent bulbs. Considering that there is no running water, and the electric wiring strung along the walls had the distinct markings of improvisation, I ask whether the lights were provided by a government program. The young man says no. He bought them out of pocket to save on his electric bill. In the U.S. these energy efficient bulbs are the symbol of the ecofriendly consumer, touted as a way to put a dent in our electricity consumption — on a per capita basis, some 12 times that of the Chinese. (California is even considering banning traditional incandescent bulbs.) But in the Chinese countryside, where saving a buck or two actually means something, the bulbs are simply a good investment.

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Duane Moles

Duane Moles is a freelance journalist and a student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.