North America, of course, pays only part of the global price of power. In China, where the coal-mining industry employs about three million people, thousands of miners—many migrant workers, willing to risk their lives for a steady job—die in mine floods, fires, cave-ins, and explosions every year. Despite a recent government crackdown on lax safety practices, the tragedies continue. Respiratory diseases are rampant in China's coal belt, and acid rain, the result of coal combustion, eats away at the country's farmland and forests. Bleaker still is the oil-rich Niger Delta of Nigeria, where oil spills, acid rain, and frenzied canal and pipeline construction have decimated one of the world's largest wetlands. Instead of bringing prosperity, the country's oil boom has delivered political corruption and crushing poverty.
Despite the destruction and suffering they cause, fossil-fuel booms continue apace, in part because they feed the worldwide hunger for energy—and in part because they offer their neighbors an irresistible devil's bargain. To many small, isolated towns, industry brings tempting perks: Thanks to gas-company taxes, public-school students in the tiny town of Pinedale, Wyoming, enjoy a $20-million recreation center and classrooms outfitted with high-tech tools. The western Colorado town of Rifle, another beneficiary of the Rocky Mountain natural-gas boom, has a new community college campus built with gas-company donations.
Jobs in mines or on drill rigs, while risky, are lucrative, sometimes the best living available to those without university degrees. And many energy-industry workers in the Rockies, the Appalachians, and elsewhere in the world take complicated pride in doing a dangerous job well, in carrying on a family or community tradition, and in providing an essential commodity to fellow citizens. Change is often viewed not as a savior but as a threat.
But change is afoot, and some of it offers a kinder bargain. Under a new Colorado law, the state's major utilities must buy 20 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2020. Wind turbines and solar panels are rising on Colorado farm- and ranchland, and some blue-collar jobs are acquiring a green tinge. In my town, on the edge of the gas patch, the old middle school still hosts safety training for coal miners. But less than a mile away, at a new campus of the nonprofit Solar Energy International, renewable-energy experts are showing building contractors, electricians, and the occasional retired oil and gas worker how to cash in on a new sort of energy boom. Geology remains destiny, but not for long.