Spoiler alert: The documentary Burning the Future: Coal in America has an inspiring ending. The film’s heroine, Maria Gunnoe, wins the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for her work to end mountaintop removal coal mining. The Obama administration starts to become much more vigilant than its predecessor in scrutinizing, and at times halting, the wantonly destructive practice. Massey Energy, the longtime nemesis of environmentalists, gets bought out. And one of the main battles covered by the film — the effort to re-locate Marsh Fork Elementary School away from a massive coal sludge impoundment lake — has been a success.
Now, none of this is covered in the film itself, which is airing on PBS over the next couple of weeks to mark Earth Day and is available for free for a limited time at www.BurningtheFuture.com. All of those positive developments have occurred since 2008, when the film was released. This is one of the treats of watching a four-year-old documentary: Events have overtaken some of the problems detailed by the filmmakers. The film did its job well, helping to ignite grassroots opposition to mountaintop removal coal mining and to put the coal industry on the defensive.
Which is not to say that mountaintop removal is no longer a threat to public health, clean water, or biodiversity. Coal still accounts for nearly half of our electricity generation and much of it comes from Appalachia. Mining companies are still blowing the tops off of mountains to get at the coal seams below. And the mining industry is greedily eyeing markets in East Asia and planning to build coal export terminals on the West Coast. The battle against King Coal is as heated as ever.
But what a difference four years makes. A combination of grassroots opposition, legal maneuverings, and shifts in the energy market have led to the cancellation of more than 160 coal-fired power plants across the country. The Obama administration recently put in place strict new rules for future coal plants that will serve as a disincentive for building new ones. The coal industry is headed for the sunset.
Burning the Future has played an important role in this progress. Think of it as the Gasland for the anti-coal movement — a film that through its emotionally deft storytelling helped to galvanize people to action.
So if you’re looking for a way to mark Earth Day that’s uncluttered by corporate co-optation, take some time to watch this film. The topic might seem like a downer, but I promise it will be a pick-me-up. Just remember how much has changed since this movie was produced, and think of its story as the prelude to some important victories.