Black as Coal

Western Pennsylvania, on my drive home the next day, had its own sign story. The pro-coal billboards were especially thick along I-70, coming into the state from the West Virginia–there seemed to be as many promoting coal as there were for car dealers or hospital heart centers. Just as God and Patriotism had been linked to the entire state of Indiana, I was now in “coal country” or so the signs were having me believe. A photograph of the glowing nighttime skyline of Pittsburgh was interrupted in one corner by an image of several dirty, determined-looking (white, male) underground coal miners, and a statement about jobs–even though thankfully very little coal is produced that way any more. Another billboard shows Pennsylvania coal on one half juxtaposed with an oil well looking suspiciously like it was photoshopped onto a sand dune on the other–as if coal were somehow a replacement for oil, and of course presenting a false dichotomy of choices even if it were. In addition to the ubiquitous lie that coal is somehow “green”, this one made the claim that is also red, white, and blue.

I was trying, as I drove, to think of how one might counteract this propaganda of the roadside. The overwhelming blitz of signage led me to imagine a single billboard asking why the the coal companies felt the need to shout about how wonderful and vital and green coal is quite so loudly. I was also considering just saying that the idea that coal is in any way green is the utter opposite of the truth, even beyond a lie–when new billboard stopped me in my tracks. “It’s a Lie”–in huge letters over an image of a spinning globe with the continents glowing in red, followed by “human-caused climate change”. Nothing more–while the pro-coal billboards had either been either openly claimed by one of the energy companies, or by a fiction such as “”, there was no attribution on this one at all. No facts to argue with, no organization to complain to–the culmination of the oversized Orwellian propagandist lie.

I stopped thinking about countering, and began instead to speculate just how hard it would be to fill a hollowed-out egg with paint, and how high I might be able to throw one–or whether if a hole were drilled in the steel column that supported the sign, and the inside packed with salt, rust might eventually bring the thing crashing down. No, no. That would take too long, I’m sure.

(Note: I wrote this more than a year ago. Since then, the pro-coal billboards are still there, but are now sharing space with an even larger number of pro-fracked gas billboards plying the same themes of community and security. Oh, for the days when all we had to look at were giant photos of odd-looking of insurance agents with reassuring smiles, or overly enthusiastic car dealers with bad hair…)


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