The Explosion: Human canaries in America’s mines


On the day of the explosion
Shadows pointed towards the pithead:
In the sun the slagheap slept. 

Down the lane came men in pitboots
Coughing oath-edged talk and pipe-smoke,
Shouldering off the freshened silence…

Corporate capitalism is a system in which individual companies attempt to maximize shareholder returns by internalizing profits and externalizing costs.

Over the decades, as corporate capitalism has devolved, the last vestiges of Judeo-Christian morality melting away from boardrooms and executive suites like snow beneath a mountain laurel in April, the imbalance between these two sides of the equation – internalized profits, externatized costs – has grown to monstrous proportions.

Whatever the specific details of the disaster that has now claimed a confirmed 25 dead miners, a figure likely to rise soon to 29, at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia; whatever the number of Mine Safety and Health Administrations citations the Massey Energy Co. ignored, flouted, or blew off during the past year or past decade, the explosion at UBB offers a grisly measure of the costs that American corporations, especially those in resource extraction, now habitually externalize to the world-at-large. Until we get that straight – and take radical steps to redress that imbalance – we can talk all we want about regulation and enforcement and nothing will change. Things will simply go on getting worse.

Of course it is specifically this notion — we have the duty and the right as a society to redress this imbalance, either through regulation or the outright nationalization of resources that rightfully belong to the commonweal  — that the ignorant among us, steeped in the false consciousness that is the only commodity produced efficiently by American corporate capitalism, mean when they rail against “socialism” or “communism” or, even more fancifully, “fascism.”

But, lest I let myself off the hook too easily, I need to point out that it’s not just the Tea Partiers or demagogues like Sarah Palin — or Barak Obama with his facile lies about “Clean Coal” — who are at fault here. Everyone living in this country is complicit in the deaths that occurred this week at the Upper Big Branch, as we are for the more than 4,000 miners who have been killed in American mines over the past century, as we are for the escalating rates of asthma and chronic bronchitis and emphysema and COPD we have witnessed over the past few decades: disorders that are to a significant degree caused by our country’s reliance on coal to fuel the nation’s power plants. I’m sorry to have to keep on quoting him on this site, but in the words of Dostoyevsky, “Only a few are guilty; all are responsible.” 

For we have all been the beneficiaries of the “cheap” prices we get to pay for our utilities because the real long-term costs have been deferred – to a future time, to other places, almost invariably inhabited by the poor and the powerless. The miners killed Tuesday have paid the true and horrific price for treating the Earth and those who live on it as nothing more than expendable commodities, with no value beyond what they can fetch at market.

Not long ago, I moderated a panel discussion at, of all places, the University Club. The topic was “Can American Capitalism Survive?”  The far more urgent question is whether we – and not just us here in the U.S., but human beings around the globe – can survive American capitalism.

The workers killed in this week’s blast provide the stark answer to that question. They were, to our national shame, the canaries in the mine of our rapacious, uncontrollably destructive capitalist system. A system to which we seem fatally addicted. If we don’t do something about it, it will gets us all in the end. Indeed — is getting us all already.


One chased after rabbits; lost them;
Came back with a nest of lark’s eggs;
Showed them; lodged them in the grasses. 

So they passed in beards and moleskins,
Fathers, brothers, nicknames, laughter,
Through the tall gates standing open. 

At noon, there came a tremor; cows
Stopped chewing for a second; sun,
Scarfed as in a heat-haze, dimmed.

The dead go on before us, they
Are sitting in God’s house in comfort,
We shall see them face to face –

Plain as lettering in the chapels
It was said, and for a second
Wives saw men of the explosion

Larger than in life they managed –
Gold as on a coin, or walking
Somehow from the sun towards them,

One showing the eggs unbroken.”

 — Philip Larkin, “The Explosion”