Mined in China

by Orville Schell

Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas and I have long wanted to work on a collaborative project together. We set out to document the story of coal as seen through the eyes of Chinese documentary photographers. We hope that these photographs

The fourteen photographers featured in the multi-screened, multi-media presentation Mined in China, on view at Houston Center for Photography during FOTOFEST2008, have ranged all over their country to provide a portal into an aspect of China that has been fundamental to its dynamic economic development and will remain crucial in its future, namely, coal mining. The images follow China's evolutionary course from the 1950s - when, flushed with revolutionary zeal, miners were idealized as "model workers" and proletarian heroes in Mao's revolution - to the present, when they have largely faded from view to become bit characters in the drama of their nation's industrialization.

This is just the back story. My interest in coal came about as something of an accident. While visiting China some months ago, I found myself gazing out on Beijing's impressive skyline and suddenly realizing that I had seen neither the sun nor the sky in over a week. At first, I wondered if this were caused by inclement weather. The reality, however, was that the penumbra of smog hanging so persistently over so many Chinese cities is man-made, caused by emissions from coaled-fired factories and power plants and the rapidly growing number of vehicles.

One tends to assume that escape from the city will bring relief. So one morning I set off in a van with my Chinese-born wife, our two sons, and a close friend, on a vacation expedition across North China's Shanxi Province to visit some Buddhist temples, grottoes and an ancient walled town.

Even though I knew that Shanxi was coal country, we were unprepared for what we found. I had forgotten that some 70% of China's energy comes from burning coal. China now uses more coal each year than the U.S., the E.U., and Japan combined - the annual increase in production each year has been over 15%, and a new coal-fired power plant goes on line somewhere in China every 5-7 days.

Even after we gained the countryside beyond the Great Wall, the sun and sky remained obscured. In fact, during the whole thousand-mile trip, they never became visible, leaving the Shanxi landscape looking as if it had been photographed without focus in black and white.

The roads were an endless crawl of large, battered and overloaded coal trucks, grinding sluggishly up hills and then hurtling down into the valleys. The roadsides were relieved by occlusions of tin shacks and one-story brick lean to-like structures occupied by greasy truck mechanics and tire repair shops, sooty outdoor restaurants, and truck stops where drivers could get a quick and inexpensive meal, a short nap and maybe a local woman. Their earthen parking areas were drenched in waste motor oil, hydraulic fluid, solvents and God knows what other toxic petroleum byproducts. Living trees were few, but everywhere were wrecked vehicles, piles of fly ash and rubble, and - of course - mountains of coal from the thousands of state-owned and privately-run mines, many of them primitive, dangerous, illegal, and run with some of the most appalling work conditions in the world today. And then, farther back from the roads, were the voracious industrial users of coal: huge power plants belching clouds of bituminous, brown smoke into the exhausted air; and cement factories with great plumes of white dust billowing up from the piles fly ash from the brick kilns like snow from the face of Mt. Everest.
As we drove toward Taiyuan and Datong, two of the most polluted cities in the world (China has sixteen of the world's top twenty contenders for this dubious honor, and four of the top ten are located in Shanxi Province), we crossed rivers - or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, riverbeds - because, with rare exception, they were all bone-dry. North China has admittedly been experiencing a severe drought these past few years, but the destruction of China's rivers is not caused by drought alone. Uncontrolled construction of dams and overuse by riparian water for irrigation and industry have dried up hundreds of rivers in North China, or left them trickling with little more than industrial effluent and human sewage.

If one travels to China by plane, it is easy to assume that one has perhaps just arrived on a bad day and to dismiss despoiled land as something of an exception to the rule. But, after one has driven hundreds of miles from city to city, it becomes inescapably clear that China is, largely because of coal, on the precipice of an environmental disaster the likes of which our world is unacquainted.

The enormous cost that China pays for its reliance on coal is not reflected in its extraordinary 10-11% annual growth rate that has pulled tens of millions out of poverty and turned China into one of the world's most impressive economic powerhouses. It is, however, abundantly clear for anyone who cares to take notice of the country's air, polluted with sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and mercury emissions that cause an estimated half a million premature deaths each year. "The conflict between environment and development is becoming ever more prominent," a report from the State Council (China's Cabinet) recently warned. "The relative shortage of resources, fragile ecology, and insufficient environmental capacity are becoming critical problems hindering China's development."

Nowhere is this contradiction more evident than in coal country.

As Zhu Guangyao, Deputy Chief of the State Environmental protection Administration recently put it, China's environmental situation is worsening and "allows for no optimism."

And so, it was during the course of this dispiriting trip that I came to believe that in order to understand what is happening China, one must grasp one the importance of coal: where it comes from, how it is mined, how it is transported and then burned. For, if coal has been responsible for much of China's enormous success, it is also coming to be responsible for more and more of its most grievous failures.

Mined in China is on view at HCP from March 8 - April 20, 2008.