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  • The Legacy of Extraction: Reading Patterns and Ethics in Pennsylvania’s Landscape of Energy
  • Brian Black (bio) and Marcy Ladson (bio)

We are used to seeing propeller blades spin, whether they are attached to the chassis of a helicopter or an airplane. Nevertheless, it is unnerving today to see the ridges of Pennsylvania’s Allegheny Mountains lined with some of the largest propellers humans have ever constructed: Will they be strong enough to lift the long, slight, tree-covered ridges? Is that the intention? Of course not. But the history lessons embodied in Pennsylvania’s energy landscapes are not lost on the people who live and work there. For the past 150 years, ground zero for Americans’ harvest and management of energy resources has been the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

The extraction of coal, oil, and natural gas has been a source of power and wealth, but also unintended consequences that have undermined the previously unquestioned faith in technological progress. An important role for historians—and particularly environmental historians—is to find the critical common theme to this story of humans’ most integral relationship with the natural environment, to mine the story for its important lessons about the past that will surely inform the nation’s energy future. In the case of each energy source, the intellectual patterns [End Page 377] that governed past choices do not necessarily hold true today, which makes Pennsylvania’s story all the more interesting. In fact, upon closer inspection of these stories, we find that a clear ethic ties most energy landscapes together even as it gives a wide berth to others, such as the wind turbines topping many of the Commonwealth’s broad ridges.1

In its use by humans in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, energy harvest has taken many forms, beginning with the use of fire and the agricultural revolution. Industrialization changed everything for the Commonwealth. By the second half of the nineteenth century petroleum had become America’s fuel of choice—minerals that could be extracted from the earth and burned to generate power and profits. No longer treated as an obstacle, the mountains of Pennsylvania were now viewed as a great vault for carbon. Acquiring these fuel resources in sufficient quantities took time and required a complete reorganization of human activities and living patterns. This shift toward industrialization represents one of the great technological undertakings of human history. Although remarkable innovations converted inanimate energy into products of all types, at the most basic level industrialization was constructed on a foundation of shifting priorities and ethics. In addition to the remarkable social and commercial accomplishments of this era, the transformation of the Appalachians in Pennsylvania into the nation’s greatest energy landscape also came with significant residual costs attached.2 This article explores this energy landscape as one of the clearest expressions of a specific American environmental ethic: extraction.

The reality, of course, is that extractive energy resources are neither sustainable nor renewable. As the choices of the industrial era expanded to shape an overall pattern of resource use, their product—extraction—became the common approach that overwhelmed many other considerations, including human health and ecological sustainability. Although this approach to resource harvest appears throughout the United States wherever energy resources are found, there can be no doubt that Pennsylvania has a unique role to play in defining the history of extraction. In short, development through extraction comes with clear costs and the Commonwealth has shown a clear willingness—even a propensity—to tolerate those costs.

Unstated but clearly apparent, energy landscapes are a product of choices by a society. Over generations, Pennsylvania’s economy has been supported by the decision to harvest energy resources. But all land use is not created equal. Similar to a biologist, environmental historians must study human society in order to see the larger patterns and systems at work around us. [End Page 378] Energy systems are one of the most critical spheres with which humans interact with the natural world. During the industrial era, the human relationship with energy became expansive. Prior to this era, virtually all energy was renewable—a recurring, inexhaustible power source. In many cases, these sources of energy were transformed into relatively complex...


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pp. 377-394
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