Cottage Country and the Dynamo

“Dynamo” is an old-timey term for a device that generates electricity, such as the coal-fired electric generating station in the Port Sheldon-West Olive area on Lake Michigan, between Holland and Grand Haven.

There are a lot of cottages, grander summer homes, tourist venues, boat launches, and beaches in the area, many a walking distance from the “dynamo.” The plant is scheduled to be shut down in 2025, and Consumers Energy shifts to environmentally friendlier facilities. There are large ponds where the plant put coal ash. That ash in such storage ponds, of course, has the potential to leak into the water table. The Sierra Club found evidence of contaminated water in a few nearby homes (though it’s not clear that the plant is the source of the contaminated water. And CE has been replacing ponds with concrete tanks.

Nonetheless, it’s jarring to see beautiful coast scenes so close to a large industrial power plant. Nature meets the modern dynamo. Natural environment meets the human-built environment. The source of modern power is paid for with entropy.

The plant itself–also, “of course”–has a grandeur in its own right. I remember visiting one in high school, while on a geography course day-long field trip. The scale is perhaps even more impressive inside a power plant, as you see all of the technical machinery that makes the dynamo go.

The part of me that is a purist, who loves nature, loves it untrammeled, and in conscious of the rights of nature and need for dramatic change to deal with climate change . . . also loves the toys, luxuries, and necessities of my life that are powered by dynamos like this one. And I’m in awe, in a horrified, enthralled way by such machines.

Marx captures this sense in his horrified, enthralled description of the earth-transforming power of the bourgeoisie in capitalist-industrial societies:

“The bourgeoisie . . . has been the first to show what man’s activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades.”

“Modern bourgeois society, with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.”

To put it more colloquially, modern humanity has caught a tiger by the tail. If that sounds moralistic, I don’t mean it that way. I’ve caught the tiger by the tail. Or rather, I’m not sure whether we have the tiger, or it has us. Also, I can’t but find something fascinating, even beautiful in the Port Sheldon dynamo. “Power plant” doesn’t do it justice. It’s a dynamo.

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