There used to be a prophetic sign near the St. Ignatius Church Cemetery in Centralia, Pennsylvania. It was painted with flames and read “Centralia Mine Fire is Our Future.”
The sign was there from the mid-1980s all the way up through the 2000s in various incarnations and repaintings. It finally succumbed to the elements and disintegrated. It’s nowhere to be found in what remains of the town today.
For Centralia PA the mine fire was, indeed, its future. The town fought but ultimately lost the battle to preserve itself. The residents were bought out by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and moved away – expect of course for the few stalwarts who remain today.
What’s most unusual about the sign is that it states that the Centralia mine fire is our future. In choosing this word, it almost sounds like the mine fire will affect us all. If not taken literally, this could very well be true.
To read the story of Centralia Pennsylvania is to understand the frustrating weight of government bureaucracy, human shortsightedness, and organizational ineptitude.
Indeed, if the coal seam fire in Centralia PA had simply been extinguished when it began in 1962, the town would still be there today. However, a mind boggling series of events, bad luck, and stupidity prevented this from happening.
For years – actually decades – the problem of the mine fire grew. Alarms were sounded, yet little action was taken. While some of Centralia’s residents became sick from the mine fire gases, others denied the evidence and stuck their heads into the ground as if they were ostriches.
By the early 1980s, when the threat and danger of the fire could no longer be ignored, it was too late. The fire had grown to immense proportions. Extinguishing it, which could have once been done for a few hundred dollars, was now estimated to cost an astounding $660 million! The town was condemned and residents were forced to move.
There are many lessons for us to learn from the sad story of Centralia, Pennsylvania. Early action is critical when faced with potentially dire and threatening situations.
As a society, we see this today in the danger posed by carbon dioxide emissions and climate change. As with Centralia PA there are those who have sounded the alarm. There others who deny the threat and the evidence. And, there are still many more who would prefer to stick their heads into the ground. While the residents of Centralia could leave their town, how do we expect to escape planet Earth?
But it isn’t just climate change. In the midst of the global outbreak of Ebola, similar patterns of human behavior can be seen as well. There are those who have been warning for months that the virus possess a real and deadly danger to all countries, not just those in west Africa. Although, just like in Centralia Pennsylvania there are many more who have ignored the threat or have shrugged it off as unimportant.
Will it be too late for us, just as it was for Centralia? Could the Centralia mine fire be our future too?