Genre of the Week: Allentown by Billy Joel

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We all have been paying attention to the recent developments in the United States, especially when it comes to Donald Trump. Already he has destroyed generations-long ties with traditional neighbors, like Germany, France and the rest of Europe, plus countries in the Middle East minus Israel and Saudi Arabia and with China. He has declared to pull America out of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, which his predecessor Barack Obama had signed prior to leaving office in January. And to the dismay of even his fellow Americans both at home as well as abroad, he has stressed the importance of jobs over wasting money to help other poor countries fight a phenomenon, which he claims does not exist.

 

All of this for one sole purpose: clean coal!

 

While several actors, even within his own country, have declared that they will buck the trend of the president and follow the Paris protocol- with Hawaii having become the first state to sign the agreement, other states like Minnesota, New York, California and Washington set to follow even as an alliance, and even oil companies are going green with their approach to sustainable development, all directions are pointing towards an isolationist politician whose title is the President of the United States, but he is acting in the best interest of just the coal miners and those of the oil companies who are against Paris.

 

But why resort to coal, when so many arguments point towards phasing the energy source out in favor of renewable energies, such as fuel cells, wind, solar and hydroelectric? The energy is cheap, but residents and coal workers have to pay the price in terms of health. Generations of coal miners have been in the business and would like to remain there for the long term. However, the numbers are dwindling as mines close, miners get older and the job is not attractive at all.  Mining claims to be safe, but there are enough accidents to question that statement.

 

And the last claim that Trump has pointed out is that there are enough social and health benefits that will make the job an everlasting one. People can enter the field and stay there for life. And this song, entitled Allentown by Billy Joel, has several arguments debuking that claim.  Produced in 1982, the setting for the song is in Allentown, Pennsylvania, the heart of the coal and steel industry. There, the decline of the industry was taking shape after World War II, with mines and steel factories closing down, and workers suffering from the plight of unemployment and other social pathologies. By the early 1980s, over half of the factories and mines in Pennsylvania had been shut down and regions were forced to reinvent themselves. The trend would later be felt in Germany at the time of the Fall of the Berlin Wall, especially in the east, where the mining of brown coal, the dirtiest of coal devastated areas in Saxony including the Black Triangle region.

The lyrics behind this song has to do with the aftereffects of the closing down of the steel mills and mines. Listen to the song and ask yourself the following questions:

 

  1. Compare the war generation with the younger one. Which one had it better and why?

 

  1. Describe the life of a coal miner from the singer’s point of view. What is typical of them and the working conditions?

 

  1. When the people in Allentown are waiting for the Pennsylvania they never found, what was meant by that?

 

  1. Why is it hard for them to stay?

 

  1. In your opinion, despite Trump’s quest for reenergizing the coal industry, will it be successful in the end? Why or why not?

 

Supplemental question: Does your reason have to do with the decline in the industry and if so, why?

 

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William Martin Joel was born in 1949 and has had a singing career that has spanned over five decades. Billy Joel’s breakthrough came with Piano Man, produced in 1973. Since then, he has released 12 albums featuring both pop and classical music. Songs credited to his name include We didn’t start the fire, And so it goes, My life, Manhattan 2017, An innocent man, Leningrad, and Baby Grand (together with favorite idol, the late Ray Charles).  Allentown was one of several songs Billy Joel wrote which focuses on real themes affecting America, Russia and other parts of the world. That song received praise from the mayor of Allentown, and Joel therefore received royalities and other recognition.

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When the lights go out in Berlin: How the energy revolution is changing the way we think about energy consumption

December 2007: A few months after my grandma passed on, my aunt and uncle, who had inherited her house, went through all of her belongings to see what she had kept in the 60+ years she lived there. One of the amazing discoveries that was found during my stay there was the light bulb. It was no ordinary incandescent bulb, like what we are (still) seeing on store shelves, but a 50-watt bulb with a strange W-shaped filament. It was still working when we tried it and since then, it has been donated to the museum.

Things have changed since then. The traditional light bulbs, whether they are the beige incandescent or the yellowish orange sodium or even the emerald green mercury vapor, are becoming part of history, being replaced by the white energy saving fluorescent or the LED light on our streets and in our buildings. We’re seeing products that use less energy and we are starting to see a shift from the traditional coal, fossil fuel and nuclear energy  to the renewable types, like wind, water and even solar.

Going: The incandescent light bulb, as shown with the vintage bulb being placed in front of another running light bulb.
Going: The mercury vapor light bulb, which has been used for small scale projects, like driveways, small villages and even inside buildings. The first example is seen here at a home near Boone, Iowa. Photo taken in August 2011
Soon to be replaced: The sodium light bulb as presented along the streets of Lakefield, Minnesota. Photo taken in August 2011

And we are starting to see the lights go out on the streets of some towns.  Beginning in 2013, many energy and utility companies are jacking prices up in record rates; in Europe, by up to 20%, with Germany taking the lead with a projected energy price increase of 50%. And this for a country that has the most expensive energy pricing in all of Europe! There are many factors that contribute to this exorbitant energy rate that is awaiting us. One of them has to do with the German government’s plans of phasing out nuclear and fossil fuel energy altogether and being completely reliant on renewable energy, the plan that is set to be completed by 2021. Part of this has to do with the triple disaster at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima last year, where a combination of earthquake and tsunami resulted in the nuclear meltdown at the plant, the worst since Chernobyl in 1986. With that will come the need to close the gap between the need for energy and what will be available in the future- namely, renewable energy.

Luckily for the country, it has been ahead of the game in terms of energy saving technology and other methods. Apart from developing various forms of renewable energy plants, whether it is wave energy plants, windmill farms and solar panel fields, cities have developed pedestrian and bike zones in their business districts- the so-called Umweltzone- where only pedestrians and cyclists can roam around the city center.  It has energy efficient automobiles, and it even introduced the toll system on many autobahn motorways. And many cities have expanded or will be expanding their tram and bus lines to better serve the residents

Proliferation of windmills- everywhere! An example of measures to introduce renewable energy. Photo taken in August 2011
Example of an “Umweltzone”: A pedestrian zone in the city center of Flensburg, Germany known as Roterstrasse, connecting Nordertor Gate and Sudermarkt. Photo taken in May 2010

Yet with this unexpected hike in energy prices, one is asking himself if this mentality of saving energy is becoming too much of a burden. After all, Germany’s economic growth is slowing to a crawl and it may join the rest of the European Union in the latest economic recession by next year at the latest, and the prospects are not looking good for the next few years. With unemployment expected to increase, many households will not be able to afford to pay the high electric bills that will take up 10% of their income. For many communities struggling to stay afloat financially, many have started to shut off street lighting after only a few hours in the evening to save energy and money. With the increase in energy prices, it is most likely that these communities may do away with street lighting and sections of German cities will shorten the amount of time the street lamps will be on. Both variants are considered very dangerous given the dense population of people and cars that exist.

There is no quick fix to the problem, even though governmental officials have expressed concern about this trend. In fact the increase in energy prices should serve as a signal for things to come, both for Germany and Europe as well as the rest of the world, including the United States and Canada, which has one of the lowest energy rates per household in the world. With the increase in global temperatures and sporadic climate changes becoming more real as ever before, we must rethink the way we use the energy sources and consider options to save them before it is saved for us, but in the most gruesome way by mother nature, war and power failures.  While we have made advances in energy savings through products like light bulbs, we still use 80% of the world’s energy, exploit our resources to produce more energy and focus more on ourselves and not on other people and their necessities.  We need to proactively think about what we need and what the other one needs and do our part to save energy  and help the environment. The increase in energy prices because of the shift to renewable energies is the beginning of what is yet to come, which is the shifting from the waste mentality to the saving mentality. And if it does not ring a bell now, imagine what it would be like when all the lights go out forever due to the inability to pay our electric bills because of the way we waste electricity. And this is part of what will come our way for the next few years…..