Mehernosh Khan: Our modern day Ahabs

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PITTSFIELD >> "Call me Ishmael."

Those three iconic words begin the saga of Ahab, captain of the whaling ship Pequod and his obsession with the white whale or Moby-Dick. On a recent trip to Pittsburgh over Thanksgiving week and between taking our respective maters to various physicians, I picked up "Moby-Dick" and actually read it cover to cover. Although the language is antediluvian at times (Melville was a great fan of Shakespeare), the action sequences could have been right out of Hollywood.

Think of Melville waking up in the morning at his humble farm, now named "Arrowhead," with a view of Mount Greylock and surrounded by fields and trees, writing about the open seas with such great erudition that the reader was readily transported onto the heaving oceans and the thrill and danger of the whale hunt.

Educational adventure

Reading it, I really got a feel for the economy of 18th century Massachusetts, driven by the need for spermaceti and whale oil to light up the dark nights of homes across the United States. But more impressive was the courage and sheer chutzpah of the whalers as they set out in wooden sailing ships to harvest the leviathans of the oceans. I feel that this should be required reading for every resident of the Cape Cod state and should indeed be celebrated as a great work of American literature.

And serendipitously, it was the discovery of oil in Pennsylvania that was the death knell of this industry as lamp oil and kerosene became a readily available by product of petroleum. Although my research is spotty, this may have actually saved the whale population (think of the great herds of buffalo that once roamed the plains) from extinction.

This discovery made the fortunes of the Rockefellers and their ilk and then there was the discovery of great veins of coal. And the coal and steel barons like the Scaifes, the Mellons and the Carnegies thrived and got immensely wealthy with that discovery so that the smoke of the steel mills that used that plentiful coal made the streetlights of Pittsburgh come on at noon as the population slowly choked (and died) on the smog and particulate matter.

Even today in some small towns in Pennsylvania, there are coal fires smoldering underground (who needs central heating!). And when you purchase a house in Pennsylvania you actually have to get something called "Mine Subsidence Insurance" in case your property/house is over a defunct coal mine and could actually lose a few feet of height overnight, if you get my drift.

Starting in the late '90s, Pittsburgh actually cleaned up its act as the smoke-spewing steel mills shut down; they were no longer profitable. And then to add environmental insult to an already injured ecosphere, there was the discovery of shale gas almost under the entire state. And like the whale hunters of the Atlantic, the Ahabs of corporations sailed in to exploit this resource and damn the consequences. And with the full support and blessings of the politicians whose election campaigns were "fueled" by the gas and petroleum conglomerates.

Whale oil to shale gas

Which really brings me to the chief purpose of this op-ed piece. There is a statewide battle underway between those who would propose an environmentally destructive pipeline and compressor stations across Massachusetts and a concerned citizenry who question the need to transport shale gas from Pennsylvania to a terminal so that we can produce electricity cheaply when we have not fully explored renewable options.

I am sure that Pennsylvania will be eventually a poster child for what can go wrong with the environment when natural resources are exploited rapaciously and without check and balances — the creation of a great statewide Superfund site! It is my sincere hope that our state legislators can learn from this and make the right decisions for future generations! We still have a chance to make choices that our grandchildren will be proud of.

And in that same vein, wishing you clean air, water and healthy food for the holy days!

Dr. Mehernosh Khan is a Pittsfield-based physician. He and his wife Karen came to the Berkshires from Pennsylvania.


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