Monday, May 18, 2015

We Work the Black Seam

Review: Coal, A Human History by Barbara Freese


In the summer of 1306, bishops and barons and knights from all around England left their country manors and villages and journeyed to London. They came to participate in that still-novel democratic experiment known as Parliament, but once in the city, they were distracted from their work by an obnoxious odor. 

These nobles were used to the usual stenches of medieval towns—the animal dung, the unsewered waste, and the rotting garbage lining the streets. What disgusted them about London was something new in the air: the unfamiliar and acrid smell of burning coal.

Freese’s Coal attempts to tell the “story of coal” and how its use has fueled progress and pollution at the same time. Freese has marshaled a number of intriguing facts to illustrate her story, but many of her more blatant claims are unsupported in her text. The result is a fascinating look at a mineral and an industry, seen through a window fouled with more than coal residue.


The booming coal industry was a leader in the brutal treatment of children [in 1834], and the steam engine just seems to have increased the ways children could be exploited.

History, opinion and sermon are inextricably intermingled, but Freese’s treatise is still fascinating, more so in those sections of the book where history is given emphasis. She covers the pre-fuel use of coal by Roman jewelers, and details the ways in which coal fueled the Industrial Revolution and the age of industry. Her description of the early American settlers and their dread (and conquest) of the vast forest and vaster coal fields they found in the new world is another strong note.

The author explores some of the ways in which the world (or the industry) might be able to remediate the problems of using coal, but then shoots each one down. In this, she uses the same technique as in her social commentary on Industrial Age Britain: state an opinion flatly, then use the statement as a fact:

Since the dawn of the industrial revolution, we’ve burned enough fossil fuels to increase the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by about one-third, already bringing it to a level probably not seen in the last several million years… That is why environmentalists, regulators, and the coal industry all tend to see efforts to prevent climate change as the beginning of the end for coal.

Freese does not restrict her view to the use of coal in the Western world, but concludes with a look at coal-burning Third World societies. In this, she is honest enough to do what many who promote the Kyoto Accord do not: address the fact that China still is largely fueled by coal, that the country’s growth and industrialization would not have been possible without its use, and that as long as China is not a signatory, there is little point in the US signing the accords.

Whether you agree with Freese’s contentions or not, the book is still a fascinating and thoroughly-researched look at a very dirty topic. I enjoyed it.