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Coal: A Human History

Coal: A Human History

4.1 9
by Barbara Freese

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The fascinating, often surprising story of how a simple black rock has altered the course of history.

Prized as "the best stone in Britain" by Roman invaders who carved jewelry out of it, coal has transformed societies, powered navies, fueled economies, and expanded frontiers. It made China a twelfth-century superpower, inspired the writing of the Communist


The fascinating, often surprising story of how a simple black rock has altered the course of history.

Prized as "the best stone in Britain" by Roman invaders who carved jewelry out of it, coal has transformed societies, powered navies, fueled economies, and expanded frontiers. It made China a twelfth-century superpower, inspired the writing of the Communist Manifesto, and helped the northern states win the American Civil War. Yet the mundane mineral that built our global economy—and even today powers our electrical plants—has also caused death, disease, and environmental destruction. As early as 1306, King Edward I tried to ban coal (unsuccessfully) because its smoke became so obnoxious. Its recent identification as a primary cause of global warming has made it a cause célèbre of a new kind.

In this remarkable book, Barbara Freese takes us on a rich historical journey that begins three hundred million years ago and spans the globe. From the "Great Stinking Fogs" of London to the rat-infested coal mines of Pennsylvania, from the impoverished slums of Manchester to the toxic city streets of Beijing, Coal is a captivating narrative about an ordinary substance that has done extraordinary things—a simple black rock that could well determine our fate as a species.

Author Biography: An Assistant Attorney General of Minnesota for more than twelve years, Barbara Freese not only helped enforce her state's environmental laws but also became fascinated by the very substance causing the worst pollution. She lives in St. Paul.

Editorial Reviews

Desert News
An interesting and revealing book on the history of coal as it affects human lives.
The New Yorker
As the hunt for alternative fuels intensifies, the world finds itself looking to the past to secure the future. Barbara Freese's Coal: A Human History offers an unflinching history of life in the mines: "Sometimes I sing when I've light, but not in the dark," an eight-year-old mineworker told a parliamentary commission on child labor in the eighteen-forties. During a visit to Manchester, Alexis de Tocqueville found that sulfurous smoke reduced the sun to a flattened "disc without rays." But in the industrial revolution, coal was also seen as "our species' salvation." It still provides more than half of the electricity in the United States, and, according to some estimates, ninety new coal-fired power plants are in planning stages.

Bituminous veins in Appalachia may have fed industry, but strip mining has also caused erosion, stream pollution, and mud slides. In 1945, the governor of Ohio, Frank Lausche, called the practice "sheer butchery." To Save The Land and People, by Chad Montrie, chronicles resistance to surface mining in Appalachia, as companies left behind gutted communities that were no more than "rural slums."

The average American mining town lost between twenty-five and fifty per cent of its population after the Second World War, Ed Dougert notes in The Black Land. His photographic essay on Pennsylvania's anthracite region collects scenes from the scarred country: a shack built of Hercules gunpowder crates, spindly white trees stitched into a blackened hillside. In an empty park, a valentine-shaped sign with "We Love Centralia" hangs on a tree. Centralia's residents had to evacuate their town in 1980, fleeing a coal fire that had burned for twenty years and, even now, is expected to continue for fifty more.

(Lauren Porcaro)
New Scientist
An absorbing book that never loses its grip. Barbara Freese is a splendid writer...fascinating.
Minneapolis Star Tribune
[Freese] enlivens her meticulously researched history with anecdotes and surprising facts...[she] is a strong story teller who captivates with detail.
Publishers Weekly
Coal has been both lauded for its efficiency as a heating fuel and maligned for the lung-wrenching black smoke it gives off. In her first book, Freese, an assistant attorney general of Minnesota (where she helps enforce environmental laws), offers an exquisite chronicle of the rise and fall of this bituminous black mineral. Both the Romans and the Chinese used coal ornamentally long before they discovered its flammable properties. Once its use as a heating source was discovered in early Roman Britain, coal replaced wood as Britain's primary energy source. The jet-black mineral spurred the Industrial Revolution and inspired the invention of the steam engine and the railway. Freese narrates the discovery of coal in the colonies, the development of the first U.S. coal town, Pittsburgh, and the history of coal in China. Despite its allure as a cheap and warm energy source, coal carries a high environmental cost. Burning it produces sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide in such quantities that, during the Clinton administration, the EPA targeted coal-burning power plants as the single worst air polluters. Using EPA studies, Freese shows that coal emissions kill about 30,000 people a year, causing nearly as many deaths as traffic accidents and more than homicides and AIDS. The author contends that alternate energy sources must be found to ensure a healthier environment for future generations. Part history and part environmental argument, Freese's elegant book teaches an important lesson about the interdependence of humans and their natural environment both for good and ill throughout history. (Feb.) Forecast: General science readers as well as those interested in the environment will seek this out, informed about it by a four-city author tour and a 20-market radio satellite tour. Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Coal has been used for decorative, heating, and manufacturing purposes since prehistoric times. This is the story of the role played by this energy source in the human history of English and American life. Coal's importance to medieval manufacturing guilds, as a source of energy for the Industrial Revolution, as a longstanding source of urban blight, and as a politically divisive, potentially life-destroying pollutant are discussed in detail. Less attention is given to technical achievements such as the critical interaction between coal and iron needed for smelting and high-grade steel production. Prehistoric (pre-Roman) and, except for China, non-Western cultures are omitted. Those looking for a more global work about coal itself should look elsewhere. While much more limited in scope than the title suggests, this book is an amusing example of "lite" nonfiction. Shelly Frasier gives a competent reading, and the author's writing style is admirably suited to the audio format. Recommended for larger public and moderate to large academic libraries.-I. Pour-El, Des Moines Area Community Coll., Boone, IA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The history of coal, that unglamorous substance that environmental attorney Freese manages to buff until it shines like its distant cousin the diamond.

Coal’s heat-giving qualities weren’t what first attracted people to it, explains Freese, but jet--a type of hard, shiny coal--was prized for use as ornamentation. It wasn’t long, though, before coal became known as the genie bearing the gift of warmth and power, with all kinds of strings attached. Freese concentrates her story on the evolution of coal in Great Britain, the US, and China. It was used in what became Wales during the Bronze Age to cremate the dead and in Stone Age China as jewelry, but its world-changing properties weren’t tapped until later, when it warmed the hearth and drove the engine of industry. Freese’s writing is a bit like coal--smooth and glinting, burning with a steady warmth--though with none of its downsides, for coal also contributed to miserable air quality, black-lung disease, scarred landscapes, and outrageous working conditions, along with "social and economic policies that tolerated and exacerbated the suffering" that gave rise to both the Molly Maguires and the Pinkerton Agency as well as a whole distinct class of "social outcasts who faced astonishing dangers in providing an increasingly vital commodity." Freese gives ample space to coal’s polluting nature (as Assistant Attorney General of Minnesota, she became involved in investigating its effects both within and outside the state), the consequences it wrought on London and continues to heap on China, as well as its role in acid rain, smog, disease, global warming, and possible influence on natural climatic jolts, all the while keeping the storylively with a wealth of fascinating coal-related oddments.

It’s dirty, it’s cheap, and its past--in Freese’s hands--makes for an intriguing, cautionary tale. (Photo insert)

From the Publisher

A New York Times Notable Book

“An absorbing book that never loses its grip. Barbara Freese is a splendid writer and takes the coal of the whole world into her compass.” —New Scientist

“A magnificent and plaintive ballad to the black stone that radically altered the path our lives have taken.” —Providence Journal

“Freese makes her points convincingly and eloquently.... Freese paints a fascinatingly wide swath.” —Philadelphia Inquirer

“A thoroughly absorbing history.” —Boston Herald

“An engrossing account of the comparatively cheap, usually dirty fuel that supported the Industrial Revolution, inspired the building of canals and railroads to move it, and once made London and Pittsburgh famous for their air.” —New York Times

“Freese's passion for coal is born out of her work.... Freese's book is as much about the growing scientific evidence of the damage coal causes to the environment as it is about the social history of the Industrial Revolution.” —Financial Times

“Freese has a deft style and a knack for explanatory metaphors. And she enlivens her meticulously researched history with anecdotes and surprising facts.... Above all, Freese is a strong storyteller who captivates with detail.” —Minneapolis Star-Tribune

Product Details

Basic Books
Publication date:
Edition description:
New Edition
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5.56(w) x 7.68(h) x 1.06(d)

Read an Excerpt




Copyright © 2003 Barbara Freese
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0738204005

Chapter One

A Portable Climate

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. Recently, blacksmiths and other artisans had begun burning these sooty black rocks for fuel instead of wood, filling the city streets with pungent smoke. The nobles soon led popular demonstrations against the new fuel, and King Edward I promptly banned its use. The ban was largely ignored, so new laws were passed to punish first offenders with "great fines and ransoms." Second offenders were to have their furnaces smashed.

Had the coal ban held up in the centuries that followed, human history would have been radically different. As it happened, though, in the late 1500s the English faced an energy crisis when their population rose and their forestsdwindled. They learned to tolerate what had been intolerable, becoming the first western nation to mine and burn coal on a large scale. In so doing, they filled London and other English cities with some of the nastiest urban air the world had yet seen. They also went on to spark a coal-fired industrial revolution that would transform the planet. The industrial age emerged literally in a haze of coal smoke, and in that smoke we can read much of the history of the modern world. And because coal's impact is far from over, we can also catch a disturbing glimpse of our future.

Coal is a commodity utterly lacking in glamour. It is dirty, old-fashioned, domestic, and cheap. Coal suffers particularly when compared to its more dazzling and worldly cousin, oil, which conjures up dramatic images of risk takers, jet-setters, and international conspiracies. Oil has always given us fabulously wealthy celebrities to love or hate, from the Rockefellers to the sheiks of the Middle East. "Striking oil" has become a metaphor for sudden, fantastic wealth-riches derived not from hard work but from incredible luck.

Coal does not make us think of the rich, but of the poor. It evokes bleak images of soot-covered coal miners trudging from the mines, supporting their desperately poor families in grim little company towns. Long past the time when it was actually part of our daily lives, coal is still considered mundane. Earlier generations' familiarity with coal bred contempt for it; and though the familiarity has faded, the contempt lingers. Even today, children may have heard the warning that if they are bad, they will find nothing but a lump of coal in their Christmas stockings. They may never have seen coal, may not even know what it is, but they know that a lump of it (indeed, a lump of anything) is not something they want. Where oil is seen as a symbol of luck, coal is seen as a symbol of disappointment.

It's easy, though, to imagine another culture-one with a greater appreciation of the past, and particularly of the ancient past-where coal's reputation would be quite different. In that culture, the lowly lump of coal would be revered as the fossil that it is. Before mammals appeared, before the dinosaurs evolved, before the continents glided and crashed into their current positions, that lump was alive. It was part of an enormous swampy forest of bizarre trees and gigantic ferns-"monsters of the vegetable world," as one nineteenth-century writer described them-that are no longer found on earth except for some that survive in greatly shrunken form. Most coal beds were part of the first great wave of plant life to leave the oceans and colonize the land, paving the way for animals to do the same and sheltering them as they took important evolutionary steps. In other words, coal is the highly concentrated vestige of extinct life forms that once dominated the planet, life forms that were themselves a critical link in the chain of environmental changes that made the emergence of advanced life possible. If coal were not so plentiful, one could imagine it lovingly displayed in museums, placed next to the (generally much younger) dinosaur bones, rather than being burned by the trainload.

Even more fascinating than what went into coal, though, is what has come out of it: enough energy to change the world profoundly. For billions of years, almost every life form on earth depended for its existence on energy fresh from the sun, on the "solar income" arriving daily from outer space or temporarily stored in living things. Like living solar collectors handily dispersed all over the planet, plants capture sunshine as it arrives and convert it into chemical energy that animals can eat. And plants don't just convert energy, they store it over time-holding that energy within their cells until they decay, burn, or get eaten (or, in rare but important cases, are buried deep within the planet as a fossil fuel).

Animals eating plants take that stored energy into their bodies, where they not only store it in concentrated form but disperse it through space. A flock of geese, a pod of whales, a herd of caribou-they are all, on some level, mobile battery-packs. They gather solar energy that falls upon one patch of the planet and deliver it to another as they migrate; in this way, they make life possible for their predators even when, for example, the snow is thick and there is not a green leaf in sight. Life on earth is, in short, a vast and sophisticated system for capturing, converting, storing, and moving solar energy, the evolutionary success of each species depending in significant part on how well it taps into that system.

In the animal kingdom, one of the species that can most efficiently turn the calories of its food into useful mechanical energy is our own; humans need about half the calories that, say, a horse needs to exert the same physical energy. Our metabolisms are astonishingly energy-efficient, and that undoubtedly gave us an evolutionary advantage over other species. Perhaps this advantage helped give us the big brains we needed to figure out yet another way to tap into the stream of solar income captured by plants: fire.

By burning plants-especially plants we couldn't eat, like trees-humanity leapt beyond the physical limits imposed by its own gastric and metabolic systems and released far more solar energy than ever before. It was, of course, a momentous step. Fire is one of the distinguishing features of our species. Only people use fire, if by "people" we include the primates that would eventually evolve into people, because we began controlling fire perhaps some half-million years ago, long before Homo sapiens emerged. This new means of controlling energy reduced our vulnerability to the forces of nature, particularly during the long ice ages that repeatedly gripped the earth, and helped make us fully human.

Eventually, people stopped wandering across the land hunting and gathering food and began to grow it instead, a milestone archaeologists generally consider the beginning of civilization. Fire-and the unusually stable climate that has prevailed over the last 10,000 years-made this settled agricultural life possible. Fire let people clear land for crops (using much the same slash- and-burn methods threatening our rainforests today) and made digestible the cereals they planted. In these more permanent settlements, people eventually learned basic manufacturing skills, like firing pottery, baking bricks, and smelting metals-ways to make products that would last for societies that would last, at least as long as they had fuel.

Many of these early artisans turned to a fuel that would be an important bridge between wood and coal, and is akin to both of them: charcoal. Charcoal is wood that has already been partially burned. For thousands of years, charcoal was made by heaping wood into large piles, or partially burying it, and then burning it in a slow, oxygen-poor smolder that left behind almost pure carbon. The resulting charcoal burned hotter and cleaner than wood, but the process of making it wasted much of the wood's original fuel content, putting an even greater strain on the forests.

As civilizations and nations grew, trees disappeared, depleted by competing demands for fuel, timber, and land for crops. All these needs drew down the same stores of plant-captured solar energy, and those stores invariably ran short. The size of our fires and our meals, our cities and our economies, and ultimately our populations, were all restricted by the limited ability of the plants within our reach to turn the sun's light into a form of energy we could use.

In this world of tight energy constraints, coal offered select societies the power of millions of years of solar income that had been stored away in a solar savings account of unimaginable size. Coal would give them the power to change fundamental aspects of their relationship with nature, including their relationship with the sun, but it would offer that power at a price.

I haven't always viewed coal with such fascination. In fact, until recently, I seldom thought about coal at all. Like most people in developed countries, I had no obvious reason to do so. I wasn't mining it or buying it or burning it, and I hardly ever saw it used. As an environmental attorney for the state of Minnesota, I helped regulate some of the state's coal-burning industries, so I was familiar with the many pollutants coal burning puts into the air. Still, I only vaguely understood coal's sweeping impact on the global environment and on society. What really compelled me to look closely at coal was a case that focused my attention on one of the most profound environmental issues of our time: global warming.

Minnesota is a cold state; our winter temperatures are often the most frigid in the United States, outside Alaska. Lows of minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit are not unheard of in some northern counties. At this temperature, a bucket of water thrown into the air freezes before it hits the ground, bananas get so hard that you can pound nails with them (yes, this has been demonstrated), and exposed skin can freeze in mere seconds. This is not a place where the threat of a few degrees of global warming alarms the average shivering citizen, and, because Minnesota is about as far from an ocean as you can be in North America, forecasts of rising sea levels cause even less concern. Even though we didn't necessarily think of ourselves as living on the front lines of global warming (a naive assumption, as it turned out), Minnesota wanted to have some idea of the larger environmental consequences of its energy decisions. So, a few years ago, the state began a legal proceeding that tried to quantify the impact of its electricity use on global warming. Most of Minnesota's electricity, like that of the U.S. as a whole, comes from coal, so this meant trying to figure out what effect the emissions from our coal-burning power plants would have on the earth's climate.

When the proceeding began, few realized what an exquisitely sensitive nerve it would touch. Representatives of the nation's coal industry, including its most colorful and politically extreme wing, intervened in our hearing, helping to make the contentious administrative trial that followed one of the longest in state history. They brought in a phalanx of scientists who testified that Minnesota should ignore what the vast majority of their colleagues around the world were saying about climate change and argued instead that the climate was not changing except in small ways we were all going to enjoy. Minnesota temporarily found itself on the front lines of the larger national battle over climate change.

The industry's aggressive response was fueled by its recognition that climate change threatens its very existence. Climate change is mainly caused by burning fossil fuels-namely, coal, oil, and natural gas-and of these fuels, coal creates the most greenhouse gases for the energy obtained. Today, the United States burns more coal than it ever has, almost all of it to make electricity.

Although Minnesota's decisionmakers flatly rejected the industry's notion that climate change would be limited to climate improvements, adopting instead the widely held consensus that climate change is a grave threat, we don't yet know whether the proceeding will have any effect on state energy policy. The effect of the case on me personally, however, was dramatic. I was left not only deeply concerned about the changing climate but thoroughly intrigued by the lump of carbon at the center of the storm, this often-overlooked fuel that reveals so much about us and the world we've built. The more I dug, the more I could see that a deep, rich vein of coal runs through human history and underlies many of the hardest decisions our world now faces. Following that vein in the intervening years has taken me far afield-from paleobotany to labor issues, from ancient history to modern geopolitics, and from the massive state-of-the-art power plant a few miles from my home to a primitive little coal mine in Inner Mongolia. This book is the result of that journey.

I'm by no means the first person moved to write about the enormous impact of this combustible rock. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, all kinds of people-engineers, plant scientists, businessmen, and theologians-were inspired to write books and articles for the general public in which they waxed poetic about the glories of coal. Even transcendentalist philosophers had something to say on the subject. In the mid-1800s, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote this about coal:

Every basket is power and civilization. For coal is a portable climate. It carries the heat of the tropics to Labrador and the polar circle; and it is the means of transporting itself whithersoever it is wanted. Watt and Stephenson whispered in the ear of mankind their secret, that a half-ounce of coal will draw two tons a mile, and coal carries coal, by rail and by boat, to make Canada as warm as Calcutta; and with its comfort brings its industrial power.

This quote stands out not just for Emerson's eerily apt choice of metaphor, but because it captures the world-changing essence of coal. It also reveals the nineteenth century's appreciation of how coal was letting humanity transform nature's cold, cruel world into one more comfortable, more civilized.

Coal was no mere fuel, and no mere article of commerce. It represented humanity's triumph over nature-the foundation of civilization itself.


Excerpted from COAL by BARBARA FREESE Copyright © 2003 by Barbara Freese
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
"Shelly Frasier reads in an even, unhurried rhythm that captures the authorial personality with its authority, light touch, and humor intact."—-AudioFile

Meet the Author

Barbara Freese is an environmental attorney and energy policy analyst who, for more than twelve years, helped enforce her state's environmental laws as an assistant attorney general in Minnesota. Freese lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.

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Coal: A Human History 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
SACox More than 1 year ago
I found this book to be fascinating. As a historian, Barbara Freese did a fantastic job of explaining the discovery of coal, its early use and explaining how that evolved into the comtemporary ways that it is utilized for energy. In her history, she brings in all relevant topics, such as the conditions of workers, the perspective of prospectors and industry, and environmentalists. All necessary components for an in-depth historical and analytical look at the world's dependence on coal. I find that her final chapter on the modern coal industry is rather fair. She could have easily been imbalanced in discussing this, either more in line with conservationists or the industry, but in fact, it was a perfect explanation of how coal is used today, and the current discussion surrounding coal today, which is how to make it cleaner to use. That doesn't make her a conservationist, as another reviewer stated, but rather an informed writer who is bringing all relevant topics on the matter to the forefront.

After reading this book, it makes you understand how the world could not help becoming dependent on coal, especially as that dependence grew over centuries without the knowledge of its damaging effects. It makes any one interested in this topic realize that this is an issue that requires not just high passions, but well thought out policies to bring about change.
Guest More than 1 year ago
An interesting and well-researched book. The author's engaging, readable style makes the book a real gem.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The werewolf also in a human form walked over to Skell.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Walked in as well. "Are we gonna train now?", he asked him.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Thoroughly enjoyable look at the development of the world's dependence on coal and coal's role in the industrial revolution. The use of coal as a heat and energy source meant less reliance on wood and increased energy output, but it also meant dreadful pollution, dangerous working conditions, child labor, and early death. As a fuel, coal proved to be both a blessing and curse, and Freese's highly readable exploration of the subject is both informative and entertaining.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
I thought this book--per its title Coal: A Human History--would provide more stories and information about the lives of individual coal miners. Instead, it was an economic/political history of coal and its development. It might be useful for a high school class to read to learn about the history of coal. But for a general reader, it was not terribly interesting.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Coal has shaped our city growth from 200 BC to 2003 global warming on every continent. Barbara Freese cycles a town in China and experiences the burning lungs from coal. She tells the history of child labor in the mines everywhere. Shocking and backed up by research with an extensive bibliography, her facts are told in such a way that you do not want to stop reading the gruesome story. Hope Pres. Bush and Condi Rice read her history. Our country needs to be a leader in environmental preservation and clean up.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I purchased this book for information on the history of coal. Unfortunately, I read a relentless rant from a conservationist's view of the evils of coal use. This publication should be endorsed by enviromentalist groups but not by historians.