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.
An absorbing book that never loses its grip. Barbara Freese is a splendid writer...fascinating.
[Freese] enlivens her meticulously researched history with anecdotes and surprising facts...[she] is a strong story teller who captivates with detail.
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.
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.
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)
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