Sunday, January 31, 2016

Coal: A Human History by Barbara Freese (Book Review #4 of 2016)


Coal: A Human History
I read this book after reading Jeff Goodell's Big Coal, which was written later. I find Freese's work to be much better, much more comprehensive, and overall better-written. It ranges from the discovery of coal burning in England by the Romans to the development of coal in Pennsylvania and Virginia in the US Colonies to the modern Chinese state's mass consumption of coal at the price of thousands of lives lost a year. Freese is an environmental lawyer and assistant Attorney General in Minnesota who became disturbed when she saw coal industry push-back against a study produced by the Minnesota legislature examining the environmental implications of its energy consumption. It surprises me that it is not rated more highly; the negative reviews seem to dislike either the scope or the environmentalist bent. Climate change was more controversial when this book was published (2004) than today.

In 1306, English coal was first burned by blacksmiths and artisans. The Romans had actually discovered that coal could make fires, but this knowledge was lost to the Dark Ages before being rediscovered. Interestingly, the Chinese were burning coal centuries before and had invented smelting by the 11th century, but the dynastic rulers' turning inward and barring foreign trade caused innovation to diminish and development was stunted. When King Henry broke from the Roman Catholic church he dissolved the monasteries on whose land coal deposits were found. When he sold them off, entrepreneurs developed the mines and competition pushed innovation. The author thoughtfully ponders the alternative history-- if coal hadn't been developed, England would have likely been deforested. It was already importing iron from abroad because it did not have enough necessary firewood to do the smelting. Foliage actually increased during the Industrial Revolution as coal replaced wood as the primary fuel. But with coal burning came the stench in London, which was increasingly distateful-- and coal was banned until the 1500s, when it then began to be justified both in rational terms and religious. The author quotes several British and American religious personalities who argued that coal was God's gift to the Anglo-Saxon to subdue the earth.

The air quality in London was terrible and there was growing concern and recorded fear that half of deaths were resulting from lung issues. Meanwhile, coal miners were developing their own culture of isolation and ruggedness that seems to be common among miners around the world. The author chronicles the importance of the invention of coke to smelt iron. Manchester became the first factory town where the plight of workers and the rise of labor movements would be found. Friedrich Engles penned his influential The Plight of the Working Class in England in 1845 after observing the factories in Machester for two years. Freese surmises that it was a mix of economic justification and willful ignorance that kept coal burning at great loss of life.
She quotes a Puritan pamphlet touting the wood fires, abundant trees, and fresh air as an incentive to move to the New World.

The first mine in the Colonies was probably 1750 in Virginia. It was too difficult to transport coal over land to the coast, but discoveries of anthracite coal deposits in Eastern Pennsylvania in the 1760s sparked an American industry. Canals were built, followed by railroads, followed by battles among the railroad barons. By 1860, Pennsylvania coal was fueling the industry of the North against the South, another "what if?"

Freese them moves quickly to modern issues both with mine safety and health, citing many studies on coal-related illnesses. She tours an American coal-fired plant and couments the processes and potential green technologies. Like Goodell's Big Coal, she chronicles the industry's campaign against global warming and education. Her statements on global warming were probably considered alarmist at the time, but in light of the 2016 Paris Accords they seem mainstream. She admirably visits both a coal-fired power plant in China, allowed in because they thought maybe she was a western investor, as well as coal mining areas where people actually live in caves (apparently tens of thousands of Chinese still live in caves with little development and uder threat of earthquake). In 1991, 10,000 Chinese allegedly died in coal mining. The Chinese have been pushing the smaller mines to consolidate, hoping to create an oligopoly that is easier to manage and keep from cheating on price controls.
Freese pens a brief but fascinating history of China's industrial revolution through the frame of coal. The last chapter in the book ponders an alternate history of the world without coal-- one in which there might be vast deforestation, maybe no labor movement, maybe no Union victory against slavery in the US, etc.

I found the book to be very educational and widely correct in its broad lens of development. Freese shows the benefits of coal better than Goodell, even though her pen is perhaps sharper in looking at its impact on global health. I give the book 4.5 stars out of 5, I recommend it. I would put it next to Daniel Yergin's The Quest (which looks at the global history of oil) on a bookshelf of someone interested in energy policy.

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