Barbara Freese, an environmental attorney, describes coal first as an aspect of the earth’s “solar income.” Coal is fossilized plant life that has captured the sun’s energy and has stored the light of the sun under the earth for millions of years. Unlocking this long-shadowed sunlight has unleashed a modern genie lurking under the surface of the earth. This genie has fueled dreams of speed and motion, of unprecedented industrial power. But like most genie wishes, these boons have come at a steep and often insidious cost. This book is a history of those wishes and those costs.
Coal: A Human History traces the technological, economical, social, and environmental history of coal in England, the US, and China; three nations who have risen to industrial prominence through the power of this potent and abundant fossil fuel. Freese traces how coal contributed to lung disease and the immiseration of workers in England as early as the 1500s, and continues to cause thousands of deaths both in the mines and cities of China and the US today, all while contributing the highest levels of harmful greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Yet Freese is careful to show coal in all its complexity; she speculates that the horrific pollution in London may have deterred populations of bubonic plague-ridden fleas in the same sentence as she muses that the Londoners’ inhibited immune systems may have contributed to the plagues’ virulence. This style of inspecting the substantial “pros” and “cons” of coal (it polluted the air and water while saving forests across the globe from the axe, it unified labor to stand up to monopolies while consolidating corporate and military power) is a powerful vein throughout Freese’s writing.
While this book is a sweeping, multidisciplinary history, it is written in a very accessible and engaging manner (granted, I’ve been trapped on a plane or car for most of my read, but I still devoured it). Her references are hard to follow, as they do not appear in text but only in hard-to-follow notes at the end of the book (this, at least, is how the e-copy of the book works). That’s a major bummer. But I recommend this particularly to environmental studies students and anyone interested in learning about the invisible power that has shaped, and continues to mold, our human and more than human world.
Grating Rating: What a coal book! Like the fossil fuel itself, this book is more than it seams. Freese NOx it out of the park; It’s out of (Anthra)cite! I know those puns were a bit-toomus-uch, but this may be the last book I burn through during the summer Reading (RR) blog, and so I felt I had to train my attention and mine my brain for some final word pollution. I’m not the choked out reviewer I seam. Seriously, this is a book you’ll want to collier friends about to pick over after you;re finished. In the words of The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon, “Beijing-a.”
Review Submitted by: Shane D. Hall
Rating: Highly Recommended