Review: Barbara Freese’s “Coal: A Human History”

I’ve been prevaricating on this review, because I wanted to say something profound about it.  I didn’t not enjoy reading it, but I’m not sure I got an informational return on my time.  So, briefly, here’s what stuck.

Coal  tells many of the little stories of people and events that make the history of coal way more interesting than it should be.  At times, it feel shallow, like the author is trying to jump from interesting bit to interesting bit, and spare us the boring parts underneath.  I’m a fan of the boring backbone of history, though, so we may disagree on this.

The first part of the book discusses when coal was first used, how it grew England, how it grew America, how it grew unions and anti-union sentiment, and briefly sketches the state of coal and the coal industry in America today (important, but dwindling, sort of).  The second bit describes her trip to China, and how it’s doing industrialization on its own coal power.  Vivid descriptions of pollution in London during the coal years echo recent reports of pollution in Beijing.

There are three things you should take away from this book:

1) Coal is very dirty, and it kills a lot of people at every stage of it’s production and use.

2) Without coal, the industrial revolution, growing of manufacturing economies, and wonderful increases in the standards of living for billions wouldn’t have happened/be happening. (Now juxtapose 1 and 2, and you see our dilemma).

3) We should try to not use coal for energy any more, since there are safer sources, but it is going to be very difficult to wean ourselves from it, much less convince the rest of the world to lay off.

Know that, and you’re solid.

The book is informative and well-written, but unless you make a concerted effort, or are just really into the industrial revolution, it’s very likely you’ll forget it on a table somewhere and not notice you haven’t read it for weeks.

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2 Responses to “Review: Barbara Freese’s “Coal: A Human History””


  1. 1 K.E. White September 17, 2008 at 7:09 pm

    Question: Clearly now there is agreement that America needs both 1) energy independence and 2) eventual clean-energy independence. In terms of meeting these goals, isn’t clean coal an essential first step to achieving energy independence with the eventual goal of clean energy generation? Or is a) clean coal a complete myth and/or b) unacceptable to our global environment’s future?

  2. 2 virescent September 20, 2008 at 11:18 am

    I wouldn’t say it’s an essential first step- wouldn’t even be on my list of top priorities. Right now, it is mostly mythical- no plants with full cleaning systems are in operation. Even if we do invest in and encourage the cleaning technologies to mature, the mining of coal and the limited nature of the resource make it a silly fuel to gamble on, when we could be investing in and encouraging other renewable fuels with smaller environmental impacts, like solar and wind.

    It’s something I should do a full post on- along with nuclear power- so I’ll get on that.


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