Saturday, December 11, 2010

Coal: A Human History

Coal: A Human History
© 2003 Barbara Freese
308 pages

I never expected to be so fascinated by coal. This book's cover and title compelled my interest from the first moment I spotted it on my library bookshelves, and the text itself never disappointed me. Coal is well-written,  provoking, and oddly humorous, not to mention one of the most interesting history books I've read all this year. I read the book late into the night, fell asleep on the couch, woke up reading the book with my breakfast, and stayed fixated by it until shortly before lunch.  Freese uses three case studies (Britain, the United States, and China) to examine the history of human coal use and the myraid ways that coal has shaped industrial society.  Britan leads the book, its use of coal turning a rapidly deforested island into an economic titan and world power. Across the Atlantic, coal allows a collection of thirteen agricultural colonies to subdue a continent and create a cohesive nation-state and industrial powerhouse in  just a little over a hundred years -- and beyond the Pacific,  coal throws an isolated nation of warlords into the modern age, where it now threatens to overtake the United States as the economic giant of the world.

Freese began her studies of coal as an environmentalist, but her Coal is no polemic or rant:  observations of coal's modern environmental impact don't arrive until late in the book, at the end of the section regarding the United States. They appear again in the book's conclusion, where she reflects on coal's past, present, and future role in enabling and assisting human society. After presenting a variety of historical attitudes toward coal -- Coal the Saviour, the gift from God that allows humanity to finally conquer nature; Coal the genie, which  allows unparalleled economic prosperity at the price of clean air  and traditional communities;  Coal as king, enabling corporations to control governments and run roughshod over the millions who depend on it.  My primary area of historical interest is the early industrial period, so Freese's account of coal's primacy in the early industrial period held me rapt. I had no idea how many varied purposes it served, and how important they were to the making the modern world. I knew from other readings that coal drove nations' foreign policies in part, but Freese also reminded me of how important coal was to creating the working class. Before textile mills, there were miners. The book is overflowing with little historical tidbits: I would have never imagined people mining coal in the Tudor period, for instance.While the engaging narrative needs little help, Freese throws in plenty of humor to boot -- I've never found coal so entertaining.

Freese chiefly focuses on Britain and the United States: China gets but one chapter before she moves into her conclusion, in which she lauds coal for its contributions to human progress but maintains that its day is passed: coal, which once allowed humanity to accelerate its progress at a pace never witnessed before, now inhibits it. She's unexpectedly charitable toward the king of dirty energy, though chastising its modern proponents for holding on to the old achievements and limiting further energy progress.

Compellingly written, entertaining,  eminently fair, and informative --  Freese's Coal is excellent. If you've any interest in the Industrial Revolution or in coal's history,  I'd definitely recommend this.


  • The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell. which documents living and working conditions of Britain's coal miners in a particular community. 

1 comment:

  1. I've actually been down one of the pits near Wigan during a school trip. It was fascinating and I never again criticised their demands for better pay and conditions. I was bad enough visiting the place for a few hours. It must have been awful working their every day!


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