Barbara Freese Reminds Us: Power Over Nature Is Bought at a Great Price

This new edition of Coal is a compulsively readable history of how coal made the modern world, and of modern attempts to to make a world without coal.

Coal: A Human History (revised and updated edition)

Publisher: Basic
ISBN: 9780465057931
Author: Barbara Freese
Price: 17.99
Format: Paperback
Length: 384 pages
Publication date: 2016-02

It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it’s exhilarating. Reading the opening pages of a book, you find a passage so perfectly wrought that, by the time you’re done reading it, the author has captured you, and you’re with them for however many more pages they want to use to tell their story. Sue Grafton did it in A is for Alibi, when the private-eye narrator ended her self-introduction by stating: “The day before yesterday I killed a man, and the fact weighs heavily on my mind.” John McPhee did it in the matchless first paragraph of his essay, “Cooling the Lava” (reprinted in The Control of Nature): “Cooling the lava was Thorbjorn’s idea. He meant to stop the lava. That such a feat had not been tried, let alone accomplished, in the known history of the world did not burden Thorbjorn, who had reason to believe it could be done.”

Now, Barbara Freese has done it in Coal: A Human History. “Coal,” she writes, midway down page two, “is a commodity utterly lacking in glamour. It is dirty, old-fashioned, domestic, and cheap. Coal suffers particularly when compared to its more dazzling and worldly cousin, oil, which conjures up dramatic images of risk takers, jet-setters, and international conspiracies.” Striking oil, she continues, is our metaphor of fabulous luck. Coal is something that naughty children get in their Christmas stockings, in place of candy. Coal is disappointment.

Coal belongs to a burgeoning subgenre of non-fiction that -- if chain bookstores had the sense to create a distinct subsection for it -- might be called “commodity history”. Like John McPhee’s Oranges (among the earliest examples) and Mark Kurlansky’s Cod and Salt (among the most popular), it's the history not of a person or period, artifact or event, but of a naturally occurring thing and its multi-faceted impact on humans and the societies they build.

Coal spans seven centuries and three continents, reaching not just across specialties but across entire fields: geology and physics, history and politics, labor law and environmental regulation. It is, like commodity histories as a genre, an ideal book for intellectual omnivores, and for non-fiction readers eager for a “Big Picture” narrative rather than a doorstop-sized tome that treats a narrowly bounded topic in everything-we know detail. First published in 2004, it is now available in a “revised and updated” edition: slightly longer, and even better, than before.

Freese sets out not to provide a comprehensive history of coal and its exploitation as a fuel source, but to highlight the ways in which its use transformed human societies. It has, she notes, fueled (literally and figuratively) economic expansion, formed (with iron and steam) the foundation of the first industrial revolution, and in the process,choked the air above cities with soot and set the stage for horrific abuses of both the land from which it is extracted and the miners who do the extracting. Focusing on the experiences of Britain, the United States, and China, Freese makes her analytical points succinctly and illustrates them with a carefully balanced mixture of concrete details and vivid anecdotes. Extensive notes keyed to a richly diverse ten-page bibliography give those interested in more detail a wealth of places to start, and suggest (as the text itself does) deep and extensive knowledge, worn lightly.

The book's minor weaknesses are chargeable to the publisher rather than the author. Images are small, few in number, and clustered in the center of the book rather than adjacent to the text they illuminate. Worse, the notes suffer from mainstream publishers' obstinate refusal to (in "popular" works) use a superscript number to indicate the existence of an endnote, forcing readers to flip blindly from text to back matter. Why, in an age when New York Times stories are studded with hyperlinks, are publishers convinced that readers will flee in terror if they treat endnotes like, well, endnotes?

These flaws are dwarfed, however, by Coal’s strengths, among the greatest of which is its ability to connect past and present, and so to break through the stubborn, persistent disconnects that hobble our ability to think about it. Coal is no longer a tangible part of our everyday life. There are no more coal bins (filled through street-level chutes in a rattling cloud of black dust) beside our basement furnaces, and no more coal scuttles (holding a ready supply of the glossy black fuel) beside our kitchen stoves. Our trash barrels (even if regional convention leads us to call them “ash cans”) no longer hold the ashes of coal fires.

We tacitly assume, therefore, that the damage coal once did to land, lungs, and lives has also gone the way of the ice man and the lamplighter (fellow economic casualties of “clean” and “modern” electricity). Nothing, Freese convincingly argues, could be further from the truth.

Coal, she writes, referring to its earliest users “would give them the power to change fundamental aspects of their relationship with nature ... but it would offer that power at a price” (p. 7). Humans have, she notes, now tapped that power for over 700 years. Even today, coal-fired power plants generate the majority of the electricity used in the United States, and the vast majority of that used in India, China, and other rising economic powers. The price that coal exacts is, therefore, rising rather than (as we fantasize) diminishing.

Current controversies over mountaintop-removal mining, cap-and-trade proposals to curb greenhouse-gas emissions, and the phasing-out of coal in favor of cleaner sources of energy in order to slow global warming are not new. We have always known that coal had a terrible downside, and today’s attempt to mitigate it are part of a conversation begun when (in 1307) Edward I of England issued a proclamation against the burning of coal, responding to his nobles’ protests about its noxious stink.

Developments in the 21st century, Freese argues in an epilogue summarizing developments since 2003, make it virtually certain that today’s efforts to rein in coal will be more successful than Edward’s. “At some point,” she concludes (p. 289), “the collective momentum of all these changes will surely overpower the momentum that coal has built up over the centuries,” and coal technology will be swept from the scene at last. “The only question -- and it is a critical one -- is when.”

"Status quo," Ronald Reagan famously quipped, is Latin for “the mess we’re in.” Coal is a ferociously smart, compulsively readable history of one of the most critical elements in our current status quo, and how it got that way. Any well-crafted piece of popular non-fiction can deliver information. Coal goes further: drawing connections, enhancing understanding, and entertaining readers every step of the way.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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