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.

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.

RATING 9 / 10