Coal: A Human History

Barbara Freese’s Coal: A Human History provides a concise account of the interactions between humanity and coal, particularly in the United States, United Kingdom, and China. It includes a great many interesting anecdotes, as well as some good analysis of the social, health, and environmental consequences of coal use. In particular, it leaves the reader with a strong sense of the health costs associated with air pollution from coal, even before you start considering its impact on climate.

Freese identifies the forces that drove coal from a mineral of very peripheral importance to a substance that ended up at the heart of industrialization, powering the Industrial Revolution and being burned now in unprecedented quantities, mostly to generate electricity. She points out the importance of population density, wood scarcity, and the improved efficiency of steam engines in prompting the explosion of coal use. She also discusses the suffering associated with coal mining and use, the connections between the industry and industrial relations and organized crime, and the possible future of coal and energy generally.

Ironically, one of the key messages from the book is that coal – gritty, filthy coal – is actually largely invisible now. London’s deadly coal fogs are a thing of the past, and yet coal-fired power plants around the world continue to emit huge amounts of lethal pollution, accounting for tens of thousands of annual deaths in North America and perhaps a million in China. And yet, because the mechanism of this harm is invisible, there is no real public outcry to stop it. Thankfully, reduced suffering and death from air pollution is one of the major co-benefits that will accompany climate change mitigation, once nations finally start getting serious about it.

Climate change is essentially taken as a given in this short book, with some reference made to the possibility of abrupt and dangerous climate change, driven by reckless burning of fossil fuels. Freese is probably correct to treat carbon capture and storage (CCS) dismissively. Significant practical and economic hurdles stand in its way, and it is entirely plausible that it will prove quicker and cheaper to just deploy zero-carbon sources of energy, rather than refit fossil fuel fired power plants so as not to emit greenhouse gases.

One minor cause for complaint is the awkward binding of the hardcover edition. This small thin book just doesn’t want to stay open, and will clasp shut unless constantly held with the covers spread. The book’s treatment of hydrogen as a possible future energy storage medium is also thin and probably overly optimistic.

Those hoping to gain a broader historical perspective on the emergence of coal as an important energy source, the consequences of its use, and the present and future of the material will likely find this book informative, accessible, and useful.

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