Summary (Magill's Literary Annual 2004)
Coal: A Human History illustrates that this familiar carboniferous mineral has played a key role in human advancement. Although in recent times oil and natural gas have come into prominence as energy resources, to a surprising degree society’s reliance on coal is ongoing. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, coal-fired plants produced more than half the electricity in the United States. As Barbara Freese explains, coal is a uniquely accessible and historically important storage medium for solar energy.
Freese became interested in coal through her experiences as assistant district attorney in Minnesota, where she was involved in a legal proceeding intended to quantify the impact of the state’s electricity use on global warming. Because most of Minnesota’s electricity is produced by coal-fired plants, the coal industry moved aggressively to persuade all parties involved that coal burning would cause only climatic improvements. Although the unlikely claim attracted few believers, changes in the state’s energy policy were not immediately effected. As a result of the case, Freese determined to learn more about coal and its role in human society, a relationship often neglected or only minimally addressed in the writing of history.
Warming human habitations, cooking food, fueling industry, and banishing the dark are all benefits traditionally derived from coal—a material once thought to border on the miraculous. Revelations about the poisonous qualities of particulate emissions have only recently been demonstrated through research into global warming. Nevertheless, battles against noxious fumes and soot-filled air have been waged since early times. Freese describes a thought-provoking incident that occurred in 1306, when King Edward I of England was persuaded to ban the use of coal by artisans and blacksmiths. The air had become filled with acrid smoke, and angry citizens were demanding action, but wood had grown scarce and expensive in London. This circumstance would worsen as forest depletion added transportation costs to wood and charcoal prices. The ban proved to be unenforceable, thus signaling the beginning of Britain’s polarizing relationship with coal.
The title of Freese’s introductory chapter, “A Portable Climate,” is taken from a description of coal by Ralph Waldo Emerson, who praised coal’s capacity to create a climate conducive to power and civilization. Emerson’s phrase aptly characterizes Freese’s depiction of coal as a vast reservoir of stored energy, one that has been used to transform the extremes of temperature found in nature to create habitat more hospitable to a civilized world. In fact, Freese characterizes life itself as a complex system reliant on collecting and redistributing energy from the sun.
The succeeding sections of Coal are divided regionally. Three chapters focus on Britain, where an abundance of coal contributed immeasurably to the growth of naval power, industrial development, and the building of an empire. Without coal, Freese asserts, the Industrial Revolution would have been much slower and may have allowed for more humane practices in the workplace. Instead, a circular pattern developed wherein the use of coal created needs that mechanization, technology, and additional coal were used to meet.
“A Precious Seed” shifts the narrative to North America, where plentiful coal played a similar role in the development of the United States. The title of this chapter refers to a theologian’s statement that coal had been “scattered by the hand of the Creator,” who had intended its use to transform the feared and despised wilderness that surrounded settlers. Coal proved influential in developments leading to the American Civil War as well as in railroad-building, settlement of the Western frontier, and the growth of powerful labor unions.
China is the third and final geographic region Freese covers. Here the mining of coal created a powerful dynasty that predated the earliest use of coal in Britain by the Romans. Despite the subsequent decline of the dynasty’s hegemony, coal remained a basic energy resource for China’s people for...
(The entire section is 1698 words.)
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