Themes

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 292

There are two major themes in Barbara Freese's book, Coal: A Human History. There's coal's importance to human history (hence the book's title), and there's coal's role in the destruction of the environment. The book is a brilliant social history and a compelling polemic. You should check out the excellent study guide available on this website.

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There's no doubting the critical importance of coal to civilization's progress. People with access to more of it have done much better for themselves than people with access to less of it. It fueled, literally, the rise and decline and rise of China, the British Empire, and the Industrial Revolution. Coal didn't create America, but it did create modern America, its labor movements, and its environmentalism.

There's also no doubting coal's destructive power. It kills people, poisons water, pollutes the air and ruins lives so ferociously that politicians and activists the world over feel obligated to protect the communities that provide us with it. The broken economies of Lancashire in Great Britain and Appalachia in the United States testify to the consequences of our addiction to cheap heat. There's a lesson in Dutch disease, the reliance of a community on a single resource or cash crop, but the West and China still haven't learned it.

As much as we'd like to, Freese says, we can't escape nature, and we also can't really master it. Believing otherwise is pure hubris, the blinkered arrogance attending the (supposed) steady upward march of human achievement. Stopping on this journey to consider the sometimes-harmful effects of progress will make us more self-aware, and that might make the difference between repeating the mistakes we made with coal and being responsible when taking advantage of the next fuel which will power human history.

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