Coal: A Human History, By Barbara Freese, Perseus Publishing, 308 pages

Coal is an absorbing and well-written book. Most of us don’t think of coal as a mover and shaker of history. This is not the story of the coal robber barons, but the story of how coal shaped masses of people’s lives. It is a story of coal developing modern industrial society – its impact on coal miners and the millions who use coal to keep warm, to cook and to bathe. It is very much in the “people’s history” vein popularized by Howard Zinn.

Interestingly enough the book concentrates on three countries with huge coal deposits – Britain, the United States, and China. The inclusion of China helps round out things by dealing with coal in a developing country. Tracing coal’s role in China also reveals some things out of the ordinary history for most Americans. (PWW readers in particular will be intrigued by Barbara Freese’s take on Frederick Engels and the writing of the Communist Manifesto.)

Many know the key role the Miners Union played in developing militant industrial unionism in Britain and the U.S., for example. But many of us have probably never stopped to consider why it is that the workers from that particular industry should have been so centrally placed in the early labor movement. Freese shows that the miners were strategically placed because of the role that coal played in making steam energy effective for both railroads and mass production energy needs. These in turn were central developments in creating modern industrial production. Coal then became the main energy source for vast industrial expansion and development.

The author spent time in China, visiting mines and talking to coal miners and officials in researching the book and it shows. She presents a fair and balanced view of the problems and the accomplishments in China built around coal.

She also tells some history of China long neglected and forgotten outside of China. China was the first country to develop a vast coal and iron industry. In the eleventh century China boasted blast furnaces, owned by private industrialists, employing hundreds of thousands of coal miners and iron furnace workers, producing thousands of tons of cheap iron a year. While Europe was still in the Dark Ages, China’s famed Northern Song dynasty flourished around it’s iron industry. Its capital was Kaifeng, a “multi-functional” metropolis of close to a million people.

Coal is also a basic primer on coal’s big drawback as an energy source: air pollution and greenhouse gases. She covers a wide range of coal burning’s negative impact on people and our environment, from acid rain, to cancers, to mercury poisoning of children. There is a lot of basic science in the book. If anything she seems determined that if she should err, she err on the side of conservative estimates of the dangers. Never-theless, she raises alarm at the Bush administration’s backwards steps in supporting the coal industry and weakening environmental standards. She is critical of Bush’s refusal to ratify the Kyoto Treaty on global warming. She is very understanding of developing nations’ problems and maintains that a global solution that binds all nations is essential.

Regrettably Freese’s last “what is to be done” chapter is quite weak. She appears stuck on finding a “free market” solution with deregulation as a major tool. Unfortunately she seems to think that deregulation is a way to break up monopoly control of the energy industries. She does, however, promote the search for renewable technologies and energy sources.

I really wish the author had included an extra chapter on how she came to write Coal. The dust jacket blurb notes, “An Assistant Attorney General of Minnesota for more than 12 years, Barbara Freese helped enforce her state’s air pollution laws and along the way became fascinated by coal and the larger story behind the smoke.” What a great story it must be, going from an important legal career to a “sustained obsession over a single topic.”

– Scott Marshall (