Coal: A Human History Hardcover – Jan 7 2003
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From Publishers Weekly
Coal has been both lauded for its efficiency as a heating fuel and maligned for the lung-wrenching black smoke it gives off. In her first book, Freese, an assistant attorney general of Minnesota (where she helps enforce environmental laws), offers an exquisite chronicle of the rise and fall of this bituminous black mineral. Both the Romans and the Chinese used coal ornamentally long before they discovered its flammable properties. Once its use as a heating source was discovered in early Roman Britain, coal replaced wood as Britain's primary energy source. The jet-black mineral spurred the Industrial Revolution and inspired the invention of the steam engine and the railway. Freese narrates the discovery of coal in the colonies, the development of the first U.S. coal town, Pittsburgh, and the history of coal in China. Despite its allure as a cheap and warm energy source, coal carries a high environmental cost. Burning it produces sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide in such quantities that, during the Clinton administration, the EPA targeted coal-burning power plants as the single worst air polluters. Using EPA studies, Freese shows that coal emissions kill about 30,000 people a year, causing nearly as many deaths as traffic accidents and more than homicides and AIDS. The author contends that alternate energy sources must be found to ensure a healthier environment for future generations. Part history and part environmental argument, Freese's elegant book teaches an important lesson about the interdependence of humans and their natural environment both for good and ill throughout history.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Deleterious to health and beneficial to wealth, coal contains a tension that makes its story a compelling one. Freese is a former attorney general of Minnesota, who became interested in the flammable rock's history during her tenure. After a routine description of coal's geological formation, Freese invigorates her narrative with its combustion in England. Even in the 1500s, its noxiousness provoked denunciation, but with Britannia's forests all but consumed, it became everybody's heat source. Freese is quite succinct in describing coal's critical role in sparking the Industrial Revolution, whose side effects included a troglodytic existence for miners and suffocating fogs for Manchester and London. The author then covers America's seduction by coal, and presently China's, culminating with her advocating reduction of coal's primary pollutants, sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide, and its ultimate banishment as an energy source. Freese's combination of labor and technological history is fluid and evenhanded; she is a solid inductee into the popular club of "biographers" of materials such as salt (Mark Kurlansky) and water (Philip Ball). Gilbert Taylor
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Top Customer Reviews
1) Society can engineer away most of the pollution problems to the point where coal approaches almost perfect combustion. It will result in a much higher cost to utilize coal, and perfect combustion will still leave us with a massive Carbon dioxide output problem. Perhaps accelerating the global warming scenarios
2)The China question, as a large developing nation China is also heavily dependent on coal as a cheap and readily available energy source, and because of China's scarce resources it applies minimal polution control.
This combination does not bode well for the future. This reader thought the material was presented in a very professional manner. It was not a "the sky is falling" type of book. It is in fact a good book to obtain a balanced view. It explains how humans have lived with coal in the past and states that societies may have major decisions to make in the future.
Freese's exhaustively-researched and authoritative book informs of the problems coal has caused from the time of its earliest use: In thirteenth-century London, efforts already were being made to deal with polluting coal smoke. Coal-related disease in the 19th century reduced lifespans, increased infant mortality and caused debilitating disease. Coal miners traded away their full lifespans for their jobs. Freese's descriptions of child labor abuses are appalling. More than a dozen photographs and illustrations effectively support the text: The photographs of ruined children are heartbreaking.
Nor are the social costs neglected. For much of coal mining history, miners were serfs in effect if not in fact. Brutal suppression of miners' strikes, routine at the time the occurred, would not be tolerated today.
Given little emphasis is the role of coal in building the modern world, and in particular, western society. Coal fueled the Industrial Revolution in England, leading to world domination by English-speaking peoples. Our wealthy society and high standard of living was built on cheap energy, primarily dervied from hydrocarbons. Right or wrong, the role of coal in creating our modern way of life, lightly treated here, warrants deeper exploration.
In the end, Freese documents the terrible threat to our environment posed by modern-day coal-burning.Read more ›
Freese has spliced a valid contemporary environmental critique onto a strong historical look at the effects of our relationship to coal on cultural and industrial development. I should direct my critique at her editors because she is an excellent writer and supports her theses well. I believe readers would be better served with two pieces - a more fully explored environmental history of coal, and a follow-up companion treatise on the contemporary situation.
The book takes an odd turn, however, when it turns into political commentary and develops the themes espoused at Kyoto. There is no mention of all of the big coal towns that have sprung up over the last few decdades in the modern American West. Places like Gillette, Kemmerer, Craig or Rock Springs where truly world-class, state-of-the-art technology has come to the fore to mine the rock as economically and sensitively as possible. Similarly, there is no mention of the state-of-the-art rail systems that serve these hubs to bring coal to major metropolitan communities. And to, there is no discussion of new fluidized bed systems designed to burn the pulverized coal as cleanly as possible.
When I finished the book, I felt somewhat diasappointed that the theme of "A Human History" was truncated after Kyoto. If I had wanted to read a natural resources poli sci book, I would have bought one.
Nonetheless, the author is to be commended for her first attempt here and this reader looks forward to reading her next work.
Most recent customer reviews
This book is not so much about coal, as it is about the environmental issues surrounding its use. I would have thought, though, that even a book of this sort would provide at... Read morePublished on Feb. 23 2004 by Donald B. Siano
Barbara Freese's book has it all. It's about an important topic and it's very easy to read. The first few chapters deal with the discovery of coal as fuel, the pollution that... Read morePublished on Oct. 24 2003 by SPM
Who would have thought that something as dreary as coal, could be converted into interesting reading? Well Freese manages to do so, in an efficient, easy to understand manner. Read morePublished on Oct. 22 2003 by V. Harris
Between the covers of this brilliant little black book lie truths hard to stomach for some readers and easier for others. Read morePublished on Sept. 21 2003 by Robin
I found the book excellent in some aspects of outlining the author's research of coal in human history, but she lost it with a poor line of investigation on the future of coal due... Read morePublished on Aug. 20 2003 by J. Janos
Who'da thought coal could be so interesting?
Written in a very engaging, not-dry manner.
Good ammo if one is opposed to the use of this foul fuel. Read more
I moved back to the United States after living for about 8 years in Manchester, England. Even today, you can still identify the effects of coal in Manchester--from the many... Read morePublished on July 3 2003 by Richard Giordano
Coal doesn't leap to one's mind as a terribly interesting topic, now does it? This book, however, proves fascinating from start to finish. Read morePublished on June 6 2003 by Amazon Customer
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