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Coal: A Human History [Hardcover]

Barbara Freese
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Jan. 7 2003
Prized as "the best stone in Britain" by Roman invaders who carved jewelry out of it, coal has transformed societies, powered navies, fueled economies, and expanded frontiers. It made China a twelfth-century superpower, inspired the writing of the Communist Manifesto, and helped the northern states win the American Civil War. Yet the mundane mineral that built our global economy -and even today powers our electrical plants-has also caused death, disease, and environmental destruction. As early as 1306, King Edward I tried to ban coal (unsuccessfully) because its smoke became so obnoxious. Its recent identification as a primary cause of global warming has made it a cause célèbre of a new kind.In this remarkable book, Barbara Freese takes us on a rich historical journey that begins three hundred million years ago and spans the globe. From the "Great Stinking Fogs" of London to the rat-infested coal mines of Pennsylvania, from the impoverished slums of Manchester to the toxic city streets of Beijing, Coal is a captivating narrative about an ordinary substance that has done extraordinary things-a simple black rock that could well determine our fate as a species.

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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.

From Booklist

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
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Well balanced book March 18 2004
By J. head
A very good account of the history of coal, The author explains the basics, the different types of coal and how they are formed, The book progresses onto early societies and their treatment of the "burning stones". As can be expected the major part of the book is about the industrial revolution and the struggle of cities such as London and Pittsburg to maintain a habital city..The coal industry became "King Coal" and became the industrial lifeblood in many countries. A vital industry over which industrial sectors were formed and labor rights were gained. The Final chapters of the book deal with the pollution problems brought on by the burning coal. Two serious points are brought up;
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.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Coal: The High Cost of the Good Life Jan. 21 2004
On the bookshelf, COAL: A HUMAN HISTORY promises to be another informative, fascinating study of a common substance along the lines of Mark Kurlansky's SALT: A WORLD HISTORY, and his delightful COD: A BIOGRAPHY OF THE FISH THAT CHANGED THE WORLD. But a rude awakening awaits the unprepared reader. We learn that the blessings of coal decidedly have been mixed.
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.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Coaldust May 20 2004
Freese does a middling job with Coal: A Human History. The first part was well-written, certainly well-researched, and included many interesting facts about coal. The text takes a tangent in the latter half, however. Her critique is really an unsuccessful attempt to explore the effects of coal to contemporary material and cultural history - which is implied in her title. For example, when earlier she shares historical quotes of the sublime quality of coal fogs in urban areas and its modern allure, later she critiques its negative environmental impacts without engaging these earlier anecdotes - there's a troubling disconnect in her analysis between past and present.
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.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Coal... a slightly different perspective April 20 2004
By A Customer
This is a truly insightful and fluid book. The story line is very well written and highly informative. It brings out the history of the black rock and weaves it quite compellingly into the history of modern western civilization. The differentiation between anthracite and bituminous coal serves to illustrate the differences between the East and the Midwest of the US.
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.
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Most recent customer reviews
2.0 out of 5 stars Just Another Jerremiad
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 more
Published on Feb. 23 2004 by Donald B. Siano
5.0 out of 5 stars A history of soot, smoke, and power
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 more
Published on Oct. 24 2003 by SPM
4.0 out of 5 stars Who would have thought?
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 more
Published on Oct. 22 2003 by V. Harris
5.0 out of 5 stars Little Black Book With A Great, Big Punch
Between the covers of this brilliant little black book lie truths hard to stomach for some readers and easier for others. Read more
Published on Sept. 21 2003 by Robin
2.0 out of 5 stars A Grand History But Short Sighted On Research & The Future!
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 more
Published on Aug. 20 2003 by J. Janos
4.0 out of 5 stars The author is a good speaker too!
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
Published on July 14 2003 by Mark M. Giese
5.0 out of 5 stars Coal dust
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 more
Published on July 3 2003 by Richard Giordano
5.0 out of 5 stars Highly Recommended!
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 more
Published on June 6 2003 by Amazon Customer
4.0 out of 5 stars Well-written and comprehensive
From the premise that coal is stored solar energy, Barbara Freese examines the role that coal has taken in the development of human history. Read more
Published on May 14 2003 by George R. Hundley
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