Publisher's description: The fascinating history of a simple black rock that has shaped our world--and now threatens it. In this remarkable book, Barbara Freese takes us on a rich historical journey that begins hundreds of millions of years ago and spans the globe. Prized as "the best stone in Britain" by Roman invaders who carved jewelry out of it, coal has transformed societies, expanded frontiers, and sparked social movements, and still powers our electric grid. Yet coal's world-changing power has come at a tremendous price, including centuries of blackening our skies and lungs--and now the dangerous warming of our global climate. Ranging from the "great stinking fogs" of London to the rat-infested coal mines of Pennsylvania, from the impoverished slums of Manchester to the toxic streets of Beijing, Coal is a captivating narrative about an ordinary substance with an extraordinary impact on human civilization.
The book starts pretty well, giving some highlights of the history of coal's critical contributions to the industrial revolution, some of which will appeal even to those only tangentially concerned about the history of technology and how our present world came to be. The tale of the resistance of Londoners to the use of more efficient stoves over the smoky fireplace with its visual appeal, now superseded by the TV, was fine to read.
Sorrowfully, there is not a word about the men who invented and developed the cast iron stove. The trials and tribulations of the men who enabled the transition of charcoal to coal in the production of iron is not to be found here. The important development of the coal-gas light, though described briefly, also totally neglects the chemistry, the men behind it and their heroic struggles. The production of coke is briefly described, but there is not even the briefest mention of the coal tar and the role it played in the development of the chemical industry. Although the transition of wood to coal burning locomotives is covered, the epical transition to the diesel is nowhere described. The properties and uses of the ash produced when coal is burned is also essentially ignored in this essay of environmental fantasies.
The book does have for much of its length, a preoccupation with the smoke generated by burning coal, its noxiousness, and its mentions in the novels and memoirs of the times. But where is the discussion of the characteristics of smoke, its particle size and densities, its variance with the type of coal and how it is burned? Neglected again. The possibility of the conversion of coal to a liquid petroleum-like fuel, and the enormous amount of research surrounding this possibility is likewise unknown to this author. Long wall mining techniques which have done so much to improve mine safety is not worth a mention either.
The author, an environmental solicitor and pleader, vaguely, feebly, and predictably argues for the complete replacement of coal by "renewable resources" such as solar power and windmills or something. Nuclear power is, in keeping with the usual dogma, dismissed in a sentence or two. The influence of this sort of discourse, while dominant for now among the media mongers and uplifters, will have little impact on our energy future. Our civilization, born in Northern Europe, has a record of steady and continuous improvement, and has a future that will be again filled with surprises and glories through the efforts of heroic engineers.
I appreciate the optimistic tone with which Ms. Freese addresses global climate change - an opportunity for humankind to surmount yet another challenge, with our ingenuity and understanding of our interconnectedness. In the future, perhaps folks will look with interest at our lengthy affair with coal and wonder.
Well worth reading.