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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 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.


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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 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.

30 review for Coal: A Human History

  1. 5 out of 5

    Dan Walker

    This isn't a history of coal. OK, it is about coal, but a book written by a environmental lawyer isn't a history, it's a critique. Which really is too bad, because the history of coal is about the triumph of human ingenuity and will over scarcity and poverty. Is it always a pretty picture? Not even close. And Ms. Freese does an excellent job portraying the miseries of children working in mines, the pollution of London, etc. etc. But one gets the feeling that the miseries of coal are portrayed, not This isn't a history of coal. OK, it is about coal, but a book written by a environmental lawyer isn't a history, it's a critique. Which really is too bad, because the history of coal is about the triumph of human ingenuity and will over scarcity and poverty. Is it always a pretty picture? Not even close. And Ms. Freese does an excellent job portraying the miseries of children working in mines, the pollution of London, etc. etc. But one gets the feeling that the miseries of coal are portrayed, not because they are simply fact, but to strengthen our faith in the environmental mythology that the world was a better place before the industrial revolution. But the world is far too complex for such a simplistic history. In an apparent attempt to balance her views, Ms. Freese does, for example, allude to social and political problems that compounded the dirt and poverty of Manchester, but that is all. Just a brief allusion. After pages and pages cataloguing the miseries of coal, this brief sentence is all the balance this section of the book gets. In her summary, Ms. Freese does admit to how critical coal was (and is) to our modern world. But she speaks with certainty about how the industrial revolution could have occurred more humanely. Well, so it could have. But it is pure hubris to look back and confidently assert that, "if we would have only been in charge, we could have done it way better." She doesn't say those exact words, but that attitude is clear. Baloney. Fortunately she supplies us with exhibit A on why this attitude is not just wrong, but evil. She reviews Mao's attempt to industrialize China, and the misery and death inflicted on the longsuffering Chinese by people with the exact same attitude that Ms. Freese has: the certainty of being able to do things better, especially when endowed with virtual omnipotence. I'm thankful that Ms. Freese isn't in that position. So by all means, read the book. Just avoid the attitude. Remember that the people of history were human. They did the best they could with what they had. If we could have done better, it is above all because we have learned from their situation. Correcting the errors of history has more to do with confronting the overconfident, overzealous elitism displayed by Ms. Freese than it does with "correctly" guiding common people who are just trying to improve their lives.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Bill

    This book was recommended to me by a friend. Since I live in coal country and my dad was a coal miner, I decided to check out this book. I thought it was going to only focus on the history of coal, but I should've known better considering today's climate (pun intended). The history sections were well presented. However, when it came time to discuss coals effect on the environment, I found it very one-sided without even considering any other point of view. One such statement was when the author i This book was recommended to me by a friend. Since I live in coal country and my dad was a coal miner, I decided to check out this book. I thought it was going to only focus on the history of coal, but I should've known better considering today's climate (pun intended). The history sections were well presented. However, when it came time to discuss coals effect on the environment, I found it very one-sided without even considering any other point of view. One such statement was when the author insinuated that the world would be better had coal never been discovered or used. Her assumption that mankind would've discovered something better is laughable. If you live in coal country, grew up in coal country OR your livelihood is connected to coal you might want to consider this book. Just understand that outside the discussions of history, coal is painted as a destructive villain.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Bibliovoracious

    Coal can't be galvanized. But people sure can be, about the topic. This is a fascinating journey through the story of coal from discovery, to resource, to modern political issue. This is a history book, rich in science, facts, and interesting human anecdotes while describing major socio-economic shifts and cultural changes wrought as a result of one unassuming mineral compound. One that somehow is STILL polarizing opinion.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Ryan

    Decent environmental history but not really what I was hoping for. It's not really much of a "human history," except that it considers the impact of coal on civilization writ large in the UK, US, and China. It certainly doesn't spend any time on miners, the humans most directly concerned with coal, outside brief mentions of harsh working conditions and labor organization. There is almost no discussion of the actual mechanical processes involved in producing or using coal, and where that discussi Decent environmental history but not really what I was hoping for. It's not really much of a "human history," except that it considers the impact of coal on civilization writ large in the UK, US, and China. It certainly doesn't spend any time on miners, the humans most directly concerned with coal, outside brief mentions of harsh working conditions and labor organization. There is almost no discussion of the actual mechanical processes involved in producing or using coal, and where that discussion exists it lacks sufficient technical detail to teach the reader anything. I considered one-starring it for this reason: ostensibly 1/3 of the book is about the history of coal in the UK, and there is ONE mention of Wales in the entire book -- on page 16, the author notes that Bronze Age people in Wales used coal to cremate their dead. Unsat.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Stephanie

    Disappointed, wanted a more detailed history of coal. Got major, faulty diatribe on global warming. Hey, guess what? Snake eggs are not hard shelled, they are soft. She couldn't even get that right. what else didn't she get right?! There has got to be a better read about coal than this.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Leo Walsh

    Overall, Coal: A Human History is a fascinating and balanced look at the enormous and often unsung impact that this little black rock has had on our lives. Without it, there would have been no British empire. Nor would there have been an Industrial Revolution. Nor would the United States, whose huge coal deposits power our electric plants to this day, have ever become the economic juggernaut it became in the 20th century. Freese, though, is not simply a coal cheerleader. She also gives us the Overall, Coal: A Human History is a fascinating and balanced look at the enormous and often unsung impact that this little black rock has had on our lives. Without it, there would have been no British empire. Nor would there have been an Industrial Revolution. Nor would the United States, whose huge coal deposits power our electric plants to this day, have ever become the economic juggernaut it became in the 20th century. Freese, though, is not simply a coal cheerleader. She also gives us the bad side of coal. It is a very dirty hydrocarbon. It is responsible for the majority of our CO2 output, as well as most of our other pollution problems -- from acid rain to particulate matter. What I enjoyed about the book was its balance. It was not a hand-wringy Al Gore praching about the evils of coal. Nor is it a coal company encomium to the glory of the little black rock. Instead, she looks at both sides, and gives a fair account of the social impact of this amazing fuel. I also liked some of her points at the end about alternative energy sources, like solar photovoltaics. Like those technologies, coal was once an exciting and "iffy" place to be. But as time went on, it became sexier -- especially as it gave rise to king steel and the railroad systems. Now, coal may have run its course. Especially when we take into account Global Warming. It is no longer the sexy and exciting technology it was. And yet, the coal industry, instead of taking an active role in helping America use its product wisely, while they use their profits to fund research into future technologies, they spend time and money fighting regulation. Often, unfortunately, at the expense of the truth. In fact, most of the funding that still drives the "Global Warming Deniers" comes from coal companies. But Freese ends on a positive note. She notes that, in the end, there will be a need for coal for a long time into the future. But, as the price of alternative energy sources plummet, they will be forced into ever more creative research. There are myriad ways of using coal, and nearly all hydrocarbons. Could there be the next generation of plastics hidden in the molecular structure of coal, for instance? Overall good read. Fast, enjoyable and thought provoking. Plus, it mentions my mom's birthplace --Pittsburgh. And how coal was vital to that city's rise. And gave us Carnegie and steel.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Kyle

    I'm not sure whether or not I'm disappointed in this book. I've bee looking for a history of the coal industry for a while, and thought this might be the ticket. It does a great job looking at pre-industrial revolution uses of coal (the books best section), but falls down somewhat as it moves to 19th and 20th century America. There's some interesting discussion of the distinction between bituminous and anthracite coal and how their different placement shaped the coal industry, but I was left fee I'm not sure whether or not I'm disappointed in this book. I've bee looking for a history of the coal industry for a while, and thought this might be the ticket. It does a great job looking at pre-industrial revolution uses of coal (the books best section), but falls down somewhat as it moves to 19th and 20th century America. There's some interesting discussion of the distinction between bituminous and anthracite coal and how their different placement shaped the coal industry, but I was left feeling like I had only read anecdotes. Ditto the final third of the book, which focuses on China's coal industry: just a bit shallow. There's a lot of interesting stuff in this book, and if the author would have expanded this into a deeper, more comprehensive study of perhaps twice the length, I think it would be great. One thing this book does do very well, however, which I appreciate: The author takes great care to prevent her environmental biases from clouding her analysis. For a book of this depth, her assessment of the balance of the costs and benefits of coal is very fair. I would have loved to see these issues explored in greater depth.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Beth Cato

    This is an interesting overview of the complex relationship between coal and humankind, how the natural resource propelled people into the industrial age and many technological advancements even as it kills with both intimate and widespread forms of poison. The focus is on the zones: Britain, western Pennsylvania, and China. Freese's approach is even-handed, blunt in her descriptions of coal as a blessing and a curse.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Robert

    A small book, written in an accessible, entertaining style, this is not only a comprehensive, scholarly history of coal, but also a serious assessment of the cost/benefits of its current use. Freeze has a deep, wide-ranging knowledge of her subject, seems to know everything there is to know about coal - from its early use by the Romans, both for fuel and ornament, through it indispensable modern role in the generation of electricity. And she presents the full story in a succinct, interesting man A small book, written in an accessible, entertaining style, this is not only a comprehensive, scholarly history of coal, but also a serious assessment of the cost/benefits of its current use. Freeze has a deep, wide-ranging knowledge of her subject, seems to know everything there is to know about coal - from its early use by the Romans, both for fuel and ornament, through it indispensable modern role in the generation of electricity. And she presents the full story in a succinct, interesting manner, never losing the reader's interest in boring details, holding that interest by including a host of illustrative facts and anecdotes that keep the reader turning the pages. This is a real gift - especially for one writing economic and social history. And the history she writes is lucid and thorough. Seems to contain everything of importance but is particularly valuable in recounting the lesser known events: the story of the initial English use of coal as a fuel during the High Middle Ages, of the excessive pollution that burning it created in Elizabethan London, of the part it played during the Cultural Revolution of Maoist China when everyone was encouraged to produce steel in their backyards. Because Freeze once served as an assistant Attorney General for Minnesota enforcing anti-pollution laws, a major emphasis of this work is on the deleterious effects of burning coal, particularly on air quality and on its contribution to acid rain and global warming. But even in discussing these topics, she is objective, scientific, fact-based. She recognizes the continuing need for coal as a fuel, recognizes the essential contribution it makes to our way of life - but seeks practical solutions to the real problems associated with its use. She is about as far from being an environmental activist as she is from being a coal industry propagandist. Her objectivity is astounding - her ability to be truthful to the facts, to reality. (Personal note: I may be prejudiced. Freeze won my respect and trust by her masterful handling of the story of the Molly Macguires. I grew up in the anthracite region of Pennsylvania where hard coal and the Mollies were part of family folklore, were the source of endless arguments pro and con on whether the Mollies were terrorists or nascent union organizers or the innocent victims of a sinister plot to discredit labor. Living within biking distance of the jails were many of the Mollies were hanged, I have been intensely interested in their story since my youth, have read everything I could find about them, but have never found a fairer, more succinct, more judicious, a more consensual assessment of the Mollies than I found in the few pages that Freeze wrote on them. It made me a real fan of her.)

  10. 5 out of 5

    Vel Veeter

    My life was neither created nor destroyed by coal. So much of this book talks about the balance between cost and benefit/harm, but it also spends a lot of time focusing on the industries that built up around coal: iron, transportation, heating/engines. I grew up not in coal country, but adjacent to it in Virginia, where I would see thousands of coal trains over time. The history itself focuses on the development of coal as a fuel source, it’s other more ornamental uses in history, and eventually My life was neither created nor destroyed by coal. So much of this book talks about the balance between cost and benefit/harm, but it also spends a lot of time focusing on the industries that built up around coal: iron, transportation, heating/engines. I grew up not in coal country, but adjacent to it in Virginia, where I would see thousands of coal trains over time. The history itself focuses on the development of coal as a fuel source, it’s other more ornamental uses in history, and eventually the history of mining and use of coal to create the industrial world. Some of the scenes of innovation and early coal development, especially where they didn’t know how to get it out the ground effectively or move effectively belong in novels because they’re such curious moments, but most of this history is centered around broader questions. Throughout, Freese uses the metaphor of the genie in the bottle, where wishes can be granted but at costs. I thought this was apt. This is not the most thorough history book I have ever read, but it reminds me so clearly of one of my favorites Changes in the Land by William Cronin, about the ecological changes in the early years of the new world. I thought this was a minor but effective book. It’s funny then to hear people who clearly DO have their lives wholly intertwined in the coal industry look at this as some kind of biased screed. The only negative criticism except for how small this is makes it sound like she’s tearing down coal left and right. It’s funny because she’s definitely not. She’s simply stating: here’s what coal allowed for, here’s what cost. But it does illustrate the contentiousness of the issues surrounding coal.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Johnsergeant

    Narrator: Shelly Frasier Publisher: Tantor Media, 2003 Length: 7 hours and 18 min. Publisher's Summary The fascinating, often surprising story of how a simple black rock altered the course of history. 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 Narrator: Shelly Frasier Publisher: Tantor Media, 2003 Length: 7 hours and 18 min. Publisher's Summary The fascinating, often surprising story of how a simple black rock altered the course of history. 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 celebre 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.

  12. 4 out of 5

    T.B. Lutz

    This is worth reading, but in reality, it provides a very superficial overview of sometimes random aspects of the history of mankind's use of coal. I found the first half to be more interesting than the second, mainly because when discussing the history of coal prior to the mid 20th century, it is difficult to become too politically biased- the record simply is what it is. The latter half of the book displays the author's background as an environmentalist and global warming advocate, which certa This is worth reading, but in reality, it provides a very superficial overview of sometimes random aspects of the history of mankind's use of coal. I found the first half to be more interesting than the second, mainly because when discussing the history of coal prior to the mid 20th century, it is difficult to become too politically biased- the record simply is what it is. The latter half of the book displays the author's background as an environmentalist and global warming advocate, which certainly leads to a more subjective discussion of the past 50 years of so or coal use. I found the discussion of coal in China and her attempts to tie in an entirely separate discussion about globalization to be the most incoherent. The reality is this, 360 pages is hardly capable of mining (pun intended) much from the immense wealth of historical information around coal and it's impact on society. Had she stuck to a "human history", as her title suggests, and dealt primarily with anthropological discussions I would rate the book higher, rather she wavers from this and tries to stretch beyond the limits of her text, leaving you with more chronologically arranged random trivia than a truly thoughtful study of a single facet.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Angela Forfia

    I'll start by admitting that I am a sucker for these cultural histories of stuff--cod, coffee, cotton, tobacco, the potato, you name it. So, a human history of coal was appealing before I read a single page. Barbara Freese, an environmentalist and former assistant attorney general of Minnesota, provides a sweeping survey of the history of coal from the Romans carving black stones into jewelry to the open coal fires of early modern cities to American King Coal monopolies of the early 20th century I'll start by admitting that I am a sucker for these cultural histories of stuff--cod, coffee, cotton, tobacco, the potato, you name it. So, a human history of coal was appealing before I read a single page. Barbara Freese, an environmentalist and former assistant attorney general of Minnesota, provides a sweeping survey of the history of coal from the Romans carving black stones into jewelry to the open coal fires of early modern cities to American King Coal monopolies of the early 20th century...and down to the today's headlines about global warming and the pollution in Beijing. It is filled with hundreds of fascinating facts and anecdotes that drive you to the internet to learn more. How was child labor used in coal mines? What was urban versus rural life expectancy in 19th century England? How did the story of coal in China differ from its history in Europe? How did miners unionize? Can modern day coal plants sequester CO2? If you would like a wide ranging, thoughtful, and accessible history of coal that answers these questions--and more!--this is an engaging introduction to one of the world's key energy resources.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Sean Betouliere

    so damn good. full of compelling little historical details--the unimaginable filth and soot of industrial cities, where smoke blocked out the sky; the way that roads looked before pavement (gigantic muddy gullies, so deep that the top of a wagon would disappear within them); a royal attempt to ban coal back in 1306, which failed as the english demand for firewood outpaced the capacity of english forests; and also the crazy descriptions of what it was like to actually live and work in a mining to so damn good. full of compelling little historical details--the unimaginable filth and soot of industrial cities, where smoke blocked out the sky; the way that roads looked before pavement (gigantic muddy gullies, so deep that the top of a wagon would disappear within them); a royal attempt to ban coal back in 1306, which failed as the english demand for firewood outpaced the capacity of english forests; and also the crazy descriptions of what it was like to actually live and work in a mining town. this book brings history to life in a way that i wish -all- history books could. beyond that, it's a sobering account of the long history of industrial pollution, and of the blessings and curses of industrialization.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Bonnie

    What an amazing book. I want to thank JJ Lehmann, who handed me a beat-up copy, from a little used book store, I believe, earlier this year. What a gem. And, surprisingly for me, nonfiction! The author manages to tell the story of how humans have used coal, and its effect on society, which is much larger than I suspected, in an easy engaging manner. She describes how coal enabled the industrial revolution, the rise and spread of the British empire, the industrialization of the north and the ensu What an amazing book. I want to thank JJ Lehmann, who handed me a beat-up copy, from a little used book store, I believe, earlier this year. What a gem. And, surprisingly for me, nonfiction! The author manages to tell the story of how humans have used coal, and its effect on society, which is much larger than I suspected, in an easy engaging manner. She describes how coal enabled the industrial revolution, the rise and spread of the British empire, the industrialization of the north and the ensuing split of America into two main regions, and much more, including China. Yet the text is only 250 pages. Her style of telling the story was such that I felt kindly toward coal at the same time she described the terrible pollution that has resulted from its unrestrained use.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Arlian

    2.5 stars. While this book had some interesting tidbits of information, mostly it was incredibly boring and highly biased by the author. Not only does she state her incredibly boring and simplistic opinions regularly and repeatedly, they also (as the case with all authors and 'historians') constrain, control and define the kinds of questions she asks to get the answers she then presents. Ultimately this book was kind of a waste of time, but since I was listening to it on audiobook while filing a 2.5 stars. While this book had some interesting tidbits of information, mostly it was incredibly boring and highly biased by the author. Not only does she state her incredibly boring and simplistic opinions regularly and repeatedly, they also (as the case with all authors and 'historians') constrain, control and define the kinds of questions she asks to get the answers she then presents. Ultimately this book was kind of a waste of time, but since I was listening to it on audiobook while filing at work, it's whatever.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Christina Dudley

    I've been thinking about this book lately and considering rereading it, what with the consecutive days of terrible pollution in Beijing. A fascinating, well-researched account of our troubled relationship with coal. After reading about the environmental consequences and the hardships visited on coal miners, I was sorry to learn WA state still relies on it for a significant portion of its energy. But it's so irresistibly cheap and there for the taking that it won't be going away anytime soon.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Steve

    First half of Coal was fantastic. It is written with a good sense of humor and is incredibly interesting. Second half of Coal slows down a bit as it reveals the true drive of the book: pollutants released from burning coal and the destruction they've caused. Overall a great and educational read which wanders from hilarious to tragic.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Rebecca McNutt

    Whether you're for using coal or against using coal, the glittering carbon rock undeniably has a fascinating history. From the use of child labour that was fortunately stopped decades ago, to steelmaking and coking coal, to powering entire cities, coal has a past as deep as the mines it surfaces from, and this book talks about all of it.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Beth

    Without coal where would we be? With coal where are we? Tough topic tackled by an Environmental Attorney. It is hard to hate and loathe something that has brought us so far into civilization, yet, a vast majority of us do and continue to as we read by our electric lamps fuled by coal. Quite the conundrum.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Alec

    Fascinating read. The part about natural gas in the last section doesn't hold up after so many years, considering how it has helped to phase out coal and how hydraulic fracturing presents so many environmental hazards that negate natural gas's "greener" footprint; but overall, the book delves into how humans have used coal for centuries and, in the case of China, even longer and how the substance has affected essentially every avenue of life: health, work, travel, etc. Though it's not big, Coal: Fascinating read. The part about natural gas in the last section doesn't hold up after so many years, considering how it has helped to phase out coal and how hydraulic fracturing presents so many environmental hazards that negate natural gas's "greener" footprint; but overall, the book delves into how humans have used coal for centuries and, in the case of China, even longer and how the substance has affected essentially every avenue of life: health, work, travel, etc. Though it's not big, Coal: A Human History is fairly comprehensive, and I was well-pleased.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Ameya Warde

    My grandmother's family was coal miners in TN/KY for generations, so I found this book especially interesting. There wasn't much history of coal mining in that region, but there was about coal mining in general and how it got started in the US more generally.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Nathaniel Horadam

    Outstanding story that chronicles the rise of coal in Britain, America and China, and doubles as a history of industrialization.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Stephen Palmer

    Subtitled A Human History, this book surveys coal and its relationship with us and with our various cultures. Opening with a history of its finding and use in medieval Britain, it shows how for centuries coal was a misunderstood, disliked and even feared thing, until Newcomen made his steam engine and the Industrial Revolution came into view. Then, reluctantly, people began using it, though they continued to suffer from the sulphurous smoke. Further chapters look at the industry in America and C Subtitled A Human History, this book surveys coal and its relationship with us and with our various cultures. Opening with a history of its finding and use in medieval Britain, it shows how for centuries coal was a misunderstood, disliked and even feared thing, until Newcomen made his steam engine and the Industrial Revolution came into view. Then, reluctantly, people began using it, though they continued to suffer from the sulphurous smoke. Further chapters look at the industry in America and China. I liked this book a lot. It's insightful, well written, fair minded and ends with a warning about global warming. Though written in the early 2000s, its history and message still resonate, and will do for some time, as America and China continue to use this dirtiest and most polluting of fossil fuels. 

  25. 5 out of 5

    John

    The author spent about 80% of the book on various aspects of the history of coal - it's early uses and impacts over time on our ability to heat our homes and the transformative impact it had on technology. I really enjoyed these parts of the book. She showed how critical coal was the industrial revolution and was very frank about the negatives that came along with that use and progress. She told the coal story not just of the U.S., but also England and China. It was interesting and I learned a l The author spent about 80% of the book on various aspects of the history of coal - it's early uses and impacts over time on our ability to heat our homes and the transformative impact it had on technology. I really enjoyed these parts of the book. She showed how critical coal was the industrial revolution and was very frank about the negatives that came along with that use and progress. She told the coal story not just of the U.S., but also England and China. It was interesting and I learned a lot. The other 20% of the book was on the modern environmental impact of coal. Parts of this were also interesting, especially as she showed the real damage acid rain and particulate pollution has had. The book was published in 2004, so some of the trends she discusses on coal use are already outdated - as coal has already seen significant declines since she wrote. Where I felt she over-extended her argument was in the area of CO2 emissions and global warming. Her speculative arguments about the future were much less convincing then the current fact-based arguments about the other pollution affects of coal. In fact, I think if coal-opponents were to keep the focus on the "real" pollution and not cloud the argument with CO2, I believe the public opposition to coal would be greater than currently enjoyed with the sole focus on global warming threats.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Kelly

    Quick easy read. Coal obviously has been around for a very long time. Coal during the Middle Ages was thought to be associated with disease, death and the devil. As Europe began to experiment with coal, mining was done by the poorest and often time youngest members of the community. In Scotland families were bonded for life to a specific coal mine. The Chinese became the first society to use coal. China was many centuries ahead of Europe when it comes to coal mining, however they are using coal mo Quick easy read. Coal obviously has been around for a very long time. Coal during the Middle Ages was thought to be associated with disease, death and the devil. As Europe began to experiment with coal, mining was done by the poorest and often time youngest members of the community. In Scotland families were bonded for life to a specific coal mine. The Chinese became the first society to use coal. China was many centuries ahead of Europe when it comes to coal mining, however they are using coal more than any developed county is today. 5 million Chinese mine underground currently. Coal can closely be linked to the technology of canal systems, steam boats and trains in both Britain and America. USA became a world leader in coal in 1900 bypassing Europe. Labor relations in America's coal fields has been a bloody one - strikes were often accompanied with beatings, shootings or at a time massacre. For nearly a century Coal enjoyed its heyday in America and Europe. Coal is still in use in both countries today, just not as heavily. Coal provides half of the energy in America - some states get virtually all their energy from coal where other states use none. **coal and oil helped save the whales and the dwindling forests

  27. 5 out of 5

    Fay

    I recently finished The Race Underground which is about building subways in Boston and New York. That book reminded me that I have some history books I've been meaning to get around to. After reading Coal I decided I'm going to learn American history through books that focus on some historical event or thing. By reading Coal, I learned about unions, ancient Chinese history, the origin of the Mollie McGuires, steam engines, the Kyoto protocol and what coal IS. Fas. Cin. A. Ting! If you haven't app I recently finished The Race Underground which is about building subways in Boston and New York. That book reminded me that I have some history books I've been meaning to get around to. After reading Coal I decided I'm going to learn American history through books that focus on some historical event or thing. By reading Coal, I learned about unions, ancient Chinese history, the origin of the Mollie McGuires, steam engines, the Kyoto protocol and what coal IS. Fas. Cin. A. Ting! If you haven't approached history this way, I recommend Salt: A World History, Stiffs: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, How We Got to Now--an exploration of the legacy of six great ideas: clean, time, glass, light, cold and sound. I think the history of the fork is next.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Heather

    As an environmentalist and progressive, I was surprised by my enjoyment of the book’s historical sections on the importance of coal. It’s easy to sit here in the present and decry the evils of coal and those who support it. However, it wasn’t long ago that coal symbolized hope and prosperity for a country. Coal and industrialization brought about the modern era of which the present reaps the benefits. Freeze does an excellent job of telling both sides of the story. She does not downplay coal’s c As an environmentalist and progressive, I was surprised by my enjoyment of the book’s historical sections on the importance of coal. It’s easy to sit here in the present and decry the evils of coal and those who support it. However, it wasn’t long ago that coal symbolized hope and prosperity for a country. Coal and industrialization brought about the modern era of which the present reaps the benefits. Freeze does an excellent job of telling both sides of the story. She does not downplay coal’s catastrophic impact on the climate and human health. However, she is able to frame the story in a way that doesn’t demonize coal. Instead she gives a more accurate and holistic picture of our inextricably linked past and present with coal.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Bill

    Growing up in the anthracite coal region of Pennsylvania I knew a fair amount about that particular part of the story of coal, but this book was an interesting and quite facinating journey from the earliest uses of coal in the ancient world through to the beginning of the 21st century with a discussion of what may come next in the last chapter. As the author is an environmental lawyer don't expect much on the pro-coal side but even so she does cover the key role coal played in the industrial rev Growing up in the anthracite coal region of Pennsylvania I knew a fair amount about that particular part of the story of coal, but this book was an interesting and quite facinating journey from the earliest uses of coal in the ancient world through to the beginning of the 21st century with a discussion of what may come next in the last chapter. As the author is an environmental lawyer don't expect much on the pro-coal side but even so she does cover the key role coal played in the industrial revolution and the rise of western Europe and the US in the modern age.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Richie Partington

    23 April 2003 COAL: A HUMAN HISTORY by Barbara Freese, Perseus, February 2003, ISBN 0-7382-0400-5 It's a complicated yet amazing game: Life on Earth: A bug sat in a silver flower thinking silver thoughts. A bigger bug out for a walk climbed up that silver flower stalk and snapped the small bug down his jaws without a pause without a care for all the bug's small silver thoughts. It isn't right it isn't fair that big bug ate that little bug because that little bug was there. He also ate his underwear. --Karl 23 April 2003 COAL: A HUMAN HISTORY by Barbara Freese, Perseus, February 2003, ISBN 0-7382-0400-5 It's a complicated yet amazing game: Life on Earth: A bug sat in a silver flower thinking silver thoughts. A bigger bug out for a walk climbed up that silver flower stalk and snapped the small bug down his jaws without a pause without a care for all the bug's small silver thoughts. It isn't right it isn't fair that big bug ate that little bug because that little bug was there. He also ate his underwear. --Karla Kuskin "Like living solar collectors handily dispersed all over the planet, plants capture sunshine as it arrives and convert it into chemical energy that animals can eat...Animals eating plants take that stored energy into their bodies, where they not only store it in concentrated form but disperse it through space. A flock of geese, a pod of whales, a herd of caribou--they are all, on some level, mobile battery-packs. They gather solar energy that falls upon one patch of the planet and deliver it to another as they migrate; in this way, they make life possible for their predators even when, for example, the snow is thick and there is not a green leaf in sight. Life on earth is, in short, a vast and sophisticated system for capturing, converting, storing, and moving solar energy, the evolutionary success of each species depending in significant part on how well it taps into that system...In the animal kingdom, one of the species that can most efficiently turn the calories of its food into useful mechanical energy is our own...Our metabolisms are astonishingly energy-efficient, and that undoubtedly gave us an evolutionary advantage over other species. Perhaps this advantage helped give us the big brains we needed to figure out yet another way to tap into the stream of solar income captured by plants: fire." Now fast-forward a half-million years, from that point when Early Man learned to control fire, to a time when many men have learned to dig and burn a portion of that stream of solar income which was trapped underground in the form of big black lumps: "By 1700, a book called City Gardener had been written; it listed the types of plants thought hardy enough to survive coal smoke 'so that everybody in London or other cities where coal was burnt might delight themselves in the pleasures of gardening.' " Barbara Freese has written a thoroughly entertaining and enlightening book about coal and its entanglement with human life. It is SO difficult for me to pick just a few snippets to share. Within just the first few dozen pages we learn about those plants (existing before the dinosaurs) which became the coal. We learn about prehistoric continental drift of the British Isles. We learn why the Church owned all the coals in Newcastle--until Henry VIII came along--despite the evilness attributed to coal by the Church. Further on, we hear the story of two guys out fishing in a boat when the river they're on breaks through its bed to a mine, leaving the fish high and dry! I'd love to have been Barbara's research partner in school! Having mined hundreds of disparate sources to yield multidisciplinary facts--scientific, historic, cultural, political, economic, and literary--she has melded this great wealth of information into a book filled with connections that is rich enough to easily center an entire semester's study around, yet as readable as a good magazine piece. Her three settings for examination of humans and coal are Britain, America, and China. "The lives of factory workers in Manchester, and in the other new industrial cities rising up around Britain, were shaped by the burning of coal just as the coal miners' lives were shaped by the digging of it. Coal made the iron that built the machines the workers operated as well as the factories they worked in, and then it provided the power that made the machines and factories run. Coal gas provided the lights the workers toiled under, letting their work day start before dawn and end after dusk. When they left the factory doors, they would walk through a city made of coal-fired bricks, now stained black with the same coal soot that was soiling their skin and clothes. Looking up, they would see a sky darkened by coal smoke; looking down, a ground blackened by coal dust. When they went home, they would eat food cooked over a coal fire and often tainted with a coal flavor, and with each breath, they would inhale some of the densest coal smoke on the planet. In short, their world was constructed, animated, illuminated, colored, scented, flavored, and generally saturated by coal and the fruits of its combustion." Manchester, immersed in coal, was one of the major cities at the center of a revolution. Britain rose to rule the world, thanks to the industrialization fired up with her coal, and so, thereafter, did the United States, ascending in its turn courtesy of old King Coal. The author reveals how it was inevitable that the coal-rich Yankees would defeat the coal-poor Rebels, for all those resources that meant strength in war were rooted in a superior coal supply. While exploring the history of coal in the US, Ms. Freese touches on such subjects as how coal saved the last of the whales, how coal fired up unionization, and how coal created canals, birthed railroads, and was thus responsible for settling the West. But with the progress came the smoke and soot. Attempts to clear the air began in the nineteenth century: "It was generally understood that merely aesthetic objections to smoke and soot were insufficient to warrant interference with something so vital to the nation as coal burning, so the impact of smoke on health became the focus of most activists. Unfortunately...belief that smoke had antiseptic properties still lingered; indeed, the era's tight focus on germs and epidemics, which had motivated cities to spend vast sums on water and sewage projects, made smoke seem safe by comparison. As late as 1913, when Birmingham steel mills pressed the city to repeal its new smoke abatement law, a physician supported their case, pointing out that smoke could not possibly be harmful because, having been purified by fire, it did not carry germs. A Chicago coal dealer defending against smoke abatement efforts had gone even further when, in 1892, he argued that the black carbon deposited by smoke in the lungs actually purified the air as it passed through the carbon and into the blood." The author brings us forward to the currently existing threats to the health of US citizens (and to the long term sustainability of the planet). American households and factories have long since moved away from burning coal, but it remains the primary fuel for generating the nation's electricity. Freese explains recent political debates, and introduces us to a coal executive who touts the benefits of doubling or tripling the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Then we leap to China, a third country with rich coal deposits and a rich history of exploiting those resources. Far ahead of the West in utilizing coal when we look back to past millennia, the author shows how Mao's Great Leap Forward set them quite a few paces backward as a result of trying to literally turn industrialization into a backyard industry. During the late 1950s: "Peasants, factory workers, doctors, and schoolchildren tried to help meet the party's steel production targets. (Actually, they were mostly trying to produce pig iron, which would theoretically be turned into steel at steel works.) As many as a hundred million Chinese--roughly twice the entire population of Great Britain, the nation whose steel production they were trying to top--were feverishly employed in the feeding and tending of an estimated 1 to 2 million little furnaces, some of them built in a matter of hours. "In putting the masses to work in this way, Mao had overlooked many things, including the huge amounts of coal that steel production requires...By the end of 1958, by one estimate, some 100,000 coal pits were in operation, worked by some 20 million peasants." Freese traveled to China while researching this book, visiting current mining and power production facilities, and she is able to report on the real leaps forward in productivity and efficiency that were achieved as a result of Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms. On the other hand, she also details how China, which in recent years has laid claim to half of the world's ten most polluted cities, is currently responsible for significant levels of air pollution migrating to North America. From the facts she lays out, it is clear that the US and China must both cooperate with other industrialized nations if any plan to counter global warming and mitigate rising levels of sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide is to succeed. Having utilized centuries' worth of source materials for this project, the author includes thirty pages of notes, detailing exactly where she's found each of the book's quotes and anecdotes. The combination of these notes with her bibliography guides readers toward any source materials they may wish to examine. Barbara Freese weaves all of these aspects of coal and life on earth into an attention-grabbing tapestry. COAL: A HUMAN HISTORY is both a captivating read and a book of major importance for young adults whose futures and those of their children may literally sink or swim depending upon the mercy of Mother Nature and the long term effects of crucial energy decisions people are making today in countries around the world. Richie Partington, MLIS Richie's Picks http://richiespicks.com [email protected] Moderator http://groups.yahoo.com/group/middle_... http://slisweb.sjsu.edu/people/facult...

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