Monday, April 09, 2012

A Surprisingly Human History - "Coal" by Barbara Freese


I am not sure I would be aware of this remarkable book had I not had the fortune to share office space with Eric Grunebaum, one of the producers of a documentary film called "The Last Mountain." The film was aired at the 2011 Sundance Festival. As Eric and I were discussing the film and its theme of the destruction being wrought in West Virginia by coal mining techniques, he sensed my interest in the topic and handed me a copy of "Coal - A Human History." I am glad that he did.

In her polemical treatment of the history of coal and its impact over the centuries on several civilizations, Barbara Freese does indeed tell a very human history, highlighting the impact - for good and for ill - that coal has had, especially in the UK, the U.S. and in China. Her research is solid; her writing and summarizations are fair and impactful. As I reader, I was encouraged to "dig deep" in trying to understand the historical background of coal and the role that it has played in shaping the world and planet we inhabit today.

In describing a particularly bleak period in England when many deaths resulted from the smog that often descended upon London, she offers a perspective that serves as a cautionary tale for modern society if we fail to ask the right questions:

"Nineteenth century Londoners probably had the statistical skills to detect these deaths long before they actually did, if they had only looked. This was, after all, the city where John Graunt had shown two centuries earlier how much can be learned by counting the dead. Perhaps they didn't look because they had been living so long in a fog of their own making that they simply took it for granted. They stopped asking the harder questions about the impact this unnatural new world they'd created so energetically was having on its human inhabitants." (Page 100)

This book will be of interest to those who are concerned about the environment, who are interested in the Industrial Revolution, and those who seek to "ignite" the fire of their intellectual curiosity about a particularly fascinating aspect of our developmental history.

For information about "The Last Mountain," follow this link:

2 comments:

Boris T said...

It's funny how this was really not that long ago in our history - and yet how quickly events and the mistreatments of people/the environment flutters from our minds

Looks fascinating - will have to take a look!

Eric Grunebaum said...

Thanks for the great review Al.

As I alluded to earlier today, the amazing thing about the quote you pulled is that it's still true today.

Epidemiologists might argue over whether coal causes 10k or 30k fatalities today, but the human and economic costs are staggering.

One report by Dr. Paul Epstein at Harvard School of Public Health pegs them at $345B/year or .18/kWh of electricity.

That means coal is double or triple the cost of wind power - today. (Sadly, Dr. Epstein passed away late last year...)

Thanks -
Eric