Carbon Fever

By Barbara Freese

In their jacket blurbs for Coal: A Human History, historian Howard Zinn and several articulate environmentalists praise author Barbara Freese for her readability, thorough research, and “message.” They adequately describe the substance of Freese’s book, but certainly not its spirit. Treating Coal as a professional piece of environmentalist propaganda tells the reader what she could have deduced from the title and ignores what is quirky and engrossing about this book: namely, that it is a rhapsodic study of civilization’s central dysfunction.

Freese begins at the beginning–not of the Carboniferous period, when early, outrageous vegetation failed to decompose fully and formed coal, but of her own obsession with the subject. “I haven’t always viewed coal with such fascination,” she explains on page seven. “In fact, until recently, I seldom thought about coal at all. Like most people in developed countries, I had no obvious reason to do so. I wasn’t mining it or buying it, and I hardly ever saw it used…” The ingratiating tone of her introduction sounds almost conciliatory, as if she wishes not to be seen as totally weird for reading everything that’s ever been written about coal. I was just like you, once, she begins. I never touched the stuff…

The author’s coal-consciousness started when, as an environmental attorney for the state of Minnesota, she helped with a legal proceeding trying to quantify the impact of the state’s energy use on global warming. She was mesmerized by the ferocious response by the coal industry, with its “colorful and politically extreme” representatives and its “phalanx of scientists who testified that Minnesota should ignore what…the world [was] saying about climate change and argued instead that the climate was not changing except in small ways that we were all going to enjoy.” Rather than, say, reading a couple of books, she studied “from ancient history to modern geopolitics” and trekked from Minnesota to Inner Mongolia trying to grasp how “a deep, rich vein of coal runs through human history and underlies many of the hardest decisions our world now faces.” It is the articulate incarnation of Freese’s obsession, more than either coal or human history, that makes this a uniquely compelling book.

Not that coal isn’t itself a great subject. There have lately been a spate of biographies of various things (among them Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World) but surely few are as worthy as Freese’s subject. The speed at which 17th-century Britain came to consume coal necessitated a series of engineering innovations that we now take for granted. Following coal veins deeper and deeper required tunneling under the water table, which then required harnessing vacuum power to remove the underground water. This, in turn, inspired the piston, then the steam engine, then the locomotive. Importantly, the fuel for these inventions was also coal, so as the technology found its way into other industries, new industries were launched already coal-dependent. Greater furnace size yielded greater efficiency, which tied the technical realities of the new uses of coal to the consolidated power structures that characterize our industrialized world. This, too, remains: “Today, our computers are largely electrified by coal-fired technology that has changed little in its basic design since Thomas Edison,” writes Freese. The historical influence of coal dependency can hardly be overstated.

While coal was used in England as early as 1100, it wasn’t until around 1600, when the Britons had begun depleting their forests, that burning it became legal and coal replaced wood as the fuel of choice. The 500-year delay can be explained by the fact that its smoke was noxious. It stank of sulfur, eroded buildings, and its black particulates ruined clothing and textiles. As early as the 1650s, individuals convinced that coal smoke was killing people did rudimentary surveys that supported their theories. But as Freese succinctly puts it, “Coal’s pollution may have been killing them slowly, but a lack of heat would have killed them quickly.” This logic has become its legacy.

These bare facts, however, are no more engaging than those we might find in a textbook. It is Freese’s rich embroidery of detail, the fruit of her research, that makes Coal’s every page interesting. Did you know that Londoners began carrying their characteristic black umbrellas in the 1700s as protection from the coal-black acid rain? That Chinese coal miners descended their mines with kerosene lamps tied to their pigtails? That coal pollution was so bad in the 1800s that entire generations were deformed by rickets caused by a deficiency of vitamin D, which we get from sunlight? London was so shrouded by coal pollution that, living without sunlight, the bones of its inhabitants began to soften and bend–they began, literally, to wilt. Freese’s grizzly details illustrate every era, influencing as they engross.

Driving all this information is a narrative that seems to trip along without effort. The author’s style is professional but consistently enthusiastic, making it personable, even endearing. She characterizes the rise and fall of prehistoric oceans, which covered the vegetation that would someday be coal, as “a very slow minuet between the coastal forests and the sea.” “As the glaciers melted,” she writes, “the rising seas would step forward and engulf the tropical forests.” Then, “as the glaciers reformed, the seas would fall back and let the forests step forward again.” Geology classes are rarely so poetic. Later, when Freese tours a Minnesota power plant, she describes the sliver of white light emerging from the side of a boiler as, “blinding…like sunshine held captive underground for millions of years and finally set free.” She has internalized the origin, meaning, and significance of coal so completely that it has transformed her perceptions.

Although Freese loves what coal is and where it came from (she regularly reminds the reader of coal’s organic, accidental origins), the real story lies, as the title suggests, in the human history. Because coal is a passive subject, and the humans who interact with it pass so quickly and act so uniformly, humanity in this text melts together into a sort of unified body. This body interacts with coal as a high-functioning addict with a drug, and Freese writes like a therapist who has gotten too close to her patient. She is transfixed by the patient and the drug, by both the ingenuity and mutual destruction. Again and again, as society tries to meet its need for coal, it only amplifies this need, while ignoring the damage it does to itself. There is a giddy darkness to this story: the changes in London fashion meant to hide the effects of pollution, such as replacing tapestries with dark wall hangings, sound silly and sad, like a junkie wearing long sleeves in summer to hide her tracks. The boasts of each industrious generation are saturated with dramatic irony. We know, as they do not, that in the next chapter, their supposedly God-given conquests will be eclipsed by a new round of ambition and hubris. This long fall is always a page-turner.

Late in the book, when we arrive abruptly in the present, Freese loses some of her verve. The fits and starts of the late-20th-century push to regulate air pollution, along with the disturbing discoveries about pollution’s real effects and the emerging fight between industry and environmentalists within the rigged ring of politics, is frankly depressing. Even her apparently plausible plan for switching from coal to hydrogen-based power rings hollow. By this time, we’ve read about too many generations of short-term choices and centuries of self-destructive behavior. To expect industry and science and politics and the populace to collaborate in averting their own destruction feels a lot like willing arms to become wings about ten feet above the ground. If history serves, then man will only deviate from fossil fuels when they stop being available.

Most moving, in the end, was Freese’s almost wistful reflection on what the world might have been like without coal: “Humanity’s technological and economic progress might have been so gradual that progress could have been more humane, allowing us to avoid much of the misery of the industrial revolution, and possibly even to develop sustainable ways of living. Or, maybe the greater pressure on the limited resources of the land would have simply led to a different series of wars and injustices, along with lingering poverty and a more complete consumption of the wilderness.” Here, too, she speaks with the sincerity of having grasped something about human nature which, like the origin of coal, many people know, but few understand.

Emily DePrang is a freelance writer and photographer in Austin. Her work has appeared in the Texas Triangle, the Elegant Texan, and Curve magazine. She considers herself a wild success because she only waitresses four days a week now, instead of five.

Emily DePrang is a freelance writer in Austin.

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Published at 12:00 am CST