Shedding Light on History Through the Story of Coal

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When Barbara Freese was an assistant attorney general for Minnesota, she represented the state's pollution control agency. In that capacity, she regulated industries that burn coal; eventually, she got involved in a proceeding that focused on the effects of coal burning on climate change.

"At that time, I found myself getting very curious about coal and its role in our society and history," she told BTW. Freese searched far and wide for books that would give her background on the substance. She found academic treatises discussing the use of coal in industry, energy policy exposés, and "juicy, bloody," labor histories, but not a single volume covering coal in an accessible manner.

So, Freese decided to write her own book, Coal: A Human History (Perseus), a January/February Book Sense 76 top ten pick. In it, the first-time author traces the history of coal use, beginning 300 million years ago, and leapfrogs, for instance, to the use of coal in Britain, "the first nation to be thoroughly transformed by releasing the genie of coal," she writes. In turn, Freese sheds light on how coal fueled the transformation of societies -- such as England, Germany, China, and the U.S. -- into industrial nations. (In recent years, coal use in the U.S. and China has been increasing steadily, by the way.) "However," Freese warned, "we're going to be forced to deal seriously with climate change in a few years, and, when we do, we're going to start cutting back dramatically on our coal use."

Freese said that coal put England at the vanguard of industrialization and global power, and, then, its use swept through the rest of the world and had an enormous effect on history. "I wonder what language we would be speaking if, say, France or Spain had all that coal and had been the first ones to really dig into it?" she said. "I'm not sure the British Empire would have gone very far, or that America would have been an English-speaking nation."

In the book, Freese also sheds, well, darkness on coal's polluting effects, which have caused widespread death, disease, and environmental ruin throughout history. She writes about Manchester in the 1840s, where there were "nearly 500 chimneys discharging masses of the densest smoke," and London in the 1600s, "A Suburb of Hell" where no flowers would grow, and where smoke was blamed for killing multitudes.

"You really need to see both sides of it," Freese said. "Coal has this incredible source of power and it can grant all kinds of wishes -- as I used the 'genie' metaphor in the book -- but it's done so at a very huge cost."

The author packs a tremendous amount of intriguing information into a relatively short (300 pages) and engaging volume. Perhaps, her vivid writing style was fueled by her fascination for her subject -- or, rather, subjects. "What happened was that coal became a vehicle to learn about so many other aspects of our world," Freese said. "If you're interested in how the world became the way it is, and in what might happen to it next, coal turns out to be a really revealing way to learn about that."

At one point during the writing process, a friend asked her if she was getting bored spending so much time studying the substance. Freese then realized that she was following her curiosity into all sorts of fascinating areas. One week, the author would be studying old paleobotany texts in order to learn about ancient coal forests. A few weeks later, Freese would learn about the industrial revolution, and then the rise of capitalism and communism. A month later, she'd be studying the labor history of 18th and 19th century Pennsylvania miners. "To me, coal was this thread that led through all kinds of areas of history, science, and politics," she explained.

Freese started working on the book shortly after leaving the Minnesota attorney general's office in 1999. Not surprisingly, she spent plenty of time in the University of Minnesota library system, "which is fortunately pretty vast." She would visit a branch and immerse herself in a subject for a certain number of months, and that would end up turning into a chapter. "And then I would have to take all those books back in a suitcase with wheels because there was no way I could carry all of them!" she laughed.

Often, Freese would take notes while reading her material, but when she was done with a text, she would also ask herself, "What do I remember?" she said. "And those tended to be the bits that I would collect and weave into my narrative." That approach enabled Freese to mine a rich collection of memorable vignettes, anecdotes, and factoids about the history of coal.

Then, she explained, came the challenging question of "how to use all of these little pieces of information while illuminating some larger issues, some pretty epic themes, like the rise of the industrial civilization, and our relationship with nature. I often felt I was making a quilt when I was writing this book. The challenge was to put everything into a single, and hopefully artful, story." -- Jeff Perlah