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 célèbre 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.
A Portable Climate
In the summer of 1306, bishops and barons and knights from all around England left their country manors and villages and journeyed to London. They came to participate in that still novel democratic experiment known as Parliament, but once in the city they were distracted from their work by an obnoxious odor. These nobles were used to the usual stenches of medieval towns--the animal dung, the unsewered waste, and the rotting garbage lining the streets. What disgusted them about London was something new in the air: the unfamiliar and acrid smell of burning coal. Recently, blacksmiths and other artisans had begun burning these sooty black rocks for fuel instead of wood, filling the city streets with pungent smoke. The nobles soon led popular demonstrations against the new fuel, and King Edward I promptly banned its use. The ban was largely ignored, so new laws were passed to punish first offenders with "great fines and ransoms." Second offenders were...
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