Excerpt from Big Coal by Jeff Goodell, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reading Guide |  Reviews |  Beyond the Book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

Big Coal

The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future

by Jeff Goodell

Big Coal
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • First Published:
    Jun 2006, 352 pages
    Apr 2007, 352 pages

  • Rate this book

Book Reviewed by:
BookBrowse Review Team

Buy This Book

About this Book

Print Excerpt


It’s easy to forget what a luxury this is—until you visit a place like China. Despite its booming economy in recent years, the insulating walls of modern life have not yet been fully erected there. In restaurants, the entrées are often alive in a cage in the dining room. Herbs and acupuncture needles inspire more faith than pharmaceutical drugs. Toilets stink. In rural areas, running water is a surprise, hot water a thrill. When you flip the switch on the wall and the light goes on, you know exactly what it costs—all you have to do is take a deep breath and feel the burn of coal smoke in your lungs.

To a westerner, nothing is more uncivilized than the sulfury smell of coal. You can’t take a whiff without thinking of labor battles and underground mine explosions, of chugging smokestacks and black lung.

But coal is everywhere in twenty-first-century China. It’s piled up on sidewalks, pressed into bricks and stacked near the back doors of homes, stockpiled into small mountains in the middle of open fields, and carted around behind bicycles and old wheezing locomotives. Plumes of coal smoke rise from rusty stacks on every urban horizon. There is soot on every windowsill and around the collar of every white shirt. Coal is what’s fueling China’s economic boom, and nobody makes any pretense that it isn’t. And as it did in America one hundred years ago, the power of coal will lift China into a better world. It will make the country richer, more civilized, and more remote from the hard facts of life, just like us.

The cost of the rough journey China is undertaking is obvious. More than six thousand workers a year are killed in China’s coal mines. The World Health Organization estimates that in East Asia, a region made up predominantly of China and South Korea, 355,000 people a year die from the effects of urban outdoor air pollution. The first time I visited Jiamusi, a city in China’s industrial north, it was so befouled by coal smoke that I could hardly see across the street. All over China, limestone buildings are dissolving in the acidic air. In Beijing, the ancient outdoor statuary at a 700-year-old Taoist temple I visited was encased in Plexiglas to protect it. And it’s not just the Chinese who are paying for their coal-fired prosperity. Pollution from China’s power plants blows across the Pacific and is inhaled by sunbathers on Malibu beach. Toxic mercury from Chinese coal finds its way into polar bears in the Arctic. Most seriously, the carbon dioxide released by China’s mad burning of coal is helping to destabilize the climate of the entire planet.

All this would be much easier to condemn if the West had not done exactly the same thing during its headlong rush to become rich and prosperous. In fact, we’re still doing it. Although America is a vastly richer country with many more options available to us, our per capita consumption of coal is three times higher than China’s. You can argue that we manage it better—our mines are safer, our power plants are cleaner—but mostly we just hide it better. We hide it so well, in fact, that many Americans think that coal went out with corsets and top hats. Most of us have no idea how central coal is to our everyday lives or what our relationship with this black rock really costs us.

Copyright © 2006 by Jeff Goodell. Reprinted with permission by Houghton Mifflin Company.

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Support BookBrowse

Become a Member
and discover your next great read!

Join Today!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: So Say the Fallen
    So Say the Fallen
    by Stuart Neville
    Noir crime fiction – Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett anyone? – is an American invention...
  • Book Jacket: The Mothers
    The Mothers
    by Brit Bennett
    Every now and then the publishing industry gushes about a young author destined to become the next ...
  • Book Jacket
    by Tom Jackson
    Growing up in Mumbai in the '70s, I still remember herbs kept fresh in small glasses of water, ...
Book Discussions
Book Jacket
The Bone Tree
by Greg Iles

An epic trilogy of blood and race, family and justice.

About the book
Join the discussion!

First Impressions

  • Book Jacket

    The Comet Seekers
    by Helen Sedgwick

    A magical, intoxicating debut novel, both intimate and epic.

    Read Member Reviews

  • Book Jacket

    Cruel Beautiful World
    by Caroline Leavitt

    A fast moving page-turner about the naiveté of youth and the malignity of power.

    Read Member Reviews

  • Book Jacket

    News of the World
    by Paulette Jiles

    Exquisitely rendered and morally complex--a brilliant work of historical fiction.

    Read Member Reviews

Win this book!
Win The World of Poldark

Win the book & DVD

Enter to win The World of Poldark and the full first series on DVD.


Word Play

Solve this clue:

One S D N M A S

and be entered to win..

Books that     

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.


Free Weekly Newsletter

Keep up with what's happening in the world of books:
Reviews, previews, interviews and more!

Spam Free: Your email is never shared with anyone; opt out any time.