Summary and book reviews of Coal by Barbara Freese

Coal

A Human History

by Barbara Freese

Coal
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2003, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Feb 2004, 320 pages

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Book Summary

'Offers an exquisite chronicle of the rise and fall of this bituminous black mineral.... Part history and part environmental argument, Freese's elegant book teaches an important lesson about the interdependence of humans and their natural environment both for good and ill throughout history.'

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.

Chapter One
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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Reviews

Media Reviews

Desert News, 11/15/02

An interesting and revealing book on the history of coal as it affects human lives.

Publishers Weekly

....offers an exquisite chronicle of the rise and fall of this bituminous black mineral....Part history and part environmental argument, Freese's elegant book teaches an important lesson about the interdependence of humans and their natural environment both for good and ill throughout history.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. The history of coal, that unglamorous substance that environmental attorney Freese manages to buff until it shines like its distant cousin the diamond....Freese’s writing is a bit like coal--smooth and glinting, burning with a steady warmth--though with none of its downsides, for coal also contributed to miserable air quality, black-lung disease, scarred landscapes, and outrageous working conditions....It’s dirty, it’s cheap, and its past--in Freese’s hands--makes for an intriguing, cautionary tale.

Reader Reviews

daniel baisley sr

not enough reviews
I was sorry to see that there were so few reviews. I started reading COAL and could not stop. The only thing I am going to say is that I wish everyone concerned with our planet would read this book. Ms Freese combined history and the human story ...   Read More

JuJu2007

While this book may have been incredibly factual in content, it elongated many points and included unrelated information. It's information was unorganized and did not follow any sort of timeline which made it difficult to put important events in any...   Read More

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