Monday, January 14, 2013

Coal: A Human History

Coal: A Human History by Barbara Freese

I downloaded the audiobook from the public library's OverDrive service.

My review:

This book attracted me because I grew up and still live in coal country. My parents worked at a coal mine on their college breaks (Mom in the office and surveying departments; Dad was down in the mines), my grandfather had a coal furnace in the basement, and strip mines are a significant feature of the landscape in certain areas. So, bias alert: I'm a friend of coal.

Barbara Freese presents an engaging look at the social and economic impact of coal throughout the thousands of years that humanity has been using it. Coal has often been closely linked to extremes of our human experience-- to brutal exploitation, danger, and suffering, as well as to staggering achievement and progress. While it definitely has an Anglo-Saxon focus, it does eventually get around to China and mentions (in passing) the coal resources of Europe.

So the social history interested me and I felt that those passages of the book were well-done. That heart of the book was unfortunately sandwiched between Freese's political agenda. She makes no secret from the very beginning of the fact that she is an environmental attorney. I do think that she tries to be unbiased in the historical sections of the book, and she does a decent job of that there.

But... (like I said, I have my own bias here!):

Freese spends a lot of time speculating about the vast death toll, innumerable illnesses, and untold environmental impact. She was fond of pulling out terrifying figures and catastrophic statistics, but they were usually preceded by phrases like "some suggest..." "it may even..." or "perhaps as high as..." She paints an extreme picture, but a close reading/listening reveals that the scientific data is not really conclusive on any of those factors. Her take on the situation is one take among the many, many possibilities left open by the available data.

Similarly, at the close of the book she sketches for us a new glory age of hydrogen energy, which will have been ushered in by a transitional era of reliance on natural gas in lieu of coal. Aside from the fact that I don't think this could be as great or attainable solution as she makes it out to be, Freese wants to achieve this through increasing environmental restrictions with the stated purpose of running the coal operations out of business. She grudgingly admits that this will be hard on the miners who lose their livelihoods, but hastens to add that the number of lives saved through lower pollution will outweigh that cost many times over. First, nobody even knows how many deaths have even actually been caused by coal, so it's equally impossible to know how many lives will be saved. Second, she's quick to select the sacrificial lambs that she thinks deserve to bear the burdens of the transition away from coal power. The entities to make the sacrifices are the already-developed nations-- specifically the United States, with the regions that depend largely or in whole on coal paying the bulk of the cost. We are supposed to take the hit so that developing nations can continue to pollute as we did in the past.

Just read Atlas Shrugged for an approximate idea of what I think of that.

Anyway... rant over.

Stars: 2.5

Runability: 2.5

No comments:

Post a Comment