Last summer's plight of nine Pennsylvania crewmen trapped 240 feet underground reminded the nation that coal mining still exists. Because nine of every 10 tons of the nation's coal vanishes into power plants, many Americans hold the illusion that coal is no longer a major energy player, but here's the reality: Coal produces at least half of the nation's electricity, and we're burning more of it than ever before. In Coal: A Human History, author Barbara Freese tells the remarkable story of how this fossil fuel has shaped and shortened untold thousands of lives, tracing the history of the substance to long-ago times in Asia and Europe when it was used as jewelry and when some folks, considering coal a form of living vegetation, suggested that rubbing it with manure would help it to grow. Freese points out that coal fueled the steam engine, which, as the waterwheel's successor, became the pumping heart of the Industrial Revolution in England and perhaps the most important invention in the creation of the modern world. And by fueling the railroads, coal became the number one factor in converting the wilderness that was the United States into an industrial power. It also helped the Union defeat the Southern states in the Civil War.
More than a tale of history, this book is also a plea for action by governments now making energy investments that will be with us for decades. An assistant attorney general in Minnesota, where she battled coal firms charged with fouling the environment, Freese was fascinated by coal's history but angered by its modern-day effects. She quit her job primarily to research this book. She cites estimates linking power plant emissions to 30,000 deaths annually in the United States and to as many as a million in China. Coal thus becomes a strong plea added to an ever-growing international chorus asking governments to remove risk from the act of breathing.