Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Coal: A Human History - Barbara Freese

Watt and Stephenson whispered in the ear of mankind their secret, that a half-ounce of coal will draw two tons a mile, and coal carries coal, by rail and by boat, to make Canada as warm as Calcutta; and with its comfort brings its industrial power.

So wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in the middle of the 19th century, brilliantly summing up why coal became so central to our lives. It allowed us to take the primitive world and turn it into one that is comfortable and civilized. However, it has also led to serious consequences: deaths of thousands of miners, particulates from burning, and carbon dioxide emissions that are driving climate change. Barbara Freese takes us on a journey from the first time coal was burned in Britain to today’s debate over coal’s role in climate change and how we can fuel our world without it.

Before the Industrial Revolution, coal use was inconsistent. During the Roman occupation, coal was mainly used to make jewelry, and only burned by blacksmiths. It wasn’t until the after the 1500s that coal use soared in Britain. By this time the forests had been cut down to such an extent that another energy source was needed. Despite the acrid smoke produced during coal burning, there was no choice but to accept it. No one knows for sure how poor the air quality was over London at the time, but an anecdote from Fumifugium, written in 1661 by John Evelyn, give some clues:

…the City of London resembles the face rather of Mount Aetna, the Court of Vulcan, Stromboli, or the Suburbs of Hell, than an Assembly of Rational Creatures, and the Imperial seat of our incomparable Monarch.

Naturally, the effects of coal burning were worse on the poor than on the rich, many of whom had a country home to where they could flee when the air quality became too bad. The rich also had the resources for regular bathing, and cleaning of home and clothes that the poor did not.

By the 17th century, demand for coal was so high that in places like Newcastle coal mining became a singular industrial focus, even more than agriculture. Freese outlines what this meant for the people who migrated to the area to work in the mines:

…rural immigrants…were crowded into the hovels the mine operators threw together to house them. They were not welcomed by their neighbours. The miners and their families, commonly referred to as a separate race of humans, were increasingly ostracized by society. According to one historian, “Coal created a new gulf between classes.”

This isolation of miners coupled with dangerous working conditions led to the development of a strong community and fierce solidarity which would later play out in some of the fiercest struggles for better working conditions in the British and American labour movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The greatest example of this being the miners’ strike in Britain in 1984-85 after the announcement by Thatcher that mines would be closed and jobs lost.

One mining danger, flooding, led to the invention of the steam engine which was used at mines to pump out the water at a much faster and cheaper rate than horse-driven devices. By adapting the iron manufacturing process to be compatible with coal-fired steam engines, Britain could finally produce its own iron, and speed the pace of industrial development both domestically and throughout the empire. By the mid-1850s, coal had:

…completely permeated society. It was not only directly present in the bellies of the steam engines, but indirectly present in the engines’ iron cylinders and pistons, in the looms’ iron frames, in the factories’ iron girders, and later in the iron railroads, bridges, and steamships that would define the industrial age.

This industrial development came at a price, and Freese uses the example of Manchester, epicentre of the industrial revolution, to illustrate coal’s “might and misery”. Coal-powered steam engines ushered in unnatural working conditions. Coal gas lights meant that workers could be toiling in factories at all hours. Machines never tired and had no idea of seasons, so work was no longer limited by the energy and output of the worker. It also led to an increase in child labour. Now that machines could provide the muscle and skill, employers jumped on the chance to employ children whom they considered “cheaper and far easier to discipline”, working them 12 to 16 hours a day.

In 1842 Friedrich Engels was sent to learn the family business at their cotton mill in Manchester. He wrote about the suffering of the workers in his 1844 book The Condition of the Working Class in England In an 1842 study of Manchester’s population, 57 percent of children died before they reached five years old. The poor had a life expectancy of 17 years, compared to the rural poor average of 38 years. Coal made Britain a mighty economy on the misery of the working poor.

The US coal industry fared little better than the British one, as Freese explains. British settlers of the 1700s believed coal was proof of America’s special destiny. The rapid pace of development and pollution due to coal continued here, beginning around Pittsburgh. In 1768 when the city had only 376 inhabitants, the first pollution complain was lodged:

…by reason of using so much coal, being a great manufacturing place and kept in so much smoke and dust, as to affect the skin of the inhabitants.

The course of industrial development in the early years of the US paralleled those of Britain: coal needed to be worked so it could run factory machines, and it needed a railroad to transport it from mines to urban industrial centres. This development had a serious effect, as Freese explains. Economic and political division between the industrial US North and the agricultural slave-dependent South deepened, leading to the US Civil War.

The Civil War transformed the US. The anthracite coal industry was the first monopoly formed, epitomizing the “gospel of bigness”. The Irish, fleeing the potato famine, found themselves again oppressed as they worked the coal mines. The legend of the Mollie Maguires – an alleged secret organization of Irish Catholic coal-mining terrorists – heated up as coal miners struggled against Franklin B Gowen who in 1873 brought together mine owners in a price-fixing agreement and weakened the miners’ ability to organize.

This was not the case in the bituminous coal industry of the western US where coal miners’ unions were seen as a stabilizing force in a competitive industry. This is where the United Mine Workers formed. Regardless, all coal miners lived in dehumanizing conditions, eventually rising up in 1902 when 150,000 anthracite miners went on strike. This led to an energy crisis as the bituminous mines could not meet the demand. Ultimately, President Roosevelt was forced to intervene to stop the strike.

During this strike the US learned how dependent it was on coal and how it could be harmed during a shortage. The strike also drew attention to the impact of coal burning on nature. Anthracite burns more cleanly, so when areas were forced to burn the dirtier bituminous coal it came as a shock:

"If New York allows bituminous coal to get a foothold, the city will lose one of her most important claims to pre-eminence among the world’s great cities, her pure atmosphere, ” said Andrew Carnegie, whose own steel industries burned bituminous coal that made Pittsburgh so unpleasant.

Across the country groups decried the effects of coal smoke and dust on nature and health. However, as many of those in the movement were women, their requests were seen as “frivolous” and “insufficient to warrant interference with something so vital to the nation as coal burning”. The argument to give up burning coal was difficult at the turn of the 20th century as natural gas and oil were small suppliers, and were not thought to be long-lasting by the coal industry.

As science and technology have advanced, we now know much more than many are comfortable knowing about the effects of coal mining, transport and burning on the environment and health. Freese spends the last third of the book investigating the recent past and the possible future for coal in relation to climate change.

Throughout the 1970s, evidence surfaced linking coal burning and sulfur dioxide to acid rain harming fish and killing plant life. The coal industry denied the link, dismissing acid rain as “a campaign of misleading publicity”. Fortunately for the coal industry, Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980 and nothing was done about emissions until 1990 when the Acid Rain Program was adopted, requiring power plants to cut sulfur dioxide emissions by nearly half by 2010. Despite this, nature is not rebounding as quickly as anyone expected.

Particulates from burning coal get into the lungs and can lead to lung conditions such as emphysema, bronchitis and asthma. It is difficult to determine exactly how many deaths from these conditions are directly related to coal but estimates put the number similar to that of car accidents – about 42,000 per year in the US.

Then there is carbon dioxide. Coal creates significantly more carbon dioxide when burned than other fossil fuels: twice that of natural gas and three times more than petroleum. With carbon dioxide playing the biggest role in global warming, the effects of increased carbon dioxide levels in the future are more worrying than what increase has already occurred.

Freese analyzes the trend towards carbon sequestration: capturing the carbon dioxide emitted and somehow permanently disposing of it. This in itself has problems, which Freese lists. Many of the underground locations to “hide” the carbon dioxide have limited capacity. Also, the ocean is not a viable location as dissolving carbon dioxide creates an acid that would affect marine ecosystems. Not to mention that it would take worldwide governmental cooperation on a scale never seen before.

Even green options have the drawback in that electricity needs generating directly when it is needed. Freese proposes that renewable energy be used to extract hydrogen from water and the hydrogen piped as oil and gas are to where it is needed to create electricity, or turned into fuel cells. She also mentions solar panels and wind energy as options for not only replacing coal as a fuel, but for breaking up the “concentrated power system that coal represents”. At least for the near future this energy will likely remain more expensive than non-renewables, says Freese, and would be what would hold the US back from switching.

Freese places the lack of movement away from coal on what she calls the “highly centralized, mass-produced approach to energy” controlled by “highly regulated monopolies” that have left little room for competition and new ideas, leaving a stunted technological evolution of the industry. Ridding the world of coal monopolies while the rest of the economic system stays in place will not result in a switch to cleaner energy generation. It is only when the profit motive is removed that we will see an energy revolution that will reduce our dependency on fossil fuels and move us towards a more sustainable world.

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