Magazine article The New Yorker

Before Oil, Coal

Magazine article The New Yorker

Before Oil, Coal

Article excerpt

As the hunt for alternative fuels intensifies, the world finds itself looking to the past to secure the future. Barbara Freese's COAL: A HUMAN HISTORY (Perseus) offers an unflinching history of life in the mines: "Sometimes I sing when I've light, but not in the dark," an eight-year-old mineworker told a parliamentary commission on child labor in the eighteen-forties. During a visit to Manchester, Alexis de Tocqueville found that sulfurous smoke reduced the sun to a flattened "disc without rays." But in the industrial revolution, coal was also seen as "our species' salvation." It still provides more than half of the electricity in the United States, and, according to some estimates, ninety new coal-fired power plants are in planning stages.

Bituminous veins in Appalachia may have fed industry, but strip mining has also caused erosion, stream pollution, and mud slides. In 1945, the governor of Ohio, Frank Lausche, called the practice "sheer butchery. …

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