- Coal: A Human History by Barbara Freese
Heinemann, 320 pp, £12.99, February 2004, ISBN 0 434 01333 1
Edward I knew a thing or two about coal. He hated its stink, and in 1306 banned the burning of it in his kingdom, threatening offenders with ‘great fines and ransoms’. There are even records of coal-burners being hanged, tortured or decapitated (sources don’t agree on the punishment: it’s possible all three were applied). After reading Barbara Freese’s book, you get the feeling that vigorous punishments may again be inflicted on coal-burners, for their impact on both human and planetary health is becoming dire. Freese is the assistant attorney general for the state of Minnesota, and spent 12 years prosecuting companies for the damage they do to public health.
Vol. 27 No. 2 · 20 January 2005
Tim Flannery says the US ‘is full of geriatric coal-fired power stations … maintained because new plants require pollution control mechanisms’ (LRB, 6 January). In the plain of central Arcadia, near the town of Megalopolis, the Greeks have built two gigantic power stations that run on lignite. This filthy coal is strip-mined locally and stored in long ridges across the landscape. Above the plain rises Mount Lykaio, once the site of a cult of Zeus which involved human sacrifice and werewolves. It was dangerous to enter the sanctuary, which is still there, because you would lose your shadow and die within a year. Pausanias was struck dumb with fear when he visited it. Were he to go there now he would be struck more forcibly by the sight of huge smokestacks sending columns of brown smoke straight up thousands of feet above the plain, the smoke then spreading out in the heat to make a strong-smelling mist across the whole area. But, as my MEP explained, attempting to stop this desecration is futile, because without these generators the lights would go out in Patras and Corinth, and the air-conditioning units in the tourist towns along the coast would fall silent.
Tim Flannery might not have thought it so mysterious that ‘Mother’ was frequently recorded as a cause of death in the mid-17th century if he’d recalled Lear’s ‘O, how this mother swells up toward my heart!’ The ‘mother’ is hysterica passio, an illness thought to cause choking and shortness of breath. Presumably it is this – rather than, say, infanticide – which is recorded in the necrological data to which Flannery refers.
Vol. 27 No. 3 · 3 February 2005
Tim Flannery says that carbon dioxide gas is ‘three times as voluminous as the coal burned’ (LRB, 6 January). As a good approximation coal may be considered to be carbon. A mole of carbon has a mass of 12.011 g and, since its density is 1.8 g/cm3, a mole of carbon has a volume of 6.67 cm3. On the other hand, a mole of CO2 (or a mole of any gas at standard temperature and pressure) has a volume of 22,400 cm3. So the gas is more like three thousand times as voluminous as the solid.
St Francis Xavier University, Antigonish, Canada