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17 august 2021

When I was a kid, and I guess to this day, the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago featured a descent into a "real working coal mine." This attraction, which fooled me for longer than I want to admit, is complete bullshit, rare for a 20th-century museum display. The 19th saw PT Barnum and the Cardiff Giant; the 21st has given us virtual reality and interactive edutainment; but museums in the 20th Century were by and large committed to sober presentation of facts and material items. The idea that there was an accessible coal seam on the shore of Lake Michigan that never ran out was a fabulous pretext for celebrating the American love affair with coal. The earnestness of the celebration somehow excused the brazenness of the imposture. (Presumably contemporary Chicagoland children descend more ironically.)

Despite evoking such fun memories, Ralph Crane's new book Coal did a lot toward tipping me into despair for our planet's environment. Crane, from Tasmania, offers insights into the future of Australian coal, and they are not heartening. Despite being a first-world country with notably progressive stances of late on such issues as the environment, indigenous peoples, and COVID-19, Australians seem determined to feed the world's inexhaustible appetite for coal, at some cost to their own ecosystems but much more to climate change globally. An unimaginably vast mine, called Carmichael but more often Adani after the company exploiting it – who now seem to have changed their name to Bravus, perhaps to make activists forget they were Adani – has now begun to extract coal; 10 million tons a year will be shipped to India and thence to the atmosphere. Concerns about every aspect of Carmichael were enough to slow it for a decade, but not enough to stop it; I think now that the human romance with fossil fuels will continue till they choke and bake us out of existence.

Much of Coal suggests an elegiac, romantic tone, a blend of the wonders of coal and the heat and power it provides, mixed with regret at the destruction it's caused to people and the environment. Coal provokes a self-contradictory feeling among those who grew up with it. Mining brutally exploits people as well as geology; mining wrecks lives, and the political organization of miners in reaction has brought down governments and economic systems. Yet when the mines are gone – or when the mines become too automated to support communities of miners – there is tremendous nostalgia for the ways of life that the fuel supported. Particularly in Britain, coal mining is the quintessential form of labor (and of Labour, the political party), and large stretches of the island can't seem to live with coal or to live without it.

And it's not just Britain, of course. Coal has a similar love-hate presence in middle America, and seemed pivotal in the 2016 Presidential election. Coal, as noted, looms large in Australia, whose largest state, New South Wales, is uncoincidentally named after the most celebrated British coal region. Coal is a way of life, loved and resented at once, in Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, and the Balkans, and used to be in Belgium, Spain, and France; the greatest French novel about labor, Émile Zola's Germinal, is also the greatest literary work about coal.

Crane is good on narrative (both film and prose) about coal, and discusses a wide range of coal appearances in the visual arts. His coverage of coal songs is Anglocentric and I think he underplays the American coal-song repertoire. Headed by Merle Travis' "Sixteen Tons," American coal songs sound a note of resentment about employers; but they too traffic in nostalgia. "The L&N don't stop here anymore," lamented Jean Ritchie, wishing the coal business would return despite its horrors. Somehow more blatant and subtler at the same time, John Prine painted a "Paradise" that only a child could idealize, where mine owners "dug for their coal till the land was forsaken / Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man."

"No less than fifteen of Shakespeare's plays mention coal," says Crane (107). But it may be less. Only two, as he notes (112) mention "sea-coal," the old term for the mineral – Henry IV, Part 2 and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Other Shakespearean usages of "coal" are color terms or less definite terms for things burning in a grate: "coals" is still current for bits of charcoal in a grill, for instance, and the word "charcoal" itself points to a more general usage of "coal" in English for stuff you burn.

"A diamond or a coal?" asked Christina Rossetti is a poem that Crane discusses (125-26). She concludes that pretty as a diamond is, coal is more useful when you're freezing your Victorian unmentionables off. The comparison depends on coal beings largely carbon and diamond, almost wholly carbon; one of the ironic juxtapositions of geology. "Carbon in the Coal," wrote Emily Dickinson,

And Carbon in the Gem
Are One — and yet the former
Were dull for Diadem —
No utilitarian she. Though Dickinson once praised the thermal value of coal. Some people burn so hot with energy, she wrote,
So Anthracite, to live —

For some — an Ampler Zero —
A Frost more needle keen
Is necessary, to reduce
The Ethiop within.
I literally have a Ph.D. in Emily Dickinson and I am not sure what she means there, except that those with a rage to live are harder to kill. And anthracite, the hardest and hottest of coals, stands for that kind of heat.

Coal was once an everyday immediate material fact in many households. Coal scuttles and their attendant little shovels are still antique-store staples, but coal has receded from view even as it remains central to the 21st-century energy economy. Even in Texas, which everybody associates with oil and gas and has recently become the major wind-power US state, about a fifth of electric power comes from locally-mined coal (down from a third not long ago). China, and India (as mentioned) are ramping up coal even as the fuel disappears from use in Britain, the first place to fully exploit its potential.

I was born too late to see those American coal scuttles in use. But just 40 years ago, when I first visited Ireland, many homes were still heated by open fires, and many of those fires were coal. Peat was more common and had a more local feel, but the nicest fires of all were those black, intense "sea-coal" fires familiar from Shakespeare. Terrible, terrible for the environment, unsustainable, but one can see why their nostalgic appeal persists.

Crane, Ralph. Coal. London: Reaktion, 2021.