From ancient China to the Industrial Revolution to the notorious mines of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, coal has played an integral role in history, heating homes, driving economies, and even fueling wars. Over the years, the humble fuel has been widely hailed as an efficient, affordable, and readily available source of heat. But coal has also long been criticized for the pollutive, lung-wrenching smoke it gives off. Today, Martha discusses the rise and fall of this ubiquitous yet controversial mineral with Barbara Freese, author of "Coal: A Human History."

As Barbara explains, the ancient Romans and Chinese used coal ornamentally long before they discovered its value as a fuel. But by the time of medieval Britain, coal had replaced wood as the primary energy source. Centuries later, it spurred the Industrial Revolution and inspired the invention of the steam engine, and today the United States burns more coal than ever before.

But despite its allure as an energy source, coal also affects our everyday lives because of its damaging effects on air quality. According to Barbara, who is a former environmental attorney, coal produces sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide in high quantities when burned, and as such, coal burning leads to respiratory disease and even death, as well as environmental destruction and global warming. For these reasons, Barbara advocates the continued development and proliferation of wind, solar, and hydrogen power-renewable energy sources that may indeed have life-saving repercussions on our future as a species.

Barbara Freese

Perseus Publishing

Barbara Freese

"Coal: A Human History" (Perseus, 2003)


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