'Farewell, King Coal, From industrial triumph to climatic disaster' by Anthony Seaton (Dunedin Academic Press)
In recent months I seem to have been reading a range of books and watching programmes that have focused on the fragility and vulnerability of human life. Last year's celebration of the 100th anniversary of the ending of the first world war no doubt played a major part in creating this impression. Picking up 'Farewell, King Coal' seemed to offer something different – simply an account of the rise and fall of the coal industry. But as we shall see, I should have paid more attention to the book's subtitle – 'From industrial triumph to climatic disaster'.
Professor Seaton's erudite and informative study draws heavily on a lifetime's work experience. A graduate in medicine from Cambridge University in 1962, he went on to teach and research in a range of British and American universities. After a spell at the University of West Virginia, he became a consulting chest physician in the University of Wales in Cardiff. A few years later he became director of occupational medicine in Edinburgh, and finally in 1988 took up a position as head of environmental and occupational medicine in Aberdeen. By then he had become an acknowledged expert in lung and respiratory diseases, and as a result was able to combine his university duties with service on important national committees in such areas as air pollution, air quality, industrial injuries, and human health and the environment.
Thus this book looks back on a successful career in environmental medicine and disease, and effectively sets out the conclusions the author has arrived at in relation to the long-term dangers that coal mining has had not only upon those who worked in the mining industry, but upon all of us given that, like all fossil fuels, coal has beyond question had a damaging impact on the climate of our world.
In his opening chapters, however, Seaton tells the story of how coal mining expanded, from the middle ages on, to become our major source of fuel and soon of power as well. He shows how it was coal that made the Industrial Revolution possible. And of course it was the triumphs of industry that created the world in which we still live. By 1901, coal production in the UK alone reached an annual level of 225m tons, and the mines employed 780,000 workers. Coal was king indeed. But at what price? In the same year, 1,100 British miners lost their lives working in the pits.
Over half the 14 chapters of 'Farewell, King Coal' turn out to concern the risks and dangers of the life of the coal miner. With titles such as 'What does coal do to miners' lungs?' and 'Tying it all up: bronchitis, emphysema and pneumoconiosis', the emphasis is clear. From its beginning, and for almost all of its existence, coal mining was a desperately dangerous industry. The most obvious evidence of this was the frequency of individual deaths caused by rock and coal falls underground. But headline-hitting pit disasters costing huge numbers of lives were not uncommon.
Older readers may recall the dreadful event in October, 1966, in the South Wales mining town of Aberfan, when heavy rain made a mine tip collapse and run down its hillside burying a primary school and all those in it. 116 children and 28 adults died. But Seaton is able to cite numerous examples of mine disasters costing almost as many miners' lives.
Inevitably, in the history of mining there had always been calls for more to be done to improve the working conditions and protect the lives of miners. Such pressure grew with the emergence of trade unions such as the NUM. But what is most striking is the way it almost always took yet another horrifying pit disaster for parliament to get round to passing new legislation. When it began to become clear that smoke from coal-burning house fires was largely responsible for lethal levels of dense fog blanketing our towns and cities, a similar pattern was repeated.
Just as mine owners and all those profiting from the toil of those working underground were reluctant to make the changes that job security demanded, so there was resistance to the calls for clean air legislation. When such legislation was finally passed, it was usually the result of the public outcry over the sharp rise in the number of deaths in vulnerable groups occasioned by these bouts of cold, dense fog. (Like Professor Seaton himself, I am of the generation who remembers all too clearly how in the 1950s in the city of Edinburgh, the fog could be dense enough to prevent one seeing the houses across the street and telling whether one was walking on the road or the pavement.)
The final chapters of 'Farewell, King Coal' focus on the damage coal, and other fossil fuels, are causing the world's climate. The account Professor Seaton provides is far from reassuring. In the closing paragraph of his book he writes: 'The story of coal is a parable for our times and our technologies, a story of rise, abuse and decline, a story of mankind's hubris and possible nemesis. I leave you to ponder the lessons and to do what you can'.
Am I being too pessimistic in suggesting that it will take the disappearance of islands and their inhabitants in the Pacific Ocean, or the obliteration of whole communities along the coast of Florida or Louisiana, to make the world act over climate change? Given the story of coal he tells, I fear Professor Seaton may well agree.