It may be fairly estimated that every ton of coal taken from the earth has come at the cost of one drop of human blood. The history of coal has been one of the most violent chapters in human history from the inherent risks of mining, the intense conflicts generated by owners and miners and as we are only now beginning to realize the long term effects on the health, landscape and climate of the entire planet. Despite that, the modern world would not have been possible without coal. Across the globe coal is still an important source of energy even as natural gas; renewable energy sources such as solar, wind and geothermal; and nuclear power increasingly displace coal from the marketplace. Although coal is declining and its final days may be within sight, it will continue as one of the primary sources of energy, particularly in the developing world. The hard and certain reality of global warming and climate change has and will speed the end of coal. Coal is not the only villain in the story. There are other contributors to the problem, but coal, fairly or as some would argue unfairly, is the most visible in the battle between development and protection of the climate, and perhaps the first to likely fall into the pages of history.
Coal is a fossil fuel but the label is somewhat misleading. Sometimes traces of the plants remain visible in the coal and rarely entire ghost groves of ancient trees have been found underground. But unlike the highly prized and studied fossils of museums and imaginations, coal is long dead life reduced to its basest, most formless element. Coal is the carbon of dead life, the same atoms found in the brightest diamonds now expressed in dark seams under the green world.
The mining of coal has likewise reduced humans to their basest level above ground as well as below. Coal has been used since ancient times in many parts of the world. The dangers of burning coal were recognized as early as the year 1306 when a royal proclamation prohibited craftsmen from using coal in London and mandated a return to wood and charcoal. But as wood and charcoal were depleted, and the greater yield of heat per unit of coal became undeniable the increasing use of coal became unavoidable. Without coal to supply the power the Industrial Revolution would have remained only a theory that could not be put into practical effect. Coal has been all too real in human history and mining has from the first produced more conflict, injury and misery than any other economic activity.
Coal has been the object and the cause of wars, not just between local interests, but between nations. A probable coal dust linked explosion in the boiler room of the USS Maine resting in the Havana harbor was wrongly blamed on Spanish treachery, sparking the short but violent Spanish American War and the United States’ blundering steps into empire. Control of the coal fields of Europe was a focal point of conflict between France and Germany, and after World War II access and control of coal was the first problem addressed by one of the forerunners of what has now grown into the European Union. The lure of controlling the vast deposits of coal in China in part led Japan down the doomed path that led to Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima.