Many people have accused me of hating coal. But nothing could be further from the truth.
I recognize that without coal the greatest achievements of human history in art, architecture, and literature would never have occurred. Without coal the world would never have been investigated and explained to us by science. Without coal the ascent of man (and woman) would not have been possible.
I love coal in all its forms: lignite, sub-bituminous, bituminous and anthracite. I especially love anthracite because it represents the purest form of coal containing the most carbon per unit of volume. Coal has quietly, magnanimously given of itself so that all of us air-breathing creatures could have life. It has labored without complaint under layer after layer of sediment which progressively increased the pressure and heat that formed it.
And, as more and more coal formed, the air was cleared of its excess carbon dioxide; the world cooled and cooled moving toward a more beneficent climate, one that ultimately provided a suitable environment for the aspirations of homo sapiens. As a byproduct of this process, the air also filled with oxygen, a substance that enjoys an even greater reputation and inspires an even greater love among the human race than coal.
For millions of years–no, hundreds of millions of years–coal has asked nothing more than to be left alone. And, until recently coal had its way, that is, until seacoal fell from the seams extruding out of Britain’s ocean cliffs and caught the attention of the native population. Since then we have scratched at it, clawed at it, picked at it, dynamited it, scooped it up in giant shovels–which in the way of the cannibal were first powered by the very coal they attacked–and gathered coal into great mounds awaiting transport across the world.
Torn from its true home, coal began an unwanted journey from its resting place in the earth to kilns and furnaces and boilers in every corner of the globe. Fire now continuously dissolves coal, returning its essence to the heavens. First, the amounts were small and inconsequential. Now, they are like rushing torrents. Wherever coal is found, coal cars rattle day after day and night after night without ceasing. Smokestacks which signal the coal cars’ destinations belch endlessly with visible haze and invisible gases.
The spectacle must be distressing to the coal I love: the gradual wasting away of its bulk, the irretrievable transformation of its body from a solid into a gas. Driven from its home, coal exacts a revenge in the only way it can on the creatures whom it helped to foster. It raises the world’s temperature–not by the heat of combustion, but by coal’s now gaseous carbon which traps heat in the worldwide blanket we call the atmosphere.
I can’t help but wonder if people only loved coal as I do–that is, enough to leave it alone as it so clearly wants us to do–how different the world would be, how different our future would look.
(Go see “An Inconvenient Truth” as it opens across the country and learn to love coal the way I do.)