When we decide not to use paper for something, we say we’re saving trees. A couple of tree-saving substitutes have proved not to be a boon to the environment: plastic and coal. Yes, using plastic bags instead of paper bags saves trees. And at first, so did coal, but we now recognize both as environmental menaces.
The story of coal ought to caution us not to leap into new apparently eco-friendly technologies without anticipating the problems they’ll cause.
The history of sustainability is longer than you think. In the 1660s, the English royal navy wanted to build bigger and stronger ships but faced a shortage of suitably tall oak trees. Besides the ravages of the English Civil War, the loss of English forests had several causes:
- Glass works, iron foundries, and other industries cut down trees to make charcoal for fuel.
- Besides shipbuilders, anyone who built almost anything needed wood.
- Farmers cleared forests to make more land for fields and pastures.
- Society as a whole didn’t place high value on forests.
At about the same time, France and other countries on the continent faced similar problems from the disappearance of forests. Their governments all came up with different ways to save trees.
By the end of the century, various industries discovered they could burn coal instead of charcoal. It was inexpensive and cheaper to transport than wood. Forests started to make a comeback No one had thought of environmentalism, but a German mining official introduced a term that translates “sustainability” in his forestry recommendations.
American forests were not limitless!
The English used coal at least from the seventeenth century onward. British colonists in America saw no need for it. The heavily forested continent seemed to offer an unlimited supply of wood.
Eventually, of course, the growth of cities led to the same conditions that had caused so much concern in Europe. With all the nearby wood cut down, the transportation costs to bring it from now-distant forests increased. Saving trees started to seem important.
When Benjamin Franklin advertised his new stove in 1744, he wrote.
Wood, our common Fewel, which within these 100 Years might be had at every Man’s Door, must now be fetch’d near 100 Miles to some towns, and makes a very considerable Article in the Expence of Families.
A German botanist traveling in America during and after the Revolution predicted that the rate Americans burned wood would not “leave for grandchildren a bit of wood over which to hang the tea-kettle.”
The production of coal in America
Blacksmiths had adopted coal early on because it burns so hot. Few other colonial American industries required massive fuel. American households heated and cooked with wood fires.
The first coal burned in the colonies was imported from British mines. The colonists may not have been aware of the wealth of coal available in the Appalachians. They did find deposits of bituminous coal near Richmond, Virginia and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
When America became independent, Alexander Hamilton and others began to advocate for American coal to replace imported British coal. But not even slave labor could provide enough manpower to operate the Richmond coal fields. The area also lacked infrastructure for transporting the coal.
At about the same time, prospectors found anthracite coal. It is much harder than bituminous coal and became known as “stone coal.” In 1803, Philadelphia used it as gravel for sidewalks. But colliers saw the opportunity to promote its use as a fuel. And they developed a transportation network that made delivery of anthracite to coastal cities both fast and cheap.
By 1840, annual production of anthracite had grown to about ten times the annual production of from Richmond’s bituminous coal field, more than a million tons. Prospectors had also found other, larger bituminous deposits. By the start of the Civil War, bituminous coal mines operated in at least 20 of the 33 states that existed before secession.
A hard sell: using coal to heat homes
As American industry turned to coal, coal salesmen had trouble persuading homeowners to do the same.
- Burning wood required only a fireplace, but burning coal required an expensive metal stove.
- People could sit by a wood fireplace and enjoy the flame, but in the stove, a coal fire was invisible.
- Food cooked in coal-fired stoves was baked, not broiled. So the new fuel required a whole new approach to cooking and eating.
- It was hard to start a coal fire. Once it started, someone had to keep it going with a poker. And so using coal added about an hour of work every day for housewives and servants.
- Coal didn’t smell as good as a wood fire.
American writers, including Nathaniel Hawthorne and Harriet Beecher Stowe, published their displeasure with coal. How could anyone socialize around a coal oven the way they had always gathered around a wood fire? People blamed coal fires for all kinds of health conditions, even tooth decay and baldness.
If today’s social media had existed as early as the 1840s, everyone’s news feeds would have been full of such complaints about coal. But that’s not all.
The eventual acceptance of coal heat
Many wealthy people, who often invested in mines and railroads, began to behave like social media influencers. They made coal out as the fuel for the fashionable. They boasted how much warmer their homes were in the winter. No more cold feet all night!
Coal advocates likewise set up coal stoves in hotels and invited people to come in and experience how much heat they generated. They bought coal in bulk during the summer, when there was no demand for it as heat. Then they could sell it to poor people at an attractive price in the winter, and even lend them the stoves.
Or they could in principle. In practice, the lower classes hated coal merchants for their greed.
As with everything else, technology improved. It became easier to light the fire and keep it going. The stoves became more attractive to look at, too. Coal became much cheaper than firewood.
By the mid 1880s, more people heated their homes with coal than with wood. Trees were safe from American fireplaces and a long-term environmental disaster had been reversed. Right?
Industries that used coal
People who heated their homes with coal burned anthracite, which produces less smoke than regular coal. All the anthracite mines in the US are in a cluster of counties in Pennsylvania. So all the other coal areas mined bituminous coal. A growing number of industries came to depend on it.
Coal heated without oxygen to high temperatures produces coke, a key fuel for making steel. Making coke produced a valuable by-product, a gas useful for lighting. The Boston Gas Light Company, organized in 1822, was the first of many companies that sold the gas up and down the Atlantic coast. St. Louis became the first city west of the Mississippi River with its own gas manufacturing service in 1837.
Steam engines ran on coal. Steam locomotives, therefore, polluted the air all along the railroad lines, even in previously pristine rural areas. Several small towns, such as Alliance, Nebraska and Devil’s Lake, North Dakota, housed major rail yards.
Thomas Edison developed the first successful incandescent light bulb and then began to sell electric service. Electrification of the US began in the 1880s and continued for decades. The Tennessee Valley Authority began to extend electricity to harder-to-reach rural communities during the Great Depression.
Electric generators rely on steam to run the turbines. And coal produced the heat necessary to produce the steam.
The economic and environmental impact of coal
It immediately became apparent that coal was good for the economy but polluted the air. Charles Cist published a book called Cincinnati in 1841: Early Annals and Future Prospects. In it he described what a visitor to Pittsburgh would see:
A dense cloud of darkness and smoke, visible for some distance before he reaches it, hides the city from his eyes until he is in its midst; And yet, half this volume is furnished by household fires, coal being the only fuel of the place.
As he enters the manufacturing region, the hissing of steam, the clanking of chains, the jarring and grinding of wheels and other machinery, and the glow of melted glass and iron, and burning coal beneath, bursts upon his eyes and ears in concentrated forces.
If he visits the warehouses, he finds glass, cotton yarns, iron nails, castings, and machinery, occupying a prominent place. He discovers the whole city under the influence of steam and smoke. The surfaces of the houses and streets are so discolored as to defy the cleansing power of water, and the dwellings are preserved in a degree of neatness, only by the unremitting labors of their tenants, in morning and evening ablutions.
The very soot partakes of the bituminous character of coal, and falling—color excepted—like snowflakes, fastens on the face and neck, with a tenacity which nothing but the united agency of soap, hot water, and the towel can overcome.
He explicitly did not intend to disparage Pittsburgh with this description. In fact, he considered coal “superior to wood in every respect but in cleanliness.” Cincinnati had started to use more coal, and Cist noted with approval that in a few years, it would become the city’s main fuel for everything except cooking. Cincinnati would catch up with Pittsburgh.
Well into the 1970s, people in industrial towns regarded smokestacks belching their blackness as a sign of a good economy. Clear skies meant idle factories and therefore unemployment. They cared more about production and jobs than clean air or nice views.
Addressing the problem of coal
By 1910, coal supplied 75% of America’s energy. Its black, oily smoke deposited sulfur- and carbon-laden ash everywhere. It obscured sunlight in cities and towns and spoiled the view from more rural mountain tops.
By that time, more and more medical experts began to realize that coal smoke was more than a nuisance. It also undermined public health. Saving trees as a motive to adopt coal was long forgotten. What had seemed like such a boon a century earlier turned out to be a menace. Now, more than a hundred years later, almost everyone wants to stop burning coal, but the coal industry maintains a powerful lobby.
Even without the efforts of the coal companies, however, eliminating coal is easier said than done. One major alternative, nuclear power, has its own environmental problems and faces stiff opposition. And the other, more popular alternatives? They, too, have downsides people are just beginning to recognize.
Looming environmental problems from our “green” technologies
For example, we’re finding that we don’t yet have eco-friendly ways to deal solar panels and wind turbines after they’ve reached end of life. Developing solar farms even contributes to deforestation. Lithium batteries for electric vehicles have environmental downsides in mining for the metals they require. And then, there’s no good way to recover them from spent batteries.
I have no doubt that we’ll find solutions to these problems sooner or later. Alas, I also have no doubt that those solutions will cause environmental problems of their own.
We need to do what we can to replace fossil fuels with non-emitting fuels. But we also need to anticipate whatever problems the alternatives will cause and look for ways to mitigate them before they become crises. That might require a slow but steady approach to replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy. In other words, replacing fossil fuels as quickly as possible can’t be as quickly as some environmentalists would like.
Coal and the battle against smoke: the early days of A&WMA / Bill Beck, Journal of the Air & Waste Management Association. 53 (2007): 382-383.
Rise of coal in the 19th century United States / Christopher Jones, Yale University
The US coal industry in the nineteenth century / Sean Patrick Adams, Economic History Association
When coal first arrived, Americans said ‘no thanks’ / Clive Thompson, Smithsonian. July/August 2022