Among coal’s virtues is its small ecological footprint, in startling contrast to the clodhoppers that are renewable energy
Oil, gas, and hydroelectricity. Important though they’ve been to the economic life of mankind, none can hold a candle to coal, the most consequential energy source of all. This virtuous fuel — the Romans called it “the best stone in Britain” for its polished beauty when carved into jewelry — did more than power the Industrial Revolution, bringing unprecedented prosperity. Coal also brought enormous social and environmental blessings.
Centuries before the Industrial Revolution, during the reign of Elizabeth I, England was being rapidly deforested by the growing demand for wood fuel — the iron industry had an insatiable desire for charcoal, the navy warned the wood shortage in ship building posed a national security threat, London’s breweries alone required 20,000 wagon loads a year and the poor were especially hard hit, with the wood needed to cook and keep warm increasing in cost at rates far exceeding inflation.
Dozens of commissions confirmed the threat to the nation’s forests and even in rural areas the law called for those who stole wood to be “whipped till they bleed well.” Hardships for the poor were especially cruel because England was then in the grips of the Little Ice Age, which hurt the economy as well as increasing the need for home heating.
Coal then came to the rescue, providing heat and warm meals for those who would otherwise have died while slowing the ruinous rate of deforestation the way laws — including a three-mile-wide green belt around London — never could. By the end of Elizabeth’s reign, coal had become England’s main source of fuel.
Coal, though then a dirty fuel, was liberating humanity, and being appreciated for it. As put in the mid 19th century by the great American poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Every basket is power and civilization. For coal is a portable climate. It carries the heat of the tropics to Labrador and the polar circle; and it is the means of transporting itself whithersoever it is wanted.
Watt and Stephenson [inventors of the steam engine and locomotive] whispered in the ear of mankind their secret, that a half-ounce of coal will draw two tons a mile, and coal carries coal, by rail and by boat, to make Canada as warm as Calcutta; and with its comfort brings its industrial power.”