Freese, Barbara 1960-

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FREESE, Barbara 1960-


Born 1960. Education: University of Minnesota, B.A., 1982; New York University, J.D., 1986.


Agent—c/o Author Mail, Perseus Publishing, 11 Cambridge Center, Cambridge, MA 02142.


Attorney. State of Minnesota, assistant attorney general, served for twelve years.


Coal: A Human History, Perseus Publishing (Cambridge, MA), 2003.


An unabridged version of Coal: A Human History was adapted for audio (CD and MP3), narrated by Shelly Frasier, Tantor Media, 2003.


As assistant attorney general of the State of Minnesota, Barbara Freese was involved with that state's environmental issues, including the regulation of the coal industry. She left her position and put her law career on hold to further study the history of the coal industry and coal's impact on history and the environment. As she wrote in her book, Coal: A Human History, "Like a good genie, coal has granted many of our wishes, enriching most of us in developed nations beyond our wildest preindustrial dreams. But also like a genie, coal has an unpredictable and threatening side.… We are just beginning to realize how far-reaching that dark side is."

Freese investigates coal's role in acid rain, global warming, and its connection to climatic events. A Publishers Weekly contributor commented that "Freese's elegant book teaches an important lesson about the interdependence of humans and their natural environment both for good and ill throughout history."

Freese studies coal in the United States, China, and England. Tom Meersman of felt that her book "is neither an environmentalist screed nor an industry apologia. She understands and presents the technical limitations and the tradeoffs of different fuels. But neither does she dodge important questions or shirk conclusions: about coal's growing use in developing nations, about its public-health effects, and about the need to make a transition to cleaner energy sources."

A history of coal, from its ornamental use by the Romans and the Chinese to the discovery of its power as a heat source, is also provided. The side effects of burning coal were recognized in England as early as the thirteenth century, and its use was banned for approximately 200 years. But in the 1500s, when England's forests became dangerously depleted, coal was again used and fueled England's growth during the Industrial Revolution. But coal burning was the cause of deaths from respiratory diseases and air so dirty that clean laundry hanging on the line became almost instantly gray.

By the end of the nineteenth century, America was producing more coal than England, and suffering the same effects. The book contains a picture taken in Pittsburgh at three in the afternoon. With daylight unable to pierce the black shroud that covers the city, the street lamps are being lit.

Although many people think of oil as the king of fuels, it is coal that powers more than half of our electricity. Coal-fired plants are running harder, and according to some figures, nearly another 100 new such plants are in the planning stages. In the United States today, Freese wrote, 30,000 American deaths annually may be attributed to coal-burning power plants, with that number going as high as one million people in China.

Coal mining has always been associated with poverty. Freese writes that it "evokes bleak images of soot-covered coal miners trudging from the mines." Children were used in the mines of coal-producing states, and the horrific conditions under which the workers labored in the mines often resulted in violence, as in the 1876 dismantling of the Pennsylvania miners' union when the militant Molly Maguires were infiltrated by the coal-company-hired Pinkerton Detective Agency, and twenty of the miners hanged.

Natural History's Laurence A. Marschall wrote that "the planet as a whole suffers when fossil forests burn. Cities in the eastern United States feel the stinging breath of Midwest power plants. The smoke from Shanghai wafts over Los Angeles. And global atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide threaten to alter the climate [momentously].… Books as lucid as Freese's make a welcome contribution to the search for a sustainable energy economy."

Freese feels that as the scientific facts become more indisputable, the use of coal will eventually be halted. "But to coal operators, that day is anything but inevitable," Michael Tomasky claimed in New York Times Book Review; "hence their ardent opposition to the Kyoto Protocols—the international pact on global warming—and their rhapsodic embrace of the candidate George W. Bush, who in 2000 won my home state's [West Virginia] five electoral votes, and thus the presidency, largely on the basis of his pro-coal promises." Tomasky noted that Bush was the first nonencumbent Republican presidential candidate to win West Virginia since that feat was accomplished by Herbert Hoover in 1928.

Rosemary Michaud reviewed Coal for the Charleston Post and Courier online, suggesting that "there are those who will take exception to Freese's position, but her description of a power plant in her home state consuming 6.5 million tons of coal a year as a 'caged beast' raging night and day will leave no one unaffected."

Tomasky concluded that Freese "wants, yes, to convince us that coal's minuses outweigh its pluses; but much more than that, she wants to prompt us to think broadly-and specifically—about our relationship to the physical material of the world, the startling history that has brought us to this point, and the chain of human and economic events that is set in motion when we flip on a light switch. On these questions, Coal, to borrow a phrase, is king."

A Kirkus Reviews contributor wrote that "Freese's writing is a bit like coal—smooth and glinting, burning with a steady warmth—though with none of its downsides."



Freese, Barbara, Coal: A Human History, Perseus Publishing (Cambridge, MA), 2003.


American Scientist, March-April, 2003, review of Coal: A Human History, p. 167.

Booklist, January 1, 2003, Gilbert Taylor, review of Coal, p. 820.

Inc., February, 2003, Mike Hofman, "Spotlight: Coal Comes in from the Cold" (interview with Freese).

Kirkus Reviews, November 15, 2002, review of Coal, pp. 72-73.

Library Journal, February 1, 2003, Michael D. Cramer, review of Coal, p. 112.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 5, 2003, Susan Salter Reynolds, review of Coal, p. R-15.

Natural History, March, 2003, Laurence A. Marschall, review of Coal, pp. 79-80.

New Statesman, July 21, 2003, Andrew Martin, review of Coal, pp. 54-55.

New Yorker, April 7, 2003, Lauren Porcaro, review of Coal, p. 24.

New York Times Book Review, March 9, 2003, Michael Tomasky, review of Coal, p. 6.

OnEarth, spring, 2003, Anthony Jaffe, review of Coal, pp. 39-40.

Publishers Weekly, January 13, 2003, review of Coal, p. 49.


BookPage, (February, 2003), Alan Prince, review of Coal., (August 17, 2003), Sandy Bauers, review of Coal (audio)., (April 13, 2003), Randolph E. Schmid, review of Coal.

Post and Courier, (April 13, 2003), Rosemary Michaud, review of Coal., (February 2, 2003), Tom Meersman, review of Coal.