Coal is modernity

It has taken us several hundred million years to produce this compressed sunlight, and it has been the driving force of modern civilization for two hundred years. It cannot be eliminated without further ado, writes Thomas Hylland Eriksen.

On the map Gladstone looks quite alluring to a frozen northerner. The city lies on the Tropic of Capricorn on Australia's picturesque east coast, with a superb climate, a beautiful coastline and the Great Barrier Reef right outside the harbour. But if you go there you’ll be met by an industrial town saturated with coal and gas.

The port area is dominated by two huge coal terminals and large heaps of the black stuff. Train tracks do not carry happy tourists, but black high octane coal from Queensland’s interior. Even the sunset is sponsored by the mining industry, as it is impossible to enjoy without your gaze being drawn to three slender, symmetrical columns on the right. They are the chimneys of the power station, which, of course, is coal powered - Queensland's largest and the pride of the town.

Run your finger along a railing or any exterior surface, and you see that Gladstone is coal. When the wind blows, a fine layer of dust settles over everything.

Gladstone is coal

It is a proud modernity with confidence and skilled information consultants that greets you in Gladstone. Coal is mostly odourless in  rich countries like Australia, as it is converted to electricity. It was not so only a few years ago. You noticed the smell as you walked out of the U-Bahn (Underground) in the old East Berlin. The air was sour, smelly, toxic. It smelled totalitarian, depressing, dirty. It was the smell of poor Eastern Europe's brown coal.

However, the same smell, or one similar, had until recently affected many cities in the west too, until they went over to electricity as their heat source, with London as one of the last. Even when 4,000 people died of carbon monoxide poisoning during the smog disaster of 1952, Londoners did not stop burning coal, either privately or in industry. For what would have been the alternative? In 1952? The smoke from coal stoves was toxic and malodorous, but it also smelled of prosperity and development. And that’s how they look at it in Chinese industrial areas today, where coal still produces smoke and smog.

How did they produce all the electricity that gradually replaced coal? With coal, of course, what else? Coal and modernity are two sides of the same coin; coal and accelerated change are conjoined twins. Without coal, no industry, no coal, no exponential population growth, no steamships, locomotives nor factories. Without coal the English industrial revolution would have been called off after ten years. Then there would have been more trees left in the British Isles.

A long story

It is no coincidence that the oldest modern industry, with a few exceptions, occurred near large coal deposits, in the Midlands, South Wales, Belgium and northern France, the Ruhr Valley, Pennsylvania. Soon they began to use some of the coal to produce steel for railways and locomotives, and a bit to fire up the boilers. Throughout the 1800s, an expanding network of railways and freight ships made it possible for industry to spread over a larger area because coal could now be transported cheaply and efficiently.

Coal had been used for thousands of years. There are many forms and of varying quality. Charcoal is the easiest, anthracite the most complex and compressed. Where mineral coal lay near the surface, it had been used, but only on a small scale in the agricultural community. Forges used charcoal.

It was the huge optimism and positive energy that was unleashed by the Enlightenment - human potential was suddenly limitless - that created the technology that made it possible to dig ever deeper for coal and apply it to new purposes. Mineshafts were secured with beams, steam-powered pumps drained them of water, rudimentary ventilation systems were developed, and early in the 1800's brand new factories in Manchester could exploit coal that had been found several hundred meters below the ground.

Energy Revolution

We had now begun in earnest to transform the planet, and this transformation was continually accelerating. Where religion had given hope and comfort for thousands of years, the story of progress and development would now take over. This story is inextricably linked with increased energy consumption. In The Science of Culture (1949 ) anthropologist Leslie White coined a term for this connection, when he defined the degree of cultural evolution as the amount of energy a society was able to extract from its surroundings.

It took Homo sapiens two hundred thousand years to reach the first billion in population. But then coal came into our world. Since then we have abundantly fulfilled God's command : "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth." (1 Mos. 1:28 ) It only took one hundred years to reach billion number two, and in the last hundred years we have more than trebled our numbers.

But if it sounds extreme that the population has increased sevenfold in two hundred years, it must appear obscene that energy consumption has increased by a factor of 28 over the same period. The curve is pointing uphill, and it shows as yet no signs of wanting to level off. Since 1975 energy consumption has doubled. And there is a connection between the two curves. Without coal it would not be likely that the world population would be over seven billion today. All the cheap Chinese goods that now flood the world market would also not have been made​.

Compressed sunlight

Coal is actually a fantastic source of energy; it is compact, easy to load and carry, it is durable and flexible, and it can withstand both heat and cold without deterioration. Coal increases productivity many times, both in industry and agriculture, it releases millions of people from manual labor and makes it possible to feed many more people than previously.

Coal is compressed sunlight. It has taken the planet 300 million years to build up its reservoir of this wonderful energy source, which Sartre described as other living beings legacy to mankind - and now we are burning it off within just a few generations and destabilizing the planet's climate. It cannot continue. However, as with other forms of addiction, it is hard to stop.


Some may think that coal’s time is over, that in the whole it has been replaced by other forms of fossil fuel. It is by and large correct that oil and gas have some obvious advantages, above all that their production and distribution does not require as much effort. Coal is dug up by men and transported on rails, while oil and gas are extracted with pumps and then piped. The risk of strikes is less that way. Had Saudi Arabia been rich in coal instead of oil, it is not certain that the country could continue as the world's most totalitarian regime operated as the family Saud’s private property under U.S. protection.

Then, hundreds of thousands of Arab proletariat and their families would have demanded their rights. They would have discovered Marxism and formed unions as miners have done elsewhere. As Timothy Mitchell writes in Carbon Democracy, political power resides not only with the ability to produce and distribute energy, but also with the ability to stop the flow of energy. Therefore, coal mines are more democratic than oil platforms. In mining communities the people have the opportunity to seize power ­- in oil communities, from Nigeria to Turkmenistan, power is concentrated and centralized.

Politicized coal

The old left in the UK breathed its last during the prolonged mining strike of 1984-5, when Arthur Scargill finally had to succumb to Thatcher’s authoritarian neoliberalism. The strike precipitated the closure of some of the oldest coal mines in Yorkshire. If it were today, the environmental movement might have cheered. But no radicals celebrated at the time. Thousands of jobs were lost, and they have not come back. Britain's era as a world leader was definitely over. Since 1800, the energy consumption in British industry had increased by 50% every decade, solely thanks to coal mines. Now it was over.

The closure of the British mines was due not to coal becoming obsolete as an antiquated Victorian fuel. They were simply not viable anymore, compared to other and newer mines in other parts of the world. In just the last ten years world coal production has increased by over 40%. Indonesia has only just got up steam, but is already the world 's largest coal exporter . That is good news for transnational mining companies, but not for the indigenous peoples of West Papua .

Coal as a hub

Australia is dry and remote, but it has plenty of coal. More than three quarters of its power is produced by coal, and there is still enough left over that until last year it was the world 's largest exporter. And Gladstone - A western town of pick-ups and coal wagons, bars and drive-through bottle shops, cranes and power stations, men in overalls and guys in ties - is a hub. In central Queensland all tracks lead to Gladstone.

From here coal is shipped to Japan, China and India. So if you might ask one of the many talented information workers at the port if all this coal is a good idea you’ll get a prompt response - coal creates wealth, jobs and prosperity. And besides, she will add, what right have we to deny the Chinese and the Indians their industrialization? She has done her homework.

New facilities for the storage and shipment of coal from Gladstone are continuously being built. Two giant terminals are under construction. Nobody here believes that the peak has been reached. One of the city's major projects in recent years has been the dredging of the harbour basin, to increase the capacity of shipping in and out of the town.

21 million cubic meters of sludge has been removed and dumped elsewhere, often in perilous proximity to the vulnerable ecosystems around the Great Barrier Reef. Seven years ago, the water was still crystal clear, and fishermen could see dolphins close to shore daily. Now there is no fishing in this area anymore. The water is murky, seaweed dies, and the fish disappear, according to fishermen and environmentalists.

100 more years?

When an environmentally aware people warn about climate change and talk about their great-grandchildren’s human rights it is an expression of long-term thinking. It is common to think that capitalism in contrast is short-sighted and short-term. It's probably often true, but not when it comes to world markets for basic commodities. The coal industry is not about short-term profits but long-term planning. This past year coal prices have been low, but this does not prevent the major companies from expanding their businesses. The mines are believed to be viable for at least sixty more years, and in some cases one hundred. In that time prices can rise again, and investments will be justified.

Major investments make it difficult to change course, and in Australia there is so much money, infrastructure and jobs in and around mining that a transition to a carbon neutral society would be a major feat. At the same time, a growing number of Australians are expressing concern - farmers, tourist operators, activists and locals - that too much is happening too fast. Even the International Energy Agency (IEA ) writes in its annual reports that it is time for a rethink and to think sustainably.


Some say that the peak has been reached, that with the current growth in consumption we will run out of fossil fuels within a few decades. But it is increasingly rare that this argument is employed. Both new discoveries and new methods have in recent years turned upside-down previous estimates of how much fossil energy the planet holds.

In Australia attention is now focused on the Galilee Basin, further north in Queensland, a giant coal reserve that powerful Australian companies are now starting to mine. Mining magnate Clive Palmer even has his own political party with two representatives in the Queensland Parliament. One of the world's richest women, mining heiress Gina Rinehart, is investing heavily, and she fumes loudly at the environmentalists snapping at her heels. You can smell the fortunes to be made. Huge fortunes.

Great Barrier Reef

The recently announced winner of the Sophie Prize, climate activist Bill McKibben, noted during a visit to Australia recently that if the coal in The Galilee were dug up and exploited, we may as well just forget about global climate goals. This is a major find, and on December 10th the Minister of the Environment (!), Greg Hunt, gave the green light for Abbot Point, the coal port east of the mining areas, to double its capacity.

That's bad news for the Great Barrier Reef, the fishermen in the area and especially the global climate, but excellent for the mining companies making their plans for The Galilee.


To escape our modern addiction to coal and other stored sunlight, political decisions must be taken. It is possible - but it takes courage - to do a u-turn. It is necessary for the future of the planet, but it is difficult not only because the easiest thing to always do is ‘business as usual’, but also because the main narratives of progress and development are so closely interwoven with coal.

And when I talk to engineers, welders and dockers in the dirty and uncharismatic coal harbour Gladstone - workers who have come to town to earn a living and to feed their families - they say that climate activists in Sydney and Melbourne are living on another planet. They are against coal, even while they rely on it to charge their iPads and for the hot water in their showers.

There is no easy way out. The road to a sustainable society is no tea party.


This essay was originally published in Norwegian in Morgenbladet 3 January 2014

By Thomas Hylland Eriksen. Translated by Matthew Rix Whiting
Published Jan. 16, 2014 9:11 AM - Last modified June 22, 2016 1:10 PM