Some saw in the mines scientific proof of biblical flood. Some credited coal with protecting people from the bubonic plague; others accused it of promoting baldness, tooth decay, sordid murders, caustic speech and fuzzy thinking.More recently many of us believed we could burn vast amounts of coal without disrupting the natural balance of the planet. No doubt we have still much to learn about coal, but at least we’ve been able to dispel many of the old myths.
The book talks about the history of coal, since Roman times to modern day. Barbara Freese talks about both the good and the bad sides of the mineral. As the author is an environmental lawyer, the book slightly tips on the bad side of coal, however the research is deep, insightful and entertaining.
Coal is appreciated by Ms Freese as the basis of the Industrial revolution and the rock that made the British Empire and the United States. It significantly improved living standards by increasing on a massive scale the efficiency of industrial processes.
On the other side, the bad environmental effects were constant, from the fumes and hard working conditions to current greenhouse gas problems.
The message of the book is that coal was never popular, but always useful. The author finishes the book on a positive note, such as using coal for in plastics and other alternative uses.
Over $5.3 trillion of currencies are traded every day, yet nations like the Philippines, Peru, Poland or the UK hold less than $80bn in reserves to defend against speculators. Enough to last only a few days.
The book is trying to identify future trends, developments that human society might take. Dixon considers that there are six main future trends, conveniently named: Fast, Urban, Tribal, Universal, Radical and Ethical (FUTURE).
Patrick Dixon has a lot of guessing and the arguments he shows are shallow. There are so many statements that some will certainly turn true.
Nonetheless, he is intriguing and has a good grasp of what is happening in the world. It makes a good overall read and challenges the reader. However, I did not feel that he bring anything new, all being trends that exist already and are extrapolated into the future.
Patrick Dixon is a professional futurologist, having a company specialized in this niche, with many reputable international clients. He writes often, on various subjects.
The style of reading is very fluid and it follows very neatly the logic of each chapter or trend. It make a good read overall, but not exceptional.
Back in 1972, the computer modelers for The Limits to Growth calculated 42 years ago that known world copper reserves would be entirely depleted in 36 years, lead in 26 years, mercury in 13 years, natural gas in 38 years, petroleum in 38 years, silver in 16 years, tin in 17 years, tungsten in 40 years, and zinc in 23 years.
The book from Ronald Bailey is a skeptical view of doom prophets, reminding readers how many predictions turned out to be false. Bailey gives several examples, such as the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth, agriculture or the Swedish sperm count, among others.
Books predicting future become old quickly, so it is more constructive to look at books analyzing available data. His book is a well research argument for a libertarian view of the world, putting in place the notion that we live the best lives in the history of human kind. However, the book challenges one’s beliefs and it is difficult to read by an environmentalist.
The author argues that never do anything for the first time also known as the precautionary principle will never allow innovations and the society having this as principle evolve (kind of the Chinese society in the 15-19 centuries).
Bailey’s interestingly notices the concept of pathological science, when researchers become blinded by their own moral beliefs.
On climate change, he notes, quoting Dan Kahan and the Yale cultural cognition project, that the debate is chiefly not about science, but about a clash of strongly held values, between mainly Individualist/Hierarchical and Communitarian/Egalitarian set of beliefs, both having different risk aversion. The more educated each person from this division, the more empirical evidence is found consistent with own beliefs, hence a confirmation bias.
On environment protection in general, Bailey’s notices that rich nations protect nature better, for example forest surface re-growing and air quality.
Between Malthusian doomsters and cornucopian optimists, the book tries to strike a balance and the author is conscious about his own potential biases.
Nonetheless, he correctly highlights that the environment discussion is a clash of ideas rather than a scientific debate, both sides having good, solid arguments. Linking with a previous book I just read, Guns, Germs and Steel, which has a liberal view in the US politics sense, environment protection is important: human societies in the Americas, for example, likely killed all large fauna (over 100 kg) crippling their future development. On the other hand, excessive risk aversion and a view of a perfect past (such as a pristine nature) could hinder and eventually destroy a society with this view.
It is a good book that I would recommend reading in balance with Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond, so the reader can make its own opinion.