Problematic, glorious, scandalous, essential – coal has many facets to it. It has sustained communities and enabled technological progress, all the while polluting and harming health of those who work it. Britain’s perhaps most iconic material is also a complex one. Its complexity stems from the fact that it has and still does affects a large portion of our civilisation. From culture to workers’ rights, from economics to ecology, from geology to poetry. In many ways, it is a material worth both celebrating and condemning.
My interest as a designer & artist is to understand, untangle and disrupt these relations in order to create new contemporary narratives.
The value of a material derives first from the meaning we assign to it as well as its use or purpose. We, as a society, construct this relation between matter and human. Its use comes with a set of consequences, constraints, possibilities etc. If its use is widespread, it will influence society on a larger level i.e. culture, believes, habits and artefacts – a civilisation’s narrative. At this level, the material is now so comprehensive it has its own connotation,
social meaning, cultural references and so on.
In the instance of coal, the meaning we have assigned to it is that of a fossil fuel for energy production. Its value is derived from its own destruction and the energy released through the combustion process. It has had consequences on the environment, socio-economics, culture and has created immense possibilities – the Industrial Revolution was enabled through the use of coal. Coal has profoundly rooted itself in our societies; it carries historical and cultural references.
From an essential and celebrated resource, it has become the symbol of pollution and climate change. The crème de la crème of all sources of CO2 emissions, if you like. Its fall into the abyss is from an ecological perspective long overdue. From a socio-economic perspective however and not least for our collective memory, it is problematic. The place where I’d like to take you to is this: what if we assigned a new meaning to coal? What if we decided to use coal as a building material rather than burning it? After all, it is the CO2 that is released from burning it that is harmful, not the material. In fact, the compressed organic sedimentary rock, or million year-long geological process is in itself a rare and quite extraordinary carbon conservation – a way to store energy not release it.
The questions that arise from this novel status are multiple and should feed a debate around our relation to coal. Could a different material future prolong the inevitable death of coal by ensuring an alternative use? If the idea of coal as a building material is accepted; how and why does a coal mine differ from a marble quarry? What might be the socio-economic consequences? Could coal industry and communities survive? If coal can be seen as a marble like material; can we not begin to call the mine a coal quarry?
By exploring a speculative alternative future of coal, we invite it into our material culture, into an intentionally problematic future narrative that forces us to re-examine our past relation to this material all the while re-defining our future relation to it.
BY RICHARD BURTON
RICHARD BURTON It was during the depression, my father was a miner, and all my brothers except one, my younger brother, were miners. And they all got out of the mines except the very oldest one who loved the mines so much that I couldn’t bribe him out, I couldn’t get him. There was no way I could get him out and he stayed in until the bitter end. So that he died, he died last year, no he died this year actually about 5 or 6 months ago. And you can imagine how tough the constitution of the family is that with his lungs full of dust he lived until he was 79. And he was very angry because he didn’t make 80. But to have lived that long and to have worked – he went down the mines when he was thirteen years old and he came up when he was 65.
DICK CAVETT He died of the ailment of coal?
RICHARD BURTON Yes, pneumoconiosis.
DICK CAVETT You were being sarcastic when you said he loved the mines?
RICHARD BURTON Oh no, he really did.
DICK CAVETT I didn’t know anyone loved the mines!
RICHARD BURTON Oh yes, yes. My father who was apparently a great miner, you see in the days before mechanisation and so on, when you got the great seam, there’s a great seam, a famous seam, a world famous one which I believe is called the great Atlantic fault. And it starts in Northern Spain in the Basque country and it goes under the Bay of Biscay and it comes up in South Wales and goes under the Atlantic and comes up in Pennsylvania. So that if you took a Basque miner or a Welsh miner or a Pennsylvanian miner and if you could blindfold them and transport them – they know the coal face the minute they saw it, I believe it’s 4 feet 6 inches. And my father used to talk about it as some men would talk about women; talk about the beauty of this coal face. And my brothers would tell me stories about my father, who would look at the seam – my father was a very short man an ideal height for a miner he was about 5 feet 3 or 4, very very powerful of course – and he would look at the seam of coal and would almost surgically make a mark on it. Then ask the boy – every man has a boy that works for him – he would say “give me a number two mandrill”; that’s a half headed pick. And then, having stared at this gorgeous display of black shining ribbon of coal he would then hit it with one enormous blow and if he hit it right something like 20 tons of coal would fall out from the coalface.
BY ANDREAS MALM
The English language might contain a basic truth from which scientific research has become estranged; in any case, it permits us to formulate a general hypothesis guiding the rest of this work: the power derived from fossil fuels was dual in meaning and nature from the very start. Steam as a form of superior power was just that. The two moments cannot be isolated from each other, since they constituted each other in a unity, the opposites interpenetrating throughout.
It is proven beyond all reasonable doubt that global warming does not have natural causes. Solar radiation, volcanic outgassing, endogenous variations in the carbon cycle, and other similar suspects have been decisively cleared of responsibility for the rise in temperatures, the root causes firmly passed to the social side of the equation. Once we cross that line, we immediately encounter power — indeed, this happens as soon as we use the term “fossil fuels.” They are, by definition, a materialisation of social relations. No piece of coal or drop of oil has yet turned itself into fuel, and no humans have yet engaged in systematic large-scale extraction of either to satisfy subsistence needs: fossil fuels necessitate waged or forced labour — the power of some to direct the labour of others — as conditions of their very existence. If we take the message of climate science seriously, we should direct our attention to power in the dual sense, first of all in the process of labour. That is the point of contact between humans and the rest of nature, where biophysical resources pass into the circuits of social metabolism, where coal and oil and gas are extracted, transported, coupled to machines: burnt. The process is peopled. “As a primary agent of energy and matter transformation through the labor process,” writes environmental historian Stefania Barca, “workers are the primary interface between society and nature,” wielding and subject to power. That is the sphere where the fossil economy must have originated.
— ANDREAS MALM is a researcher and an associate senior lecturer in Human Ecology at Lund University, Sweden. In his research, Malm asks why our economy became so dependent on fossil fuels and the roles they have played in the historical development of capitalism. More specifically, he has been researching the rise of coal as a source of mechanical energy in industrial production and transportation in nineteenth-century Britain and its Empire.
BY WAYNE EVANS
JESPER ERIKSSON - What does an active coal mine mean for the community surrounding it?
WAYNE EVANS - If we talk about deep mines then, an active coal mine would have been years ago the heart of the community. Looking back in time there wouldn’t be any televisions, there wouldn’t be many radios, or very limited numbers, and very limited media as well, so the connection with the bigger world was limited. So you are more reliant on your friends and neighbours, the community spirit would have been there, everybody knowing everybody else. You would have always remained local, very little travel in those days as well. So I think there was a lot more community spirit amongst everybody. If you talk about the workforce as well, the men who worked underground would say there would have been a better community spirit then because you had to look out for each other, looking out for each other’s backs, if somebody doesn’t pull their weight underground then obviously they would be informed pretty rapidly to start helping out! But no, the community spirit years ago would have been far, far greater than what it is nowadays. Nowadays, people seem to just go to work, come home from whatever it may be - may be a factory, may be a shop, may be heavy industry - but when they get home they just want to sit down in front of the TV and just enjoy their own space and forget everybody else and the outside world. And you’ve got so many options and alternatives available to yourself nowadays, a TV in a house has got god knows how many channels now, radios, you’ve got other interest, a vehicle you can travel somewhere! So yes, I think the community spirit, even though, it is still there, it was far, far better years ago. Not only that you had your chapels and churches that people would regularly attend, the Welsh valleys being very religious, the majority being Welsh speaking areas, this area in particular as you can see from the chapels and churches demonstrates a proud community. I think a lot of them are in disrepair now unfortunately and it’s a sad thing.
Framed in terms of debt, carbon credits (to alleviate the ‘evils’ carbon footprint) are the indulgentia of present times. The carbon market is projected to become the world’s largest commodity market by 2020. In the early days of discussions around the financialisation of nature leading up to the Kyoto Protocol, the idea of valuation as a means of protecting ‘nature’ gained currency. Nowadays, the failed protocol has shifted to the Paris Agreement, which is also based on emission trading and creative carbon accounting. The following concentrates on the dubious and lucrative phenomenon of carbon leakage that stems from the attempt to universalise emission mitigation practices. Leakage emerges through the logic of capital’s contrived frictionless flows which rely upon increasingly compartmentalised and individuated technosystems such as borders and container ships. The definition of containment which scaffolds contemporary economic and political structures necessarily opens up to its own leakage. Containment and speculation are intimately linked to North American grain industrialism. In the nineteenth-century American farmers sent trainloads of grain to Chicago to be stored and sold from the city’s grain elevators. The elevator receipts, a document that functions as grain acknowledgment of receipt, afforded the circulation and exchange of grain not as a physical good but as an abstract claim. Thus the contemporary futures trade was erected upon the steam powered grain elevator, the grading system, and the elevator ticket. These technologies afforded present notions of value, containment and leakage.
A simplified account of emission trading, the system from which the breach is feared, is based on the exchange of carbon credits. Participating countries to the agreement are essentially given a limited amount of credits to distribute amongst their polluting industries. One carbon credit allows the emission of one tonne of carbon dioxide. The amount distributed should ensure a curbed increase in global temperature. This is how it operates in theory, however the implementation has been somewhat slippery. Carbon leakage is posited as a negative externality of climate change policies, a phenomenon projected from the imagined consequence of production processes moving to countries with less stringent measures. This displacement would lead to rising global greenhouse gas emissions rather than its desired opposite. As a result, manufacturing industries that have been deemed at risk of carbon leakage receive an amount of emission allocations for free. This may be understood under the umbrella of ‘allowances for economic growth’, the actual sub-face of the green economy. One of the consequences of market speculation driving the cost of carbon credits is that industrial sectors are receiving more free pollution permits than the amount of CO2 they emit, which they sell, incurring what is called windfall profits. These profits are to the order of billions on a yearly basis. Institutionalised fraud?
— FRAUD (Audrey Samson & Francisco Gallardo) is an artist-duo that has been developing a genealogy of carbon derivatives, most recently with ‘Carbon Rifts’, a process of salvaging wrecks to unearth histories of the North Sea, colonialism, whaling, pine tar, shipbuilding, deforestation, carbon circulation and emission trading. These art-led enquiries have been generously supported by: the Canada Art Council, the London Community Foundation, the Cockayne – Grants for the Arts, the British Council, the HIAP and the Somerset House Studios.
Forests, footprints, industry pollution, credits, emissions, animate and non animate alike are measured and valued in terms of carbon, and their potential to sequester it. In the wake of climate catastrophe, carbon as currency becomes a tool that capitalises in the present upon the uncertainty of the future.
BY BÅRD HARSTAD
What is wrong with traditional climate policies? Negotiations past and present focus on regulating consumers or emitters, whether through quotas, carbon taxes or cap-and-trade systems – such as the EU scheme the European parliament voted on Thursday to prop up. The problem is that whenever some countries opt out of a global climate coalition such as the Kyoto protocol, the result is “carbon leakage”. That is, if co-operating countries decide to cut back fossil fuel consumption, the world price declines and other nations can afford to buy more. Estimates of the magnitude of such leakage vary from 20 per cent to 25 per cent. Not only does such carbon leakage weaken any coalition’s impact on the climate; the percentages are also used by advocates of the status quo. Is there an alternative? You bet. Economists postulate that demand equals supply. So rather than regulating consumption, we can regulate supply – the quantity of fuels extracted from the ground.
My research article, Buy Coal! A Case for Supply-Side Environmental Policy, explores the consequences of letting a climate coalition participant trade in the market for fossil fuel deposits. Fuel deposits differ in how costly they are to extract. Deposits with high extraction costs are barely profitable, and the owner is thus willing to sell the extraction rights for a low price. If a climate coalition purchases such a deposit, without exploiting it, then global emission is reduced at a relatively small cost. As a side effect, carbon leakage is reduced. If the world fuel price changes, non-coalition nations will not alter extraction levels much once the least profitable deposits have been sold to the coalition. So if the coalition then cuts back its own extraction, it need no longer fear other countries will raise their own by comparable quantities.
— BĀRD HARSTAD is a professor of economics at the University of Oslo, the Max McGraw chair, Kellogg School of Management and winner of the 2013 Erik Kempe award. He’s work focuses on international political economy, the political economy of regulation, emissions and technology investments as stochastic games, and on conservation and supply-side environmental policies.
BY RHIAN KENDALL
Coal can be defined as a combustible rock, composed of the lithified, dehydrogenated, plant remains, minerals and water. Coal is formed by the alteration of dead plant material which accumulated as deposits of peat which is then buried by layers of younger sediments. With burial, the temperature rises and the peat becomes sequentially altered, through a process known as coalification, to brown coals, which include lignite and sub-bituminous coal, to black or hard coals that comprise the bituminous coals, semi-anthracite and eventually anthracite. Coalification involves the loss of water and volatile components in the form of carbon dioxide and methane and an increase in carbon content from about 60 per cent to more that 90 per cent in bituminous coals and 95 per cent in anthracite.
In Britain, almost all onshore coal resources are Carboniferous in age (300—330 million years old). In England and Wales these coal-bearing rocks are almost entirely confined to the Westphalian, a subdivision of the Carboniferous. During the Carboniferous, Britain lay a few degrees north of the equator and had a tropical, possibly monsoonal climate. The area was part of a forest-covered delta-plain which extended between Britain and Poland. The plain was dissected by river channels, which were constrained by banks (levées). Large quantities of plant debris accumulated in wet swampy areas (flood basins) between the river channels, forming a peaty substrate with silts and sands from the rivers when they burst their banks. Periodically, seal levels rose due to melting of polar ice caps and the sea inundated large areas of the delta plains. These areas became covered in marine sediments which include marine fossils, such as goniatites. In time the deltas re-established and the forests re-grew.
“Since 2001, Britain has imported more coal than it produces and it is now principally used for electricity generation and coke production but in the past steel product was a significant consumer.”
BY IAN MORRIS
Fossil-fuel society is the product of two innovations. The first, which some northwest Europeans had already made two thousands years ago, was the discovery that coal could be burnt to release heat. Only around AD 1000 (in China) and 1600 (in England), however, did coal begin to rival wood as an energy source. The second breakthrough, initially made in the third century BC by engineers in Egypt, was that heat could be converted to motion by burning wood to boil water and then using the steam to power pistons. Egyptians did little with this idea, however, beyond providing their gods with steam-powered temple doors that appeared to open magically by themselves.
Not until the seventeenth century were fossil fuels and steam power put together in a productive way, by northwest European coal miners who realized that they could burn the coal they dug up to power engines that would pump water out of there mineshafts, allowing them to dig deeper to find more coal. The earliest steam engines burned so much coal that they were economical only if used right next to the mines that fed them, but in 1776, James Watt and Matthew Boulton managed to build an engine with separate heating and condensing chambers, dramatically cutting its coal consumption. Industrialist quickly figured out how to augment human and animal muscles with steam power in all walks of life. Productivity soared and prices collapsed, but despite this, sales increased so much that profits rose much higher than ever before. Energy capture per capita in the most industrialized Western economies grew sevenfold, from roughly 38,000 kilocalories per person per day around 1800 to 230,000 by the 1970s. The age of energy abundance had begun.
— IAN MORRIS is a British archaeologist, historian and academic. He is professor of classics and a fellow of the Stanford Archaeology Center at Stanford University. He began his career studying the rise of the Greek city-state, then moved on to ancient economics, and now works on global history since the Ice Age. He has, to date, published fourteen books.
BY CAMILLA SUNDWALL
Materials are so much more than merely the stuff they are made of. They are bound up in complex networks and social values. They provoke, transform, educate and connect us. They are disruptors and saviours. To understand our connection with materials and how this changes over time, we need to look at them through a multi-faceted lens, constantly re-evaluate what materials are and what they do to us. As we employ such an in-depth method of investigation around materials, we open up a broad dialogue concerning our collective material culture. This brief text outlines five points that are key in understanding and framing our material relationships.
The way we use materials always have a wider effect on the world. Resource scarcity, over-consumption and un-responsible material uses have put materials under pressure. How do we use them, why do we use them, and when? Certain materials take a lot of blame, but might it be they are used as a scapegoat for our own questionable behaviours? Alarms around over- and irresponsible consumption forces us to take a hard look in the mirror and acknowledge our own reliance on objects to assure our status and confidence. Sometimes materials seem to provide an easier answer than to engage in self-reflective behaviour change. Materials are neither ‘good’ nor 'bad', it is the way they are used and handled that to a large extent define what impact they will have on the world. What they do, however, is to open up a window into understanding our own moral codes. Materials force us to make judgements and decisions around what issues are relevant not only here and now, but also in the future. A material that once was novel and raised to the skies, can after decades of use move into the role of a villain, after which it can potentially find new expressions in unexpected uses and once again be celebrated. As materials move through time and space they make us confront our shifting moral standpoint and question our judgements.
“A material can after decades of use move into the role of a villain, after which it can potentially find new expressions in unexpected uses and once again be celebrated. As materials move through time and space they make us confront our shifting moral standpoint and question our judgements.”
BY BARRY LORD
Each energy transition affects not just broad or abstract cultural values, but very specifically changes the way we see ourselves and each other—what we think it means to be a person. The culture of production that came to us with coal and Industrial Revolution taught the vast majority of working people to understand who they were in terms of their relationship to the process of production. Working-class people became aware that they constituted the productive force of society, which distinguish them utterly from the capitalist class who invested in the infrastructure and profited from their labour.
Class-consciousness started and was strongest in the pits. Digging deep coal mines and organizing miners to work in them required not only a substantial commitment of capital investment, but also a large, well-organized workforce. Thus the two social classes whose relationship constituted the new social-political culture faced off here first, at the coal mine.
In his 1845 novel, Sybil, or the Two Nations, future Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli called attention to the chasm opening between the two social classes:
... between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other's habits, thoughts and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets.
This gulf between the classes came to characterize all other mass production venues, such as the textile industry in Manchester, where are young Friedrich Engels arrived from Germany in 1842 to work in the family business. As Tristram Hunt points out in his incisive biography of Engels (Hunt, 2009), 1842 was also the year of the so-called “Plug Plot” riots in Manchester, when workers at steam-powered factories removed the plugs from the steam boilers, thereby incapacitating their machinery during a work stoppage protesting their working conditions.