Coal | Does Urban Development Require Exploitation?


0099478846.02.LzzzzzzzI’ve been reading ‘Coal – A Human History‘ recently. It’s a fascinating look at the profound impact coal has – and is still going to have – on our history. Used as a soft jewelry stone by the romans, it was only later taken up as fuel in London because of the rapidly retreating forests which were being decimated for fuel. The accounts of the horrendous air quality that this uncontrolled coal burning caused are incredible: everything was covered in soot, and the death records suggest that lung problems were the main killer of the time. Things weren’t helped by the mad science that suggested that coal fumes cleansed the air of the miasmas that caused the plague.

Industrial4BWhen the Industrial Revolution exploded in Manchester in the early 1800’s, coal was literally the driving force. James Watt’s coal-powered steam engine allowed both the efficient draining of mines to allow greater depths to be mined, and huge factories to be mechanised too. What has shocked me about the book are the accounts of the conditions in which the first generation of the ‘working class’ lived. Having only recently left their fields, where they had no clocks or time-schedules to keep, they were plunged into 24-hour shift work in the most appalling conditions. Children were sent to work in the factories or mines as soon as they were able. One account tells of an 8 year old girl whose job it was to open and shut the traps in the mines to prevent the build-up of dangerous gases. She did this for 13 hours at a stretch in pitch black, alone for the vast majority of it, saying she was too scared to sing to herself for comfort. One commission on the problem described things thus:

“Chained, belted, harnessed like dogs in a go-cart, black, saturated with wet, and more than half-naked – crawling on their hands and feet, dragging their heavy loads behind them – they present an appearance indescribably disgusting and unnatural”

Industrial4CUnsurprisingly, life expectancy was very low. The smoke from the innumerable chimneys meant that the sun rarely penetrated into the ranks of slum-terraces built to house the workers. Well over half of children born did not survive beyond 5, a figure half that of those left in rural labour. When the coal-boom hit the US years later, things were not that much different, and miners were treated extremely badly.

The question this has left me with is this: do cities have to go through a period of exploitation in order to develop? As we look on in horror at child labour practices in other developing countries, and recoil in shock at the horrific conditions in which children have to live and work – whether it be in mining or sweat-shops or on dumps – we perhaps forget that we were doing exactly the same only 150 years ago. Can we expect them to do any different, or is this impulse to exploit innate?

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4 responses to “Coal | Does Urban Development Require Exploitation?”

  1. Good post. Thanks for the insight into these time periods.
    It certainly seems to be the case that the poor and weak are exploited whenever there is opportunity. If the church were on guard during these time periods then I think that it would go a long way towards reforms….
    It also makes me think that many developed nations are actually very spoiled. In the U.S. it seems like workers and unions and politicians are always crying out “foul!” for things like health care, etc. And we are suppossed to think that we are exploited because we don’t have all kinds of benefits. Your post reminds us all of what real exploitation is.


    A few points here, maybe….
    The exploitation then was of our own people; our country (and others like us) now tend to rely on the exploitation of other countries. This suggests to me that the exploitation of miners (both meanings) has not ended, but shifted. Its range and demand is so great, it requires that we exploit whole nations instead of (or aswell as) our own. And so, the damage we create is now relocated… to the poor old penguins and the *Ethnopians*.
    If we find alien life,maybe humanity will be truly free while we turn their planet into our new *third world*.
    Is it our nature to exploit? No, it’s our convenience.
    We are no better than an SMT. I often see managers in my school only asking the people they know who will say yes to them for favours. These people are put into the most ludicrous situations with no notice because a manager doesn’t realise that their responsibility is to respect and protect those who could be abused, rather than take advantage of them or endorse their responses.
    Jesus said that we would always have the Poor. Not that we will always have the abused. I for one often mistake one for another.

  3. So if we found alien life, would it be ethical to exploit them?


    How do we exploit the billowing-cloud-fish of Spartus 4?