Once, coal was the future. In The Road to Wigan Pier, his famous depiction of poor living conditions in industrial areas in northern England, George Orwell began chapter two with the statement ‘Our civilisation…is founded on coal’. 1 On Friday 18 December 2015, nearly eighty years later, Britain’s last deep coal mine closed, marking the end of a long period of Britain’s economic and social history.
But coal hasn’t disappeared from Britain’s energy mix. The black stuff still accounts for over 20 percent of our energy needs and coal-fired power stations are not projected to close for another decade. The irony of global capitalism means it’s cheaper to import coal than to trundle it the three-and-a-half miles from Kellingley Colliery to Ferrybridge power station.
British coal is subsidised – as are other energy sources – and is more expensive than Russian or Colombian coal. The dangers of mining and environmental costs have been exported – coal will continue to be imported by oil-guzzling boats. Clearly, economics and ecological reasons have played an important role in the end of the British coal industry. But I think there’s more to it than this: it’s also about how the economy and energy generation are imagined in the twenty-first century. Coal is an anachronism. It fails to inspire as a product that will underpin the world of the future.
Visions of the brave new world of energy generation are associated with the sleek modern turbines in off-shore wind farms, fields shimmering with solar panels or projects that seek to harness the power of the tides or waves. The image of the dirty work of hewing coal from rock in cramped noisy conditions hundreds of metres underground – even if coal mining today is far removed from the image of the nineteenth-century hewer – fails to capture our imagination. Coal belongs to a past world: one of a different kind of politics, strong unions, May Day marches and tight-knit communities. 2
Similarly indicative of juxtaposition between past and future is the very term ‘clean coal’. The choice of the term ‘clean’ is itself revealing of how a possible alternative coal industry, which would capture and store emissions, could be compatible with contemporary post-industrial Europe.
In the digital age, processes of production are not supposed to be dirty or noisy, but clean and smooth. It’s not a struggle of man against nature, but a world of slick robotics and rooms of humming computers and servers, including the University of Sheffield’s own Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre housed in a gleaming, glass-enclosed structure, frequently described as the ‘factory of the future’.
The death of the British coal industry has been slow – though traumatic for many communities – and, for the last thirty years, has seemed inevitable. Though it never employed nearly as many as in Britain, the Spanish coal mining industry has also undergone long-term reduction in coal production and employment,
and is faced with closure.
Deep coal mining shaped communities in Britain and across the world, and has been key to the making of the modern era. But keeping pits open doesn’t capture the imagination of the British public. The coal industry is no longer the future. Instead it will soon be a fossil of Britain’s industrial past.
Matthew Kerry recently completed his PhD at the University of Sheffield, working on political identities in Asturias in northern Spain during the Second Republic. You can find him on twitter @MDKerry and read his other History Matters blogs here.
Cover image: ‘The Air Leg’ by Robert Olley [Wikicommons].