Dear Coal, We Need to Talk

Dear Coal,

Now that I’m certain the decision for us to part ways is the right one, it’s given me the emotional space to reflect on our relationship and appreciate the many wonderful aspects about you that were lost in all the bickering towards the end.

I’m surprised how wistful I feel given you’ve taken me to the very brink of existence. Perhaps if I’d appreciated you sooner we might have weathered the difficult times more graciously and things wouldn’t have got quite so, you know, toxic. I was just so busy getting on with life I took it for granted you’d always be there in your benign and generous capacity.

When I looked back at your origins, I was truly humbled. I had no idea just how old you are – 360 million years give or take a few million years! Your emergence towards the end of the Paleozoic Era was momentous and is known as the Carboniferous Period in our dear planet’s history. It’s said that ‘plants put the carbon in Carboniferous’ which is something I’ll be eternally grateful for.

Back then, no one owned you. Plants just lived and died then slowly decayed in peat bogs under the stable tropical climate, oblivious to what was to come. Without you and your swampy forebears, I wouldn’t be where I am today. You fuelled the industrial revolution and made it possible for me to prosper in ways beyond my wildest dreams.

Somehow our destinies were always entwined, like strands of DNA coming together on a grand evolutionary adventure.

I’ve never really given it a second thought that every time I switch on the lights, my illumination stretches back through time to old sunshine captured by the leaves of ancient plants. In a way I’ve been living on borrowed time, catapulting myself into the future by burning the distant past. But there’s a reckoning to come.

The world you were born into sounds magical, if a little scary. It was a land of giants that flourished in the high atmospheric oxygen levels. Dragonflies the size of seagulls swooped through the air and three metre long millipedes scurried alongside enormous scorpions and cockroaches amongst the damp leaf litter on the forest floor.

Hand coloured detail of image from Dr Hendrik Blink's 1885 publication 'Onze aarde. Handboek der natuurkundige aardrijkskunde ... Met 150 platen en 20 kaartjes in afzonderlijken Atlas'. Accessed via Flickr.

Fossils preserved in coal balls, unearthed like tiny time capsules, reveal pictures of the plants that made you. The majestic Lepidodendron grew in dense clusters with scaly trunks soaring forty metres into the air, topped with a crown bearing cone-like parts that released its reproductive spores. They were the distant relatives of today’s club mosses and quillworts. Sphenopsids and Calamites, whose relatives live on as horsetails, populated the moist areas around swamps and lakes and snaked alongside rivers in millions of years of silence before we arrived.

There were beautiful ferns of all shapes and sizes with fronds that feathered the ancient sunlight as it touched down on earth, activating the spores of generations to come. Maidenhairs, soft shield ferns and tree-sized ferns, Marattiales, were abundant and still exist today. The seed-bearing Glossopterids with their deciduous tongue-shaped leaves grew in the higher, cooler latitudes.

As the climate grew warmer, inevitably things began to change. The vast tropical lowlands that made you were destroyed as the earth yawned and stretched and landmasses reconfigured as the global supercontinent, Pangaea.

Change is in the air again, but this time I’ve had a hand in it. Atmospheric oxygen levels are decreasing, especially in the oceans and cities, and carbon dioxide levels are increasing, spiraling out of control. The climate is less predictable as the planet grows warmer.

I’ve blamed you for this, but now I see you were innocent all along. It was me who woke you from your slumber and dug you up like there was no tomorrow, leaving gaping wounds all over the earth. I feel a deep sense of shame that’s hard to acknowledge.

So in saying goodbye, I want to thank you for what you’ve taught me about myself. I will cherish what’s left of you underground and leave you in peace to hold your memory of our past. For my part, I’m turning my face to the sun and feeling the wind against my skin as I step into a new beginning.


Jo (on behalf of humanity)

'Carboniferous Pteridophyta (After Dana)' from the 1896 edition Lucien Marcus Underwood's 'Native Ferns and their Allies'. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons.