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Country Gentleman: King Coal

C.W. Nicol's grandfather, George Rice. (Photo courtesy of the C.W. Nicol Afan Woodland Trust)

Once a year, usually on a gloomy winter's day, I sit down to watch the classic black and white British movie "How Green Was my Valley." Leaning back in the sofa, watching television, I glance from time to time to the left, where there is a small portrait of my grandfather, George Rice, posing in his coal miner's clothes. He wears a cloth cap, (no helmets in those days), and a three-piece suit, a kerchief knotted around his neck, and with his trousers tied at the knees with string ... "to keep the rats from climbing up your legs." George Rice went down the coalmines of the Rhonda Valley, South Wales, in 1898, at the age of twelve. He was a collier until he volunteered to join the army and fight in the World War I in 1914.

Those were the heydays of the mining industry, when coal was king. Coal fueled the great expansion of the British Empire during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

In 1940, when I was born, coal was still the dominant energy source in Britain. Even town houses had open coal fires. In living rooms, and often even in bedrooms, we British burned coal at home, in schools, factories, ships, steam locomotives ... coal was everywhere. In South Wales especially, coal was at the very roots of culture. It was evident everywhere in our lifestyle, camaraderie, songs, rugby, mining accidents and tragedies.

The era of coal in Britain was doomed by the terrible costs in health caused by "smog" -- the deadly combination of smoke and fog -- air pollution. Another factor, following World War II, was the easy availability of petroleum oil, especially from the Middle East and from the North Sea. Now in Britain it is illegal to burn coal at home as we did when I was a boy.

In the comfort of my home in Kurohime, northern Nagano Prefecture, I look back over the last forty years. When we first lived here, by February the snow would be a metre deep around the house and the ski slopes were booming. Sometimes we still get great dumps of heavy wet snow, but over Christmas, New Year and for a while afterwards we were just dusted with snow and the ski slopes are desperate. Nowadays snowfall is often followed by chilly rain. Wild boar and deer have established themselves in the area. When we first came here, the winter snow was too deep for these animals.

Climate change is a fact of life, and we worry about where it is heading.

The Nicol clan is spread all over the world, and I have family and relatives in Canada and Australia, among other spots.

The widespread and long-burning forest fires of Australia have been particularly concerning. To me especially, the horrible destruction and pain caused by these fires to wildlife break my heart.

I find it hard to believe that I have some otherwise well-educated and informed Australian friends who are in denial about the links between climate change and coal.

Australia is a major producer and exporter of coal, especially to countries such as India and China, both of which are so technically highly advanced that they have entered into space research and exploration, yet the people continue to suffer from air pollution. Even so they continue to burn coal and plan to burn even more. Meanwhile Japan plays a major role in the spread of coal-burning technology. The Mainichi Shimbun is diligent indeed in its coverage of global environmental matters so I don't need to go into details in this column. However, looking back over my life, which started out with coal as king, bringing great advances that really never did balance out the human and environmental cost of burgeoning greed for energy and economic wealth, to the present time, then I have to wonder and worry as to where it is all going. Right now, I am able to enjoy the nostalgia induced from a wide screen television in a warm, safe and comfortable house, with a purring cat sleeping by my side. Should I not just take it as it comes?

("Country Gentleman" is a regular column by author and conservationist C.W. Nicol)

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