With production cut in half and steeper declines on the way, King Coal’s reign in Central Appalachia is over. The question is “what comes next?” To learn where their own future may lie, Kentuckians look to other rural regions – and themselves – to learn about economic transition.
Not long ago, there was a rural region that based its economy entirely on one industry. Though the region itself was poor, it used its surfeit of natural resources to benefit the nation as a whole. The workers took immense pride in the industry, and most of the locals claimed it was a way of life. Though they knew this economy wasn’t sustainable, they couldn’t conceive of a time when the resource would not be there. When the industry collapsed, the region, having no backup plan, fell into disarray. Unemployment and poverty spiked. Young people fled. Worse, having their way of life stripped from them, many locals felt hopeless. There was an epidemic of drug and pill abuse so bad that it crippled the region for a generation. Many locals felt resentment toward the government, to the environmentalists perceived as the industry’s enemy, even to the people who warned of the collapse.
The region was Newfoundland, the country was Canada, and the industry was cod. Canadian cod was overfished, and the government had to shut down the fisheries in 1994.
“I was so proud of my job. I loved my job,” says Brendan Smith, a lifelong cod fisherman who, after the industry collapsed, went on to co-found the Labor Network for Sustainability. “Being in the belly of a boat for 30 days at a time with the other guys, I loved it.” The crowd laughs, but he’s not joking. He adjusts his Hartford Whalers cap and tries again. “I’m serious, it was great work. If it swam, I fished it.”
He is speaking at the Kentuckians For The Commonwealth (KFTC) convention in Harlan, Kentucky. KFTC, a citizens’ organization, held this convention to discuss the best path for Appalachia to take in a post-coal economy. If it’s unclear why a Canadian fisherman is speaking to a rural Kentucky organization, then he is not shy about drawing the parallels between cod and coal.
“The way coal companies are treating retirees now [in Appalachia] sure sounds familiar,” Smith says. He notes that these industries don’t understand the nature of work—or what work meant to these fishermen. “Without jobs, they gave us checks. Money is great, I love money. But we lost our purpose. We would spend that check to buy a brand new beautiful truck, and we’d drink ourselves to death while wishing we were out on the boat.”
After the cod industry collapsed, people found replacement jobs. They had a job at a call center selling seatbelts for pets. “The jobs they are offering suck,” says Smith. A proud fisherman doesn’t want to have to sell pet accessories to rich people, and a proud community—one that fueled the entire nation—doesn’t want to work over-the-counter jobs. They think they are worth more. They think their communities are worth more. “We need jobs that allow us not only to feed our families, but also to feed our souls.”
The Canadian cod industry may offer a clear warning about Kentucky coal, but it is not the only one. Closer to home, Martin Richards, the executive director of the Community Farm Alliance, draws the parallels between the situation of coal companies and Kentucky tobacco farmers. Study after study showed tobacco farming to be a dying industry, both unhealthy for people and bad for the environment. The prognosis frightened the workers who refused to believe it. “Fear was leading people to blame the government, blame outsiders, blame the tobacco industries,” Richards says. “When it was all against us, we still clung to our tobacco. We feared losing our communities more than we feared losing our tobacco.” The effects of not preparing for that change were “devastating.”
How does Appalachia transition from coal to a new economy? Has mining been a positive or negative for the region? What will replace coal jobs, and what will give Appalachia a sense of identity now that coal is gone? It’s open for debate.
What’s not up for debate—according to the members of KFTC—is that the age of coal is over. In Knott County, Kentucky, coal production dropped 45% last year alone. The projections throughout the region are for a steeper decline in the future. On top of that, the coal-friendly Fifth Congressional District of east Kentucky is the poorest in America. The physical health, mental health and life expectancy of Kentucky’s coal counties are worse than some developing nations.
To say that “coal mining is our future” is not an argument—it’s a lie. Any honest discussion about present-day Appalachia has to start with the admission that the age of coal is dead. It died, not because it left Kentucky broke and sick, but because we ran out of the valuable resource that made us so poor.
What Part of Coal Are They ‘Pro’?
The fact that we can’t move past establishing basic facts is not an accident. Coal companies don’t want people to discuss economic transition. To ask where the economy goes now is to risk being labeled “anti-coal,” a threat no Kentucky politician is willing to chance.
And that is the point. By flattening out the language—making all criticisms “anti-coal” and all agreement “pro-coal”—they create a linguistic zero-sum game. You are with us or against us. “[T]he reality of being pro-coal has meant being pro-coal industry,” says Anthony Flaccavento, a Virginia organic farmer and the founder of Appalachian Sustainable Development. During his unsuccessful run for Congress, he refused to say he was “pro-coal”. “I refused to say it. I said I was pro-coal miner. I’m pro-UMWA.” His opponents labeled him anti-coal, but he did better in coal mining communities than anywhere else.
Keeping the debate simple, says Flaccavento, plays right into the coal companies’ hands. It allows people to say they are pro-coal without ever having to ask what that means. “[B]ut I ask, exactly what part of ‘coal’ are they ‘pro’? It’s not the miners,” he says, noting that they fought safety regulations that would protect miners from black lung. “It’s not the miners’ families… It’s not the children of miners, because they ignore the reality that coal jobs have been declining for years.”
This isn’t unique to the coal battles. “[L]anguage always matters,” says Bill Estep, a reporter for The Lexington Herald Leader, whose primary job is to cover the Appalachian southern and eastern part of Kentucky. “Think of the abortion debate, and how pro-life sounds more positive than anti-abortion, while on the other side pro-choice sounds better than pro-abortion.” He warns that this level of reduction can lead to tangible harm. It robs the debate of its complexity. “Pro-coal and anti-coal are terms that can be used to pigeon-hole people, and they sometimes don’t fully capture what people really are. The best example may be that being against mountaintop mining doesn’t necessarily mean someone is against coal, for instance (though of course many people who oppose surface mining also would like to see coal replaced with other forms of energy).”
Who benefits from simplifying the conversation? Creating a dichotomy—pro-coal and anti-coal—encourages people to pick teams. When that happens, people stop listening to anyone on the opposing side. If acknowledging reality is political, then people who don’t share those politics feel free not to do it.
Brendan Smith, the Canadian fisherman, urges people to reject false choices. “If you give me a choice,” he says, “I’ll always choose my job. If it’s between the health of the earth and my job, I’ll choose my job. Even if it’s at the expense of my own health, I’ll always choose my job. It’s not about turning fishermen into environmentalists. It’s a completely false choice.” He also urges people to ignore the pacifying words from dying industries. “[In Canada,] there is still cod if you know where to look for it. But that’s like saying ‘There’s sixty more years of coal’. It’s not something you base an economy off of.”
Again, the question isn’t “Do we choose to move away from coal?” It’s, “Now that the coal is gone, what do we do now?”
Poor Get Poorer: Dangers of Transition
“Many people see the decline of coal as a tremendous tragedy,” says Bill Estep of The Lexington Herald Leader. “But it is also a tremendous opportunity. Coal sucked all the air out of the room. We always thought it would come back, but now we can finally focus on other things.”
Without coal, many alternative jobs could swoop in to the area. Not all industries, however, are created equal—and, in fact, not all opportunities are worth taking. Appalachia has been promised riches before: coal, tobacco and the highways were all supposed to make the region prosperous.
Estep suggests that whatever replaces coal should come organically. “Dropping in a thing doesn’t change the structure of the community,” he says. “It didn’t change anything that came before.”
In Letcher County, Kentucky, the politicians are backing the construction of a new prison. “People have been promised pie in the sky,” says Sylvia Ryerson, a Letcher County resident and a journalist for WMMT-FM. The jobs involved in building a prison are temporary, she says, and they can’t transform the economy in a meaningful way. By taking short term jobs, she claims Appalachia is harming its community in the long term. “I think it is helpful to think of prison construction as a continuation of the industrial recruitment strategies of the 1990s, where economic development officials looked outside the region, for some new big thing to come in and fix everything that’s wrong. And just as industrial recruitment failed to bring the region out of poverty, so will prison recruitment. It’s a race-to-the-bottom strategy, not based on meeting the needs and cultivating the skills of a particular community, but rather forcing marginalized communities to compete for the kinds of industries that no one else wants. And the effects are disastrous.”
Some might argue that even if the jobs are temporary, they are a stopgap solution that otherwise wouldn’t exist. Ryerson maintains that the evidence shows the opposite to be true. “[F]rom looking at studies as well as our neighboring counties, … prisons make poor communities poorer.” Appalachia needs a vibrant, diversified and skilled economy. Prisons discourage those businesses, making Appalachia a less attractive place. “Many prison host communities have seen increases in drug abuse, domestic violence and divorce rates following the prisons opening.” Additionally, in a region struggling to keep its young people at home, she worries about the unspoken message building a prison sends. “Is this what we want to be telling young people may be their best option if they want to stay home and have a good paying job?”
Furthermore, prisons create their own very dangerous economy. In order for a prison to become economically viable, it needs more and more prisoners. “[M]ass incarceration targets poor people of all colors,” Ryerson says. “The more our economy here in eastern Kentucky depends on insanely high incarceration rates nationwide, the more people from here in eastern Kentucky will end up going to prison.”
Transition done poorly can do irreparable damage to a rural area. Again, one of the clearest examples of this comes from the Newfoundland cod fisheries. “A lot of laid off fishermen got jobs working in the tar sands,” says Brendan Smith, referring to the area in Canada which is considered one of the dirtiest areas in the world. “So now they’re working, polluting the very oceans they used to fish, killing off the remaining cod.”
Where the Beasts Gather
In Canada, Brendan Smith transitioned from being a fisherman to having an environmentally friendly aquatic farm. “What we really tried to do is to break down the core elements of being a fisherman,” Smith says. “One element we couldn’t get back was the hunting. The thrill of finding a fish. So it’s a trade-off. We can work on the water all day. We don’t have to work for other people. We succeed and fail on our own terms.”
In Appalachia, there is growing confidence in the arts economy. “It’s a bullish time for the arts, especially for the economy,” says Robert Gipe, the director of the Appalachian Program at Southeast Community College in Cumberland, Kentucky. Gipe is also the executive producer of Higher Ground, a community theater troupe that explores the problems of central Appalachia. “In Western North Carolina, arts had a greater impact on the economy than tobacco did.”
“In Appalachia, we’ve always had the visual arts, the traditional musical arts, the food arts culture,” says Amelia Kirby, the co-owner of Summit City Café, a bar, restaurant, music venue and art gallery in Whitesburg, Kentucky. “But there hasn’t always been a center for the disparate elements of art.” She says that having such a place give people a sense of pride. “[It] creates a locally rooted space where people from here…are producing and sharing and appreciating art or music in the same context as other, off-er, more urban places, cultivating the idea that we are just as good as anywhere else. I think this is rooted in some pretty problematic identity issues and internalized hillbilly oppression, but I really do think that’s one of the ways that it brings energy and power to our community.” One of the tangible results of an artistic community is that the city of Whitesburg has become a destination for people in surrounding counties and states. “I used to leave every weekend,” Kirby says. “Now I can’t pry myself away.”
“Most creativity happens at the edges of where ecosystems meet,” says Gipe. “There has to be an ecology of these things.” It’s not enough for talent to exist in a community, he says. “There has to be a watering hole where the beasts gather.”
The road to a healthier economy sometimes looks unconventional, even crazy, Brendan Smith says. “But in these times, we need a little crazy.”
Appalachians investing in themselves, banking their future on their own talents rather than on short-term promises from outside corporations, may not be crazy. Maybe it has just never been tried before.