A Region Worth More Than Mountaintops
[imgbelt img=bear.jpg]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.
Daily Yonder/Rural Archive/Shawn PoynterA black bear decorated with coal is part of a public art project in Harlan County, Ky. The county has tried to build on its coal heritage as a way to develop tourism and community spirit. At an April 2013 conference, participants explored the complex ways that regions fail and succeed in building stronger economies.
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.”
Daily Yonder/Rural Archive/Shawn PoynterBrendan Smith, a former Newfoundland cod fisherman, says the cod and coal industries have a lot in common.
“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.
Daily Yonder/Rural Archive/Shawn PoynterAnthony Flaccavento