This Sept. 4, 2011 file photo shows the main plant facility at the Navajo Generating Station, as seen from Lake Powell in Page, Ariz. Navajo lawmakers will vote on a lease extension for a coal-fired power plant that allows the delivery of water to Arizona’s major metropolitan areas. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, file)
First this week, there was a great recap on The Daily Yonder from the Kentuckians for the Commonwealth event, Appalachia’s Bright Future, held down in Harlan. Headlined A Region Worth More Than Mountaintops, the blog reports:
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.
It goes on:
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.”
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.
… 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.