After Coal: Appalachian Readings

I’ve made it to the end of this 2018 resolution of reading one Appalachian book a month! This last book is one that also looks forward. In After Coal: Stories of Survival in Appalachia and Wales, Tom Hansell seeks solutions to Appalachia’s economic woes due to the dying coal industry by seeing what other coal-rich countries have done post-coal, specifically Wales. The book is a supplement to a documentary by the same name that I haven’t had the pleasure of seeing yet.

Image result for After Coal WVU

The book begins by asking the question, “If we can’t mine coal, what are we going to do?” Hansell recognizes that “the coal industry has long been the only model of economic development in the central Appalachian region” (3). Despite the fact that coal employment peaked in the ’50s, generations of Appalachian families have gotten used to the option of foregoing years of expensive education and still getting a salary of $75K a year as a miner. That said, fewer and fewer jobs are available due to mountaintop removal. Coal production actually peaked well after employment, in 2001, as mountaintop removal can produce 2.5 times the amount of coal per worker than underground mining (73). Because of the way the privatized mining industry grew, because much of the company profits leave the region, and because these companies have ridiculous tax incentives, the Appalachian mining communities have little in the way of infrastructure to fall back on. Without mining as an option, what is left?

Hansell went to Wales to find out. Wales, too, has had a long history of coal mining. However, much of the political history of coal mining differs greatly from the US. Hansell compares and contrasts by looking at the history of the two industries side by side. Wales had the benefit of having unionized, government-owned mines for a while, which allowed the communities to thrive because the priority was not solely on profits, but rather on economic development and community improvement. In the US, miners (since employment started declining) have consistently sided with the coal companies, even going so far as to fight environmental and safety regulations that protect them and their families and provide them with clean water and air. I think this is an excellent tell that the corporations have taken advantage of these communities to the point they are willing to give up quality of life for money and, honestly, identity. And then these same companies walk out when there is no coal left, leaving their tenuously built communities to topple.

Wales saw some of this pain when the Thatcher government reprivatized the Welsh coal industry, only to watch it continue to decline because the coal was harder and harder to reach. As Terry Thomas, a Welsh miner, said, “We have to find an alternative way to bring about improvement within our communities, because if we are waiting for the politicians to do it for us, then I’m afraid that help is not going to come” (83). There, communities have done more than diversifying the local economy. Rather, they have embraced the “concept of economic transition,” or a “complete restructuring of the economy and community to create a sustainable future” (13). There were many examples of this, from organizations like DOVE, which was formed by miners’ wives during the Welsh miner strike in 1984-85 to support their families through education opportunities, to the creation of the Glyncorrwg Ponds and Mountain Bike Centre, which is now “a world-renowned mountain bike park” (107). The Welsh mining communities have been creatively solving their problems and thinking outside the box. Importantly, however, they have also been acknowledging all the while that the money of mining will never come back.

Who knows what the best answer is to bring about economic revolution in Appalachian coal country. Perhaps we could look into some of the programs the Welsh communities have built, though they have better land to work with as mountaintop removal was not as widespread or destructive as it is here in the states. Perhaps we can look to new, renewable industries like wind farms and lavender fields. It’s also important to adjust the approach for each individual location. What works in East Tennessee may not work in western Kentucky. Regardless, we need to look outside the box and follow in Wales’s footsteps. It may get worse before it gets better, but as Hansell writes, “in this crisis, something new is being born and developed that will once again have an impact on the future and the bigger economy” (214). I’ve said time and again that Appalachia is a bellwether. We are what happens when capitalism runs amok and becomes a form of feudalism. If we want our country to move in a more ethical, sustainable, and healthier direction, change must come.

I’ve been super grateful this year to read so many amazing books about Appalachia. I began this journey to feel closer to my roots as an Appalachian now far afield in Indiana. While that certainly worked, I also learned so much about Appalachian history, the coal industry, the lovely creative works coming out of the region, and so much more. We must not let outsiders like J. D. Vance define us. We are beautiful and diverse, and each of us has the power to define ourselves. I will always be proud to call myself Appalachian.

Grocery store in Unicoi, Tennessee
Grocery store in Unicoi, Tennessee

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *