Lessons for Appalachia’s Post-coal Economy

2012•12•03 Brooke Jarvis YES! Magazine

For all the pandering to the coal industry that took place during campaign season, a casual observer could be forgiven for coming away with the belief that coal is still the most powerful economic and political force in the Appalachia region of the United States.

The truth, though, is quite different: Coal’s contribution to Appalachian economies is already a shadow of what it once was; as the best seams are exhausted and coal gets more expensive to mine, its future in the region has never looked bleaker. (For a closer look at Big Coal’s finances, check out David Roberts’s recent accounting.)

This decline is good news, of course, for the climate, the local environment, and the health of Appalachian residents. But, in the near term, it’s tough news for an already struggling regional economy.

So what happens when Appalachia is coal country no more? What will it take to build a new economy in a region that has been defined by the unsustainable extraction of natural resources (including natural gas and poorly managed timber in addition to coal)?

Throughout Appalachia, local, grassroots groups are hard at work on those questions. Outsiders might be surprised to learn that the region is full of organizations working to reform old industries and promote more sustainable ones, to build local entrepreneurial capacity, and to make sure the region’s resources benefit residents over the long haul. These organizations are often heavily interconnected, creating a growing, region-wide support network for residents who are looking to create something new.

And new is the name of the game — a recurring theme is the need to build economies designed to avoid the problems of Appalachia’s past. These groups see the necessity of an economic transition as a chance to create economies more diverse, more resilient, and far less polluting than what came before.

1. Diversify

One what-not-to-do lesson that these groups are taking to heart: avoid over-dependence on the export of just one resource-dependent commodity. This is known as the “resource curse” — becoming so tied to one industry that you don’t develop the diverse, networked enterprises of a well-rounded economy. The region has learned — from tobacco and timber as well as coal — that such an approach leaves communities vulnerable to even small fluctuations of the market, subject to boom-and-bust cycles in which bad years often wipe out the gains of the good ones.

Instead, groups are focusing on ways to build more resilient economies, where a variety of mutually supportive microenterprises can flourish. The Mountain Association for Community Economic Development (MACED) offers loans and technical assistance to small businesses and nonprofits; the Appalachian Center for Economic Networks runs two business incubators where new enterprises can get counseling, office, and light-manufacturing space, as well as share resources and procurement.

A number of organizations are working to help Appalachia catch up to the rest of the country in access to broadband Internet. The Southern Grassroots Economy Project offers training in setting up cooperatively owned enterprises, and the Central Appalachian Network offers grants to businesses producing local food.

2. Keep wealth local

One of the biggest tragedies of the coal era is that, for all of the sacrifices of Appalachian residents — blasted mountains, polluted water and air, high rates of disease and birth defects, the deaths of more than 100,000 miners — very little of the wealth created by the industry has stuck around. Coal-producing counties are among the poorest in the nation.

The idea is to use coal money, while it’s still around, to build more sustainable sources of wealth.

That’s why a number of Appalachian groups are pushing to make sure that the same thing doesn’t happen again. They say Appalachian states can make better use of the money coal produces as it declines; groups in Kentucky and West Virginia are pushing to divert a portion of coal severance taxes to permanent funds, similar to those set up in Alaska, Montana, and Wyoming.

The idea is to use coal money, while it’s still around, to build more sustainable sources of wealth (in the form of job training programs, infrastructure, and more). In West Virginia, they also hope to harness the new boom in town, natural gas, in the same way. If the industry can’t be kept out, the reasoning goes, the states should find ways to turn nonrenewable resources into assets that last.

3. You can’t extract forever

Another lesson learned: After years of shipping irreplaceable natural wealth out of the region, a number of groups are looking for ways to turn conservation into an economically viable option.

Appalachian Voices, Coal River Mountain Watch, and other groups across the region are fighting to protect their mountains from mountaintop removal — a coal-mining practice that destroys entire mountains for one-time profit — pointing out that other uses, like tourism or wind production, would be much better for local economies in the long term. The Appalachian Carbon Partnership helps landowners inventory the carbon sequestered in their forests and sell offsets; Green Forests Work reforests land that has been strip-mined; MACED helps companies and landowners get certified in sustainable forestry.

Campaign 2012’s coal theatre — Mitt Romney reversing himself on the dangers of coal; the exec who laid off dozens of miners in Utah the day after the election, blaming President Obama; the repeated allegations of an EPA “war on coal” — was outdated even as it happened. It’s been a long time since coal could be called Appalachia’s way forward. Appalachians, more and more, know it — and are hard at work building something better.

This article appears courtesy of YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions.

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Brooke Jarvis

EditorYES! Magazine

Brooke Jarvis is web editor of YES! Magazine.