Recently I made a mistake. I did not resist the urge to leap into a Facebook back-and-forth about the coal industry, the environment, and most importantly, the economy. You don’t have to be a native West Virginian to be troubled by what is going on, but I am both native and troubled. Status update soundbites can never give justice to the dynamics and complexities of West Virginia’s agonizing, heel-digging resistance to even talking about life outside the colonial economy of coal.
We need to talk about one thing above all others, and that is how seemingly impossible and yet absolutely necessary it is for our state to stop defining ourselves by a fading economy. I saw a quote today on the side of a building, it said, “You must do the things you think you cannot do.” Eleanor Roosevelt said this, and it is used in a wide range of human circumstances. West Virginia would do well to take these words to heart.
I am unaware of any other industry or profession where people are not expected to do what everyone else has to do, and that is figure out how to be employable in more than one field. It’s extremely difficult, but we all have to do it. Some people talk about coal miners as if they are some unique category of people who never have to adapt and figure out how to be relevant in a changing economy and find new work, ever. Underneath that way of thinking is a condescending attitude that they aren’t like everyone else because they aren’t smart enough or tough enough or modern enough or something. It drives me crazy because just the opposite is true.
If you want tough and adaptable and curious and indomitable, you want a West Virginia coal miner. These folks eat my fears for breakfast, and negotiate circumstances so deadly day after day it would finish most of us within 24 hours. There are families in West Virginia that go back generations who are built on the genetic and character codes of this kind of work, so please, don’t condescend to them. Ever. Not even for a vote.
The trouble is, while West Virginia’s future rests on the cannot-be-defeated nature of miners, what it does not rest on is out-of-state coal companies. This post is not about coal companies, but most people are aware that their reputations are much less glowing than the reps of miners themselves. Let’s leave it at that.
In my Facebook comments, I compared the dynamics of the economic transitions ahead of us to the shock to the Old South with the end of plantations where the production was almost entirely from a system of slave labor. That was not a wise thing to pop up in a few lines in a real-time conversation, because it is so easily misunderstood. In no way am I comparing slavery to coal mining. I do believe, however, that there are valid opportunities to see West Virginia’s economic issues through the lens of the Old South if one can stay focused on the transition problems. I maintain they are relevant and potentially useful in bridging the gaps in public dialogue around us every day.
The language similarities are striking when thinking about comparisons between the Old South agricultural empire and West Virginia’s extractive industry economy . Threats to “our way of life” are common cries. People bring up their family trees, how long their family has been part of a work culture, and how the nation depends on the product to survive. Patriotism and morality are questioned. Families and friendships are strained and in some cases broken. Some people talk about the President of the United States as if he is an enemy of the state, and there is constant pressure to not say the wrong thing so as not to be labeled disloyal — to what, take your pick. You risk being disloyal to your beloved state and the commitment and even sacrifice of generations of miners if you question anything about the impact of the coal industry, and you risk being disloyal to your own children’s health and well-being for a few bucks if you don’t chain yourself to a tree.
Something’s gotta give.
It starts with talking about one thing with a laser sharp focus: The New Economy. No one stopped needing food and fibers when abolition became law, and no one is going to stop needing electricity when mountain top removal and even coal mining itself is no more. We must focus on what we need, and how we will continue to get it through new methods that meet the new information we have about the destructive contamination inherent in coal mining. Really smart people I’ve known all my life are turning a blind eye to what everyone outside of West Virginia knows without even trying — coal ash, mercury poisoning, degradation of streams and elimination of entire ecosystems are poised to do more than inconvenience a few fish. Even the most stubborn person out there has got to know in his or her heart that this is insanity.
We need to stop letting the coal industry define this debate. The WV Coal Association has one of the nicest, kindest men you will ever meet as its spokesman, and it does not matter. Personalities need to disappear from the conversation. I started by saying I am a native West Virginian, and that comes with a big guarantee — I will never give up on this place. I do everything I can to keep the conversation on a high level, but also on a level that matters. At the end of the day, in the Old South it did not matter, not even a little bit, how long anyone ran their farms a certain way. It needed to end, and people needed to have a higher vision for what they could do, how, and why. It took a Civil War and the near end of this country for people to get a clue.
Let’s not make the same mistakes.