In Appalachia, generations of families rely on Big Coal for employment. Their culture also strongly identifies with their unique shared history as coal miners, and pride in providing power to a growing nation. Unfortunately, these communities depend on an industry that is doomed to become obsolete, as the supplies of these fuels inevitably dwindle and become completely exhausted.
The region stretches from the southern tip of New York to the northern edges of Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia. According to the 2010 census, 25 million people live in the region, whose major cities include Pittsburg, Pa.; Knoxville and Chattanooga, Tenn. and Asheville, N.C.
Already, Appalachia is in economic decline, and has been for the past half century. What were once thriving company coal towns have become ghost towns, as the industry first switched from underground mining to more destructive strip mining . This completely changed the geography and economy, leveling both mountains and jobs. Once well-paying union jobs were replaced by much lower paying non-union jobs all while destroying the area’s beauty and abundant natural resources.
Appalachia can survive, and even thrive, without the coal industry, as it did before the arrival of J.P. Morgan, Koch Industries and the other robber barons. These companies still own more than half of the land in 80 counties in Appalachia’s coal country, as well as the mineral rights to much of the land that they don’t own outright.
The people of Appalachia have done it before. Before the era of Big Coal, there was a time when chestnuts from the now barren hills were sold in Manhattan, locally harvested and tanned leather was sold in South America, and ginseng was grown and exported to China.
Those are not viable options today, but there are other ways to bring prosperity back to the area. The people of Appalachia have a resource that is rare in our nation today — a strong sense of community and a willingness to stand together for the good of the community. This trait that goes back to the early days of coal mining, when the sound of a siren brought entire towns running to the mines to assist in rescuing the miners who may be trapped and injured due to an accident.
The land will have to be reclaimed from the absentee owners, who pay as little as 25 cents per acre in property taxes, put back into the hands of local people who can put it to better use. Communities can achieve this by convincing the owners to either sell or lease it back to the locals.
This Appalachian community is thriving.
One town where the people have begun to take back control of their hometown’s fate is Whitesburg, Kentucky where Appalshop, a multi-media, arts, and education center founded in 1969 as a part of the War on Poverty has become a successful non-profit and community asset which has encouraged the town’s young people to stop fleeing town as soon as they graduate from high school.
Herb E. Smith was one of the first to be convinced to stay after the founders of Appalshop came to town when he was a senior in high school. They gave him a camera and told him to make a movie about the people in his hometown, and he never stopped, he met his wife Elizabeth Barrett at Appalshop and while making films together they raised their family in Whitesburg. Their son is now a lawyer in town and their daughter Ada is now the development director for Appalshop as well as the founder of the Stay Together Appalachian Youth (STAY) Project, a group of youths dedicated “to build[ing] and keep[ing] wealth—and young people— here.”
As Herb points out, a community cannot thrive and grow with outsiders telling it what to do and how to do it, the company towns of the past didn’t fail just because the industry declined, the were bound to fail because the people were not invested in them.
Smith told Yes!, a progressive magazine:
“In functioning economies, the local people participate. Jeffersonian democracy isn’t about there being some company that comes up here and builds your house.”
Through community involvement Whitesburg is making a comeback with new locally created and owned businesses whose survival depend on building a vibrant community with a thriving economy together these people are using that sense of community that they developed as coal miners to find a new and better way of doing business and building a local economy. They are not about attracting chain stores such as Walmart, they are about building what this country once built and then forgot.
There are precedents for Whitesburg to succeed. Wales, in the U.K., once had an economy based on the coal mining industry. With help from the European Commission it has transformed its economy from one based on coal to one based largely on biotech and renewable energy.
Today the Welsh proudly promote themselves as leaders in green energy, with their can do spirit the people of Appalachia may one day be able to say the same, having transformed their economy from one based on exploitation of people and the planet to one that is sustainable and based on the determination of strong people to stay on the land of their ancestors.