The Short and Long-Term Environmental and Economic Ethics of Western Kentucky Coal

October 27, 2010


On a recent trip to the town that I grew up in, I looked over the latest political ads and listened to comments people made about the upcoming election. Aside from the expected vitriol, there is also the undercurrent that I heard a few times that those who are “anti-coal” cannot win in that town.  Coal is not even an issue in this election—this is simply a presupposition held that prevents it from being an issue going into the political realm there.

I grew up in Western Kentucky; my grandfather and other relatives spent time in the mines and they hardly glamorized or praised it—it was simply what you did to put food on the table, it was a job waiting for folks in that part of the country when they came home from the war. Sometime less than 10 years ago, mining came back in a big way to that part of the state. I don’t recall too many of the guys from my older siblings generation (about 10 years older than me) being in the coal business, but I would estimate that more than half of the males I graduated high school with who remained in the county went into the mines.

Mining is dangerous work. Mining also can be fairly profitable (very profitable for the businessman at the top of the enterprise, but profitable in a working-class sense on the ground thanks to the advances that organized southern progressives earned through the unionization process), but for those doing the work it certainly isn’t as profitable as it should be weighed against the massive amount of hours most miners work and the risks they take on, especially given how much the controlling forces earn at the top of the industry.  Interestingly, it’s become a sort of “status symbol” or identifier as well, in ways that previous generations did not make it so. Even the big “Coal Miner’s Daughter” style hits focused on the stark, desperate quality of the work and were catalysts for the unionization process—such country blues songs were the unofficial soundtrack to the protest movement which attacked unfair wages (check out the magnificent “Harlan County” documentary). Now so, drive through the western portion of Kentucky and you’re apt to see dozens of bumper stickers displaying drivers as “proud wife/mother/son/cousin of a coal miner” or “10 feet from hell,” etc. 

Environmental Ethics classes and discussions rarely break through the barrier of culture—no matter how much academia fine-tunes the points of the arguments which prove the dangers that the mining, transportation, and use of fossil fuels does to the ecology of local communities and the entire planet, folks who mine still have to put food on the table and they’re unlikely to be interested in academic arguments that label their work as “bad for the earth.” They’re actually more likely to dismiss such arguments as patently false because they did come out of academia in the first place, given the current cultural climate of division. There are those strong voices, those writers and speakers from the regions they are addressing who should have more clout among such an audience—Wendell Berry, for example, who consistently understands the nuances of culture, ethics, religion, politics, and ecology and is a Kentucky native himself. Some of his work, like that which affirms the value of tobacco farming, has been looked on by some academics in a startled manner, but his arguments are cohesive and his care is for the health of the entire community from which he comes—now and later. Yet even voices like Berry’s don’t reach miners in Kentucky and even if they did, food still has to go on the table. In the post-recession era, towns that depend on the jobs mining brings have even fewer economically viable employment opportunities. 

And that’s the angle of the issue that is more of note and should be expressed to the communities dependant on mining work. I know people from Eastern Kentucky and Western Virginia who left the abject poverty of an entire community when they move away. Towns in those areas hit the coal boom in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and when the mountains had been knocked down, the pollutants pushed into rivers, and fossil fuels all extracted, the mining companies packed up and moved, taking the capital with them. Eastern Kentucky and Western Virginia fell into deep, pervasive poverty. My worry for Western Kentucky is that it will follow the path of its neighbors in this aspect—with such examples of poverty so geographically “close to home”, how is this so completely overlooked in short term politics? Granted, the type of mining done in Western Kentucky has yet to reach the overall devastation level of extensive mountaintop removal done in Eastern Kentucky, but the economic problem facing them is the same—if one generation completely focuses in a tunnel-vision fashion on short-term economic sustainability without crafting business and enterprise for the next generation, the only choice for that next generation is to follow suit: into the mines. But if this generation is the last, or one of the near last, generations to have work in the mines, the next generation is left with no job opportunities of the legitimate kind. This prospect doesn’t even take into consideration the very real aspect of global warming and ecological destruction that a reliance on fossil fuels enhances.

I’ve always tried to take up for the viewpoint of those that don’t have the time or the gumption, or even the “luxury” of considering ecological and economic issues in such a conceptual way. Awhile ago, I was part of a classroom debate on times when economic justice and environmental justice compete and seem incompatible. I immediately thought of and mentioned the issue of coalmining—economic justice insists that workers in Kentucky and Virginia be able to earn a living wage and that they be reasonably safe and secure on the job; environmental justice insists that we switch methods from fossil fuels to sustainable and clean energy, now before it is too late. These ideas compete because if we switch methods abruptly, those miners are left without a job. Therefore, a realistic solution to this problem insists that transitory work and government umbrellas move the very same miners into positions of transition work, offering them work in clean fuel. Obviously, this means that any candidate suggesting such a move will be deemed “anti-coal” by the shadow-puppet organizations (ala “Friends of Coal”) who will fund the conservative opponents. The question is, can such ideas be expressed for the truth they are to people who don’t desire to hear their truth?  


3 Responses to “The Short and Long-Term Environmental and Economic Ethics of Western Kentucky Coal”

  1. Jeezy said

    If you notice the ad here, as of this comment writing it is by one of those “shadow puppet organizations”-
    They’re onto everything that mentions coal…

  2. I am not originally from the area. I grew up in Washington State. I have lived in either Wise County, VA and Letcher County, KY since ’92.

    I totally agree with you regarding a move to clean energy and transitioning the coal miners. That is exactly what should be done. How is it done, though? That is the real question.

    We really need big companies to invest in things like Wind and hire the coal miners. This would at least start to create a shift in power.

  3. […] years ago spurred my first real blog about environmental ethics vis-a-vis Appalachian Coal Country, which you can glance at here. Back then I mentioned that a candidate perceived as anti-coal has no hope of winning office in my […]

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