A recent article in Kentucky’s leading paper, The Lexington Herald Leader, discusses the down-fall of coal in the Bluegrass State. The statistics reported are alarming. Overall, the industry is at a 118-year low as more than 50% of coal jobs have disappeared over the past few years. In a region laden with poverty the hits keep coming.
There is a bright side though. With the fall of coal, the industry’s mono-economy will be shattered. Markets will be freed. A new economics is on the horizon.
Coal industry history in Eastern Kentucky is as dirty as the rock itself. With the expansion of the railroad and rise of extractive industry in the early 1900’s, coal became king. Company towns littered the Appalachians. Workers were paid in company scrip and they shopped at the company store for overpriced goods. Union organizing was discouraged by armed company personnel. Violence was common as Appalachia industrialized. Coal flourished in a state-supported mono-economy. Later, the mechanization of mining, especially throughout the 1970’s, exacerbated the loss of labor in the region.
“>The industry is a system of power and domination. Today, as the system fails, new markets and social power are on the rise.
One such example can be found on Ky. 7, a two-lane road in Eastern Kentucky. Here, a booming artisan market (300 strong) known as Antique Alley is flourishing. Kentucky native Megan Smith, in another article for the Leader, writes: “Entrepreneurism is awakening, plans are unfolding and the arts are gaining strength, despite the decimation of the area’s economic lifeblood: coal.”
Local Bonita Adams, owner of the Kentucky Proud N&S Farm goat’s milk products, is part of this economic transition.“We are trying to realize our potential and put some things in place that will draw people down Route 7 to help bring a little income to our local artists, crafters and musicians,” Adams said. “I hope that opportunities arise for our people. I am not thinking big business; just small ones with big personalities and talents.”
As coal declines social power emerges. And why wouldn’t it? Appalachia is not destitute. Never has been. But now, in a post-industrial landscape, it can truly thrive.
The mountains, full of fern, trillium and wildflower, rhododendron, poplar, oak, spruce and eastern hemlock are breathtakingly beautiful. Water trickles, eddies and carves across ancient rock throughout the valley and ridge. The purple horizons are often smoky, soaked in clouds as the temperate forest produces its own mist. The wildlife is splendid. Appalachia is a living place, a great cradle of biodiversity.
Time will only tell what will come of Appalachia. But, free land, free of the administrators and their maniacal ideas of “progress,” “industrialism,” and “economic development” will provide cultural and supportive ecosystem services to let the region thrive.
The forest can be a place of recreation, physical exertion and reflection. As ecosystems recover from industrial trespass, biodiversity will bounce back. This will bring tourism, restoration ecology and biological education to the region. Local knowledge of the natural environment, rooting ginseng and herbs for example, will develop sustainable markets. The mountains themselves, their biodiversity and climate, will inspire art (good old foot stompin’ bluegrass!), culture and scientific inquiry.
Appalachia is on the verge of a great revolution. The mountains can be a common place — community owned and democratically operated. It’s been a long road, and the journey isn’t over, but as locals are empowered the land inches ever closer to liberty. The Bluegrass State proves it. Appalachia is rising. The transition is coming. State and industry power are being challenged. The movement is awake and in it for the long haul.