Talking about economic transition as coal declines

March 29, 2016

“Guys working in the mines were making $18-25/hour. They had really good medical insurance, they could afford to have a nice home, a nice car, and then when all the mines were shut down, there was nothing — there’s nothing here. Fast food restaurants, or unless you work at the hospital or a doctor’s office, grocery store, there’s nothing else here. There were mines here everywhere, and that was the biggest thing here. Without it there’s nothing.”

“I went from making near $3,000 a week to Stop and Shop pay – so what does that tell you?”

— Excerpts from conversations with residents in eastern Kentucky communities affected by coal closures, from “Findings from an Ethnography in Central Appalachia” by Topos Partnership

Sometimes research findings leave an impression, and are worth going back to. That’s the case with a unique ethnography research project conducted last year in eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia communities hard hit by coal industry decline.

The project came out of work Resource Media was doing with local groups trying to move the economic transition conversation forward in areas affected by coal mine closures and lost jobs. While existing research provided some insights into the views and values of Central Appalachia residents, there were big gaps – so we reached out to Topos Partnership, an ethnographic research firm, to help fill them in. Topos’ research included 200 semi-structured conversations with residents where they live, an approach Topos says enables reaching people who might not otherwise participate in research and “encourages people to think aloud about issues rather than reproducing opinions they have stated or heard before.”

I recently pulled Topos’ report back out because of fast-changing times on energy where I live out west. Earlier this year heads turned when an editorial titled “Montana can’t stake its future on coal” ran in the Billings Gazette, just on the doorstep of Powder River Basin coal country. “The market has changed,” the editorial asserted:

“Montana’s leaders in government and business should host summits on energy diversification. Let’s figure out how to provide what energy customers want and how to best transition out of the energy they don’t want.”

In the heart of the Powder River Basin in Wyoming, PacifiCorp, the largest owner coal power plants in the state, these days talks openly in the local press about making “the transition away from coal.”

In Colorado, there’s a recent story about a town affected by a coal mine closure that is considering undoing its ban on recreational marijuana shops in order to boost economic activity.

Of course research in Appalachia isn’t research in the Interior West, the contexts are absolutely different. But there are insights from Topos’ 200 interviews that feel well worth some continuing circulation and reflection as more communities, organizations and officials deal with a transforming energy sector. Indeed, in some of the remarks by residents of Hotchkiss, Colorado, interviewed for that article I just mentioned, it’s impossible to miss similarities to interview excerpts from the ethnography in Appalachia: deep-felt concerns about people “just plain moving away” or the need for a source of money flowing into the community, “an infusion of cash” in the words of one Hotchkiss resident. So here are a few of the insights from Topos’ conversations in Appalachia that may provide food for thought for those talking about and working on post-coal economic transition in other regions, too:

‘War on coal’ polarization is there, but doesn’t have to be triggered

One thing Topos was curious about right off the bat was whether it would be possible to have the discussions they wanted to have with residents, or if the topic would just be too sensitive or polarizing. They ran into hard feelings: frustration, anxiety, despair, pessimism, resentment. “I worked at [the gas station] for 13 years,” one woman says, and “as soon as there was layoffs you could see it from the business. It’s not just a coal miner gets laid off. It’s a whole family.” Another mentions a friend who’s been trying to start a solar system business and is in the red, having sold only two systems in six months because there’s “no customers.” Many talk about work in coal that paid $20-$35 an hour, compared to low-wage retail now: “I went from making near $3,000 a week to Stop and Shop pay – so what does that tell you?”

Topos reports that they did encounter “considerable resentment against outsiders (e.g. Obama, the EPA, environmentalists),” but found that triggering ‘war on coal’ polarization was a trap that could be avoided. And if avoided, then there was a lot of openness to having conversations about a wide spectrum of economic ideas or initiatives.

The point about avoiding the trap of ‘war on coal’ framing is one that I remember thinking about during President Obama’s State of the Union Address back in January when he emphasized the strength of solar by saying that it “employs more Americans than coal.” In a context of coal closures, bankruptcies and job losses, I wondered how that was heard by the Central Appalachia residents Topos interviewed who weren’t seeing solar jobs or solar revenues. I wondered if it unnecessarily pulled the kind of trigger the anthropologists were referring to, and if that might be easily avoided simply by emphasizing the economic engine of solar on its own rather than pitted or juxtaposed directly against declining coal.

The ‘will-it-bring-money-into-the-region’ and ‘economic independence’ litmus tests

Over the course of their interviews, Topos researchers were struck by residents’ skepticism of anything that sounds like vague “happy talk” on jobs and the economy. But they were also struck by what they called a very pragmatic orientation that enables a fair hearing for concrete ideas that pass a key litmus test: providing a real source of money into the area.

“When the mines were open and that money spread around – everyone was working,” said a retired Kentucky coal miner interviewed for the project. A carpenter explained further: “Now I work 16-18 hour days and I’m barely scraping by. People are leaving and those that stay won’t have money to fix their houses.” Residents interviewed for the project view coal jobs in Appalachia as allowing families to stay and build lives in the region because they brought in money that supported local businesses, entrepreneurship, and schools. And that’s the model that Topos found people using as the filter for considering transition to a different type of economy now. Proposals that do not seem to have a source of money don’t come across as serious to people, Topos explains. “Retail and service jobs aren’t seen as sustainable without a source of money. Efforts that educate or train workers, or improve the quality of life in communities can be seen as futile, if the region cannot secure a base flow of money from somewhere.”

The other key lens Topos found residents using in sizing up ideas is whether they will lead to work that pays — work that leads to economic independence, meaning the capacity for a young person to stay in the area, make a life for themselves and establish a family of their own. In their conversations, Topos identified a deep-rooted core value in the independence that comes from hard work that pays: “Coal jobs are often dangerous and dirty and unpleasant, and yet people are glad to take them. They understand the downsides quite clearly and choose them because it gives them economic independence.” Dependency on government welfare checks sharply violates this value, the researchers found — and that in turn colors views about government funding in general, even though that can be a source of money flow into a region. Coupled with cynicism about government and views of government programs as temporary and subject to political winds, researchers flagged this as a particular challenge for advocates.

Here’s a link where you can read the full research report from Topos, and view several video excerpts from their interviews. It’s possible to read the report and feel daunted and pessimistic, but that’s not the researchers’ conclusion from their conversations. They found people “hungry for solutions and open to discussions about a great many potential approaches, even as they voiced skepticism and doubts.”

Jeff Cappella