Green Jobs the Cure for Appalachia's Blues

Get this: The Appalachian region is home to the nation's least happy people, according to a recent Gallup opinion poll. 

While it makes perfect sense that Hawaii is the state with the happiest residents, it's surprising that Kentucky (#49) and West Virginia (#50) ranked as the saddest places to live.  Joining eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia on the list of the least happy places in the U.S. are southwestern West Virginia, eastern Tennessee and western Virginia.  Could it be a coincidence that these are the coalfields of Appalachia?

Kentuckian Erik Reece, author of the excellent mountaintop removal book Lost Mountain, postulated an interesting theory about the source of all that unhappiness: coal.  More specifically, Reece blames the region's legacy of reckless mining and subsequent widespread poverty as the "systematic cause" of so much sadness.  As Reece wrote in the Louisville Courier-Journal:  

I have a suspicion that strip mining is a major cause of all this unhappiness.  The Gallup study found that high-scoring Utah residents derive much of their happiness from the wild, natural landscapes of the West.  They explore places like the Arches National Monument and find inspiration and sustenance there. Here in the East, we have some of the oldest and most biologically diverse mountains in the world.  But rather than view them as a source of our own psychological and spiritual well-being, we blow them apart and waste their watersheds.

People on the dime for the coal industry like to talk about all of the revenue that mining generates in Eastern Kentucky.  Certainly someone is getting rich.  But if the region's 100 years of coal mining has been accompanied by 100 years of poverty -- 30 percent now, the nation's highest -- it may be time to quit digging.  Formal logic tells us that if a corollary persists between two events over time, then there is probably a connection.  And what the Gallup poll demonstrates is that the places with the most strip mining have also the most poverty and the most unhappiness.

So, the coal industry has brought neither well-being nor wealth to Appalachia, and the destruction of these mountains has only led to more health problems related to water quality and respiratory illness. And the industry knows this.  That's why its spokesmen sound so frantic and desperate these days. 

Reece contends that transitioning to a new, diversified economy could solve both the problems of poverty and unhappiness in Appalachia.  In other words, green jobs can cure the region's blues.  It stands to reason that all Americans will be better off when we trade the dismal prospect of dirty coal for the promise of a happier future, one based not on blowing up mountains but on building a clean energy future.

I expect the coal industry's apologists to dismiss all this and to keep talking about the benefits of keeping coal a part of the nation's energy picture.  But that does not excuse the way the industry mines and burns coal today.   If the industry hopes to ever gain a degree of social acceptance it has to earn it.  Buying lots of ads does not earn that acceptance.  Only by changing its behavior can the industry hope to be viewed positively.