Appalachians Have Lost More Than Coal, We've Lost Who We Are

We have been enslaved into the social trends our ancestors avoided.
Appalachia, Virginia
Appalachia, Virginia

Cross posted from The Thoughtful Coal Miner

Over the past few years, we have witnessed an amazing downturn in the coal industry. Mines all throughout Appalachia have closed, leaving thousands of coal miners and their families in dire straits. For as long as the coal industry has existed, the people of Appalachia have lived at the mercy of a boom and bust market. How did this come to be?

Weren’t the people of Appalachia once known for being robust, resilient, and having an endearing sense of hospitality? Didn’t they live in the mountains for nearly a century before timber and coal companies came in? Weren’t they enjoying the absolute freedom of their lives, without debt, without a want or care for the latest social and cultural trends that placed their urban neighbors into a life of wage slavery? What has happened to Appalachian people that have made these recent layoffs so detrimental? Had the mining layoffs come 75 or 100 years ago, they would have hurt, but the blow to mountain families would not have been nearly as severe. Our ancestors had been wary of dependence upon coal mining wages for their food supply and shelter. They didn’t trust banks. They’d known the bondage placed on them by lords in the old country,  eastern plantations owners who they were indentured servants to, and eventually the coal companies with their company scrip, company stores, and systems of perpetual debt. For years after coal became king, Appalachian people held on to a sense of freedom that was passed down to them by their ancestors.

My grandfather tried to teach us, “It’s your wants that get you in trouble, not your needs.” But theirs was also a different time. When our ancestors lived, there were still enough forest commons that people shared to hunt in and run their hogs. The water coming out of the mountain sides was still clean enough to drink. Extended families still owned enough land to graze mule teams and perhaps even a dairy cow. They could still plant enough food for themselves and sometimes for their livestock. It wasn’t an easy life, but it was a life our ancestors stuck with, just as many Amish do.

Mine owners had great difficulty forcing people to work in deplorable conditions for little money. If mountaineers didn’t like the job, they could leave without consequence to their family’s well being, and many often did. This was one of the prevailing reasons that coal companies recruited immigrants from the northeast, poor families who did not have land in the mountains or the knowledge of how to live off of it.

But times have certainly changed. Many of the miners who were laid off in recent years did not have a farm to go home to. They have not been able to spend their idle time using their hands to provide for their family in the traditional ways. Each day the mail carrier brings more bills, more reminders of the life they’ve been forced to lead at the mercy of “industrialized progress.” It is truly criminal how much the coal industry has forced us to depend on them.

Coal companies have taken our lands, our water, our dignity — even our freedom. Since they came in, each successive generation has lost the ability to provide for themselves using what God has given us. Without our lands and our forests, there are few choices when it comes to carving out a little bit of happiness.

We have been enslaved into the social trends our ancestors avoided. We have been told that to be somebody we have to work hard, to have nice homes, nice vehicles, that our children must dress in brand name clothing. Each weekend many miners flock to the nearby cities to buy  material things, becoming willing participants in conspicuous consumption, trying to prove to the rest of the world they are not the “dumb hillbillies.” Coal mining wages are the great equalizer between mountain people and the outside world, but it comes at the cost of our health and our children’s future well being. Deep inside, we know that we are still looked down upon, even if we can afford the things others have. When the coal market is down and we are unable to purchase our false sense of acceptance, we lose who we are and become vitriolic towards those who would take it from us.

Meanwhile, company heads have the legal system to their advantage once again. They’ve gone into bankruptcy, changed their names, and had a slight changing of the guard. Detached from prior responsibilities and debt, they hit the reset button and go back to playing the game. Open this mine, close that one. Lay off this many, scare the hell out of the others to up production. Pay into this campaign, pull the strings on the politicians already in office. They have their millions safely hidden in bank accounts, global investments, and stocks in natural gas companies. They have their mansions paid off in their gated communities. When these industrialists become outplayed by their counterparts in different industries, they do not have the fear of losing their homes. They do not lay awake at night wondering if they can afford school clothes for their children, the next power bill, let alone how they can afford to get their kids to the dentist.

The “War on Coal” is real. But it’s not what they make it out to be. It is a battle between industries, massive oil and natural gas companies vying for profit in the electrical generation sector. It is not being waged by the EPA and politicians. It’s not between environmentalists and coal mining families. As with any war, it is the poor who fight it while the wealthy sit back, giving orders to their officers in Congress and in the state house. They spread propaganda to make people fight for their causes, letting the casualties fall upon the lower classes.

We fight their battles and suffer their losses. They leave us with a war torn lands, water we cannot drink, messes that cannot be cleaned up, and all the public debts that must be repaid. They leave us jobless and broken with children wanting to be their next coal miners, the next to fall victim to their game. Each time they battle for profits the less we are able to pick up the pieces and begin our own lives again, the less we know who we really are.

If only we could realize and begin to fight back. We could see through their lies; we could see them as they truly are. We could remember our history and know that coal companies are not our friends and that we are not Friends of Coal, we are Slaves to Coal. We can find our way back to our own freedom, building our own economy, not being enslaved to theirs. It will not be easy. There will be mistakes, there will be further losses,  but we must start somewhere, and that somewhere begins without a dependence on coal.