At the recent AppFellows regional gathering in Benham, KY, after spending the day scheming, dreaming, and arguing over what it means to create a “just transition” in the Appalachian economy, we emerged from the conference room to visit the Kentucky Coal Mine Museum. At the Coal Mine Museum, we heard two former UMWA miners talk about their experiences both fighting for the union and fighting against mountain top removal. Then, climbing up a narrow flight of stairs to the roof of the museum, we were met with a fleet of solar panels glistening in the early mountain sunset. This image, which has been both ridiculed and celebrated by pundits commenting on the irony of installing such “green infrastructure” on a museum dedicated to the history of the infamous fossil fuel, illustrates the complexity of the regional debate around “Just Transition.”. According to a PSA about the project I heard on the radio, the solar panels were installed mostly to save money on utility costs, not to make a political point. But the image made me wonder— if the coal industry is fading regardless of political intervention, and people in Appalachia are forced to consider economic alternatives regardless of their personal ideologies, does it matter whether or not our communities and our allies agree with our views? Additionally, to what degree does the mainstream media erase nuances in Appalachian political thought, making the installation of solar panels on a coal museum so surprising to outsiders?
I have met many retired miners who are both dedicated friends of coal and fighters of mountain top removal. That “contradictory” stance comes from deeply felt economic realities, and represents a positionality I wish more of our political leaders would respect. The danger, however, in allowing for and embracing such ideological diversity, in making the tent of ideas that exists under the ‘Just Transition’ framework as wide and open as possible, is that a wide tent also makes room for projects that bear an eerie resemblance to the exploitative mono-economies we are supposedly “transitioning” away from.
Take the proposed federal prison in Letcher County, KY, for example. The proposed USP Letcher would take $444 million of federal money to build a maximum security prison on a reclaimed strip mine, in a country that incarcerates a higher percentage of its population (in particular, people of color) than any other country in the world. But because this prison will bring relatively higher paying jobs to a county in deep economic distress, I’ve anecdotally heard many refer to the prison as a step in the right direction for East Kentucky, if not explicitly a “just transition” away from coal.
This raises the question of whether or not we are working to push forward the collective education of our communities—specifically, collective education around power and structural violence. If we want to move away from the kind of industry that once paid miners in script and forced children to work for 18 hours a day in dangerous and back-breaking conditions, why would we support an industry that produces billions of dollars in profit for essentially unpaid labor—and relies of structural racism to justify this practice)? While I do not believe in activists self-isolating into ideologically pure subcultures that refuse to engage the people we are supposedly organizing, I think there is an immense danger in allowing terms like “Just Transition” to be appropriated and diluted by the power elite. And I believe we have a duty to be vigilant about recognizing when conversations around economic transition in Appalachia intentionally and unintentionally exclude people that will be directly impacted by whatever economic future happens in the mountains. [jh1]
Directly after the regional gathering, I attended a separate, larger conference about economic development in Appalachia. While the conference introduced me to [jh2] many exciting projects and ideas, I believe [jh3] there were fewer than five black people present at the entire event, and few if any participants I met [jh4] were currently working in the manufacturing or service sector. It is less than surprising to me, given these demographics, that the keynote speaker of thesaid conference was an enthusiastic advocate for capitalism as a way to “get things done and create social change”—a statement that was met with applause and affirmation by most (if not everyone) in the room. Similarly, when I have attended more local gatherings about economic development in eastern Kentucky, there are very few people of color present, and rarely any attendees who do not work in professional non-profit or government sectors. Where are the Dollar General and Walmart workers at these meetings? Where are the unemployed young people struggling with health issues or addiction? The jargon-heavy language used in such spaces is exclusive and alienating, even for many people who have had access to college education like me.
I believe a diversity of ideologies, strategies, and tactics will be necessary to build the new world we want to see in Appalachia and across the country. But I can’t quite come to terms with the contrast between environments like The Highlander Center, where we talk about collective liberation and critiquing the machine of capitalism,, and events like the East Kentucky Leadership Conference, where aluminum plants and military drone launch pads are promoted as innovative steps forward for Appalachia. Does the term “Just Transition” really mean anything at all if such contradictory visions for the future can be encompassed within it? Is it still useful, however, to embrace these spaces of contradiction and political tension? In Appalachia, there is a growing consensus that we need to work with the Trump supporter and the tree-hugger alike if we want to build any kind of real political power. I think it is deeply important to organize a base of diverse backgrounds and political persuasions, but I don’t think we’re ever going to get the world we’re fighting for if we prioritize networking with business owners and politicians over creating community with workers and unemployed people. I think we need to think critically about the term “Just Transition”—who defines it, who implements it, and who ultimately remains in power when the framework is applied.