West Virginia Deserves Better: the False Dichotomy

West Virginians aren’t just residents of some Company Town—the one providing you the fuel to run your lights and cars—to be fired and evicted when you’re done with us.

We’re citizens in the richest country in the history of the world, and we deserve the opportunities that citizenship should provide us.

We deserve better

Way back in the bad-old-days, miners (my great grandfather is pictured above) often lived in Company Towns with their families. Miners were paid in Company Scrip, and they purchased everything from the Company Store. Prices were sky high, because those company stores were the only game in town. Mining families lived in ramshackle company-owned housing, with eviction as a constant threat…

The idea, mind you, wasn’t to provide a good life to miners and mining communities. The idea was to make profits for the company, for the Coal Barons. They needed workers, but they didn’t need miners to do well. Every dollar the paid to miners—or “wasted” on safety measures—cut into the bottom line.

Miners were regarded as expendable, merely the machinery of extraction.

And to many people they still are.

  • Many conservatives think miners are expendable to the health impacts of mining. Screw your clean water as long as politicians and Resource Barons get their fat paycheck!
  • And some liberals think the miners and their families are expendable to the job losses. Screw your kids and your whole community as long as we reduce carbon emissions!

Miners are tax paying citizens with families. So are gas and oil workers. They’re doing jobs that literally keep the lights on and the cars running, provide what helps make American steel, and what powers our national defense.

Our communities aren’t just here to be sacrificed—not to pollution, not to job losses, either. We’re not mere machinery,  and we’re not just going to live in your company towns until evicted at the end of our usefulness to you… and good riddance to us!

Yet many conservatives seem to be the “screw your health” crowd. And some liberals seem to be the “screw your livelihood” crowd. I can’t even.

But choosing between your health and your livelihood is a false dichotomy. There are more than two choices. There are real solutions to provide a just transition.

Our future as a country has to take into account what transitioning will do to people here, the people who powered this country for generations with the sweat of their brows.

Yeah, that’s right. Our future as a country has to have us in it, too.

Paternalistic or Exploitative

In the bad old days, some coal barons  saw a connection between providing services and conditions that made the miners happy, and higher productivity, which increased their profits. Regardless, for most coal towns, “The absence of streets, sidewalks, grass, flowers, trees, and gardens [was] looked on as a necessary concomitant of coal mining.” The low standard of living was blamed on the miner. It will “take time to educate him,” claimed industry execs.

In hearings before Congress, one exec expressed his disbelief that miners “seem to have the idea . . . that they are the men who used to own the land, a great many old settlers and their children… They look on it as their homes, in the West Virginia hills.”

It’s a big historical debate to sort out which Coal Barons were paternalistic and which were exploitative. The idea is that the paternalistic guys showed some semblance of humanity in their treatment of workers, and the exploitative guys straightforwardly ruled via iron fist and smack-down.

Does that matter—the debate about exploitation versus paternalism? I’m not sure. Is it better for a miner if a Coal Baron boss believes he’s visiting indignities upon you for your own good, or is it better if he straightforwardly acknowledges he’s just trying to control you, simply as a tool of production?

Neither one changes the lived experience much, but the paternalistic model at least has the advantage of allowing a illusion of dignity. Republicans are claiming to be paternalistic: they’re visiting these health impacts on us because (they argue) it’s better than the alternative. We want jobs, right? They say they’re the jobs party.

It’s a facade, of course. It allows for a reasonable simulacrum of dignity, though. The fact is that there is deep shame in being unable to provide for your family, in watching your kids go without. In losing your home.

And the alternative message from some prominent Democrats comes across as cold and condescending. These Democrats often talk features rather than benefits—more on that later. But I assure you that Democrats must recognize that every time someone like Frank Rich wishes we’d just up and die… well. Can it really be much of a surprise that fossil fuel workers and communities can get the impression that Democrats are the exploitative ones?

A Better Message—and a Better Plan

If you’re like most of America, you rely on transportation that runs on fossil fuels and you use electricity provided by coal or gas.  You’re damn right solar and renewables provide more jobs and are growing faster. But where? Not here. How are you going to bring that here?

If you want to transition to renewables (because you’re a sane person who cares about our planet and our future generations), then we have to bring the opportunities associated with that economy here to places like WV.

So let’s end this strategy of having purchased legislators on both sides of the aisle fight to see who can win the most money from industry bosses by promoting this false dichotomy that sacrifices us either way. You know both Capito and Manchin are dancing for the oligarchs. Republican, Democrat… it doesn’t matter when they’re purchased. In WV, they’re both puppets for the industry bosses. Neither Senator gives an actual flying fig about making things better for the rest of us so long as they get enough campaign donations to buy their next election.

And let’s be honest. If they’re voted out, they’ll slip into lucrative lobbying jobs. They’ve made their millions, either way. It’s not like they get paid based on their performance for US.

So let’s demand an end to the lunacy of appointing a coal baron as Secretary of the WV DEP—and a climate science denier to head the EPA. Let’s end having a coal baron governor demand that DEP employees stop getting in the way of industry and a president who promises to bring back coal jobs without having any way to deliver.

Criminy, it’s their job: to protect us. To put us first, over the profit-mongering of those “mighty company bosses” dressed in “jewels and silk.”

If we see an increase of 400 mining jobs over the whole country... but every soul in McDowell county and places like it is paying an average of 10 years off their livespan, with miners drowning in their own body fluids, having been robbed of healthcare and pensions… can that really be worth it?

Of course not.

Modern Industry Bosses are American Oligarchs

…These mighty company bosses
They dress in jewels and silk
But my darling blue-eyed baby
She starved to death for milk

I had a darling mother
For her I often cry
But with them rotten conditions
My mother had to die

Well, what killed your mother
I heard these bosses say
Dead of hard work and starvation
My mother had to pay

Well, what killed your mother
Oh tell us, if you please
Excuse me, it was pellagra
That starvation disease

They call this the land of plenty
To them I guess it’s true
But that’s to the company bosses
Not workers like me and you…

Sarah Ogan Gunning

It’s the job of our legislators to make sure we aren’t just treated like a broken tool that can be cast aside for a shiny new one… or a lucrative payoff.

We should be working toward a future where we ALL have the opportunity to prosper. Trying to remove protections, dirty our water, and increase health impacts on our families—surprise!—doesn’t do that. Pretending job losses don’t matter doesn’t do that, either.

When businesses look at the state of WV’s crumbling infrastructure, the lack of services, the lack of reliable public utilities, the lack of high speed I-net, the polluted environment that causes life expectancy to drop, the threat of industrial encroachment, the assault on property values by fracking and mining and pipelines, and the lack of support for our schools and our teachers…. well, there’s just not a compelling reason to move a business here. And for those with educations who can get good paying jobs, there’s not a compelling reason to stay.

WV loses more people every year than we gain. If we don’t fight to restore our state to a great place to live, why is it any surprise that the only businesses that want to operate here are headquartered elsewhere, are focused on taking out the valuable and leaving us with a mess that they don’t have to see in their own neighborhoods?

We can’t keep focusing on attracting corporate predators like Antero Resources and EQT. It’s the job of those blackguards to literally concentrate their pollution “small footprint” on top of our communities, cart out the profits, and then leave us with once-beautiful farms that are now sitting up against frack dumps and processing facilities that are the size of small cities.

Photos courtesy Lyn Bordo, whose pastoral view has been supplanted by Antero’s industrial frack dump wasteland

Out-of-state extraction industries view tax paying WV landowners essentially as a special interest group—actually, their words were “a pack of hyenas”—that needs to be dealt with. We don’t deserve protection from excessive industrial noise or lights shining 24-7.

We’re just animals now.

It’s crazy, but it’s as if WV citizens “seem to have the idea . . . that they are the men who used to own the land, a great many old settlers and their children. . .They look on it as their homes, in the West Virginia hills.”

We don’t get jobs; we get the shaft

We don’t end up with more jobs. We DO end up with lots of claims that jobs will be created. And we end up with lost property values. How much would you pay for a home with a quiet mountain view? How much for the same home with 600 trucks per day passing by, and a view of a frack dump?

It doesn’t take a genius to realize value has been lost. Some, like Lyn and her family, are being sacrificed. She has no choice in the matter. After six generations, her kids don’t plan to stay in WV. Everything they loved about their family home is going to be gone if we can’t keep that thing out. It’s the new highland clearances.

Politicians spew it—but, it brings JOBS!—newspapers often report these absurd claims uncritically. It’s wishful thinking, if I’m being kind. If I’m not being kind, it’s just lying. And we’re dying in the meantime.

Either way, if wishes were horses, beggars would ride. Extraction is not bringing jobs.

“[S]hale boosters routinely count all jobs in a state report of 30 ancillary industries as ‘supported by’ shale. But these are broad industries, such as trucking, construction, and industrial machinery wholesalers, for which shale drillers are a tiny fraction of the customer base. About 200,000 jobs existed in these industries before fracking began. About 200,000 exist now. Counting every UPS driver and the rest of the 200,000 jobs as ‘supported by shale’ is pure nonsense.”

It’s not bringing prosperity, either. It’s making us into a Sacrifice Zone.

And that’s the thing we have to remember. There are long term costs to resource extraction. It costs us in money. It costs us in years from our lives. It costs us in property values. And there’s also an economic opportunity cost that robs us of other industries that would actually help our economic development: solar, wind, cannabis, biofuels…

That opportunity cost means that as long as our legislators focus so solely on industry demands to remove our protections, increase health impacts on us, destroy our property values, force us to lease our minerals, take our property by force for private gain, and reduce industry taxes

…then they are NOT focusing on attracting industries that will actually make us into the state we want to be.

And as long as other legislators are focused on ending fossil fuels without first taking care of the workers who’ve been putting their lives on the line for generations…

…then they are NOT focusing on helping workers to who will actually make us into the state we want to be.

We’re still not a willing sacrifice, here. Not our health. Not our livelihood. Not our kids and grandkids. No. Those who have profited off of us owe us a debt. Extraction Debt.

We can’t remain an extraction colony rather than a functioning state full of citizens with the opportunity to prosper if we work hard. Just like at the Company Store, this system is not designed so that we can get ahead. It’s designed to put us in debt, designed to keep powerful those in power, and keep wealthy those with wealth. The rest of us? It’s not designed for us at all.

  • Half of our legislators promise jobs will come if only we give industry just a little more of our prosperity and our lives, and accept just a little more poison in our air and water.
  • The other half understand we need to quit fossil fuels and diversify the economy, but who seem to be divorced from the personal costs of the transition on hard working people—and who buy into stereotypes of “poor white trash” that deserve what we get.

How in the world can we transition to a sustainable economy if we don’t invest in transitioning actual people?

A personal transition is a JUST transition

The transition away from fossil fuels is going to be personal, not statistical.

Our message cannot be “screw your health, screw clean water, screw clean air.” I hate to tell you this, but god-will-sort-it-out-in-the-end is not a plan, it’s an abdication. It’s surrender. And it’s beyond foolish.

And our message cannot be to “cut carbon greenhouse gases by 28% by 2025.” That’s a feature, not a benefit. You want people to vote for you? Then show them how you’ll help them. Because I hate to break it to you, but it won’t take until 2025 to starve or be foreclosed on; it’s not going to feed the kids or save the farm.

Our message—and our actual plan—must be to “bring 270,000 good jobs to people in the coal fields and frack-impacted areas.” 

We need a JUST transition—not “just a transition.”

Unless we’re prepared to take a bold step and get infrastructure in place now so we can transition displaced fossil fuel workers to sustainable, high-growth industries—yes, we need to work towards the goals in the Paris Agreement, in other words—we’ll see vulnerable people all over the country continue to suffer in a country that has most certainly NOT been made great again.

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