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Divestment is only the first step – what about those left behind?

Divestment is only the first step – what about those left behind?



By Bill Bishop



The news out of the Appalachian coalfields is never that good, but recent reports describe an unrelenting economic collapse. There are less than half the number of working coal miners in Kentucky than just five years ago. West Virginia has the highest unemployment rate in the nation. And bankruptcy in the coal industry is threatening the pensions of men and women who were promised security in exchange for years working underground.


The nation doesn’t need the coal these communities have been producing for the past century. Natural gas is cheaper and cleaner burning than coal. And the nation is investing more in wind and solar than in carbon-belching power plants. Coal country is accustomed to periodic economic busts, but the sense now is that there is no boom to follow. This is it — the future holds nothing but more layoffs, mounting bankruptcies and shrinking towns.


The 78th General Convention this summer voted to eliminate its investments in corporations that produce fossil fuel and to buy into the “clean energy sector” of the economy. The resolution was a warning that climate change was real and that it was a “matter of moral and theological urgency” for the church to act.


The Episcopal Church is not alone in disinvesting from fossil fuels. The United Church of Christ has dropped all its fossil fuel holdings. The Methodist Church has sold its coal company stocks. The Presbyterian Church USA is considering a clean energy portfolio.


The proposal at the General Convention came from the Western Massachusetts diocese and it contained over 1100 words and 19 footnotes of explanation. There was something missing, however, in all the good description of climate change and the opportunities in “renewable energy and clean technology….”


Coal miners and coal communities.


And that raises a question: If it is a “matter of moral and theological urgency” to stop burning coal now, don’t the same moral and theological demands apply to the consequences of that decision? What responsibility does the church have for the people who are paying the price for our moral statement?


Not much, apparently. The General Convention voted to disinvest in coal, but there was no mention of the people or communities that produced the fuel that we have relied on for longer than any of us have been alive. The Convention did vote to continue its small ($40,000 a year) commitment to the “Appalachian Initiative,” but there was no acknowledgement that fossil fuel disinvestment will have real human costs.


The church can (and should) rectify this “moral and theological” oversight by simply completing both sides of the equation. Yes, we should reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. And, yes, we should support those people and places that will bear the heaviest burden of that decision.


What can the church do? Most immediately, local churches and the national church office could urge passage of the POWER+ Plan, a belated offering from the Obama Administration to the coalfields. POWER+ includes money for job training, grants to coal communities, support for ailing coal miner pension funds and $1 billion in spending over the next five years to clean up abandoned coal strip mines. There is already $2.5 billion in a fund to be used to restore abandoned surface mines. It has been collected over the years in a coal tax. The money simply hasn’t been spent. POWER+ would just spend money the government already has in its accounts (but hasn’t spent in the yearly game of reducing the federal deficit).


POWER+ isn’t much, but it’s something. Coal communities have passed resolutions supporting the proposal. “Our people are desperate,” Harlan County, Kentucky, Judge-Executive Dan Mosley told the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader. “I do think it could help the county with jobs.”


In the polarized Congress, however, there is little will among either Republicans or Democrats to push POWER+. So the layoffs continue. Schools lose students as people move out of the mountains in search of jobs. Pensioners are threatened daily with reduced monthly checks as companies scour the bankruptcy courts for ways to abandon their obligations.


Fifty-one years ago, President Lyndon Johnson hunkered down on a Kentucky mountaineer’s front porch to talk about his War on Poverty. The Episcopal Church of my youth backed Johnson’s War. Now the region is threatened again by shifts in the economy and the environment. It needs our help and our action.



Bill Bishop is the author, with Robert Cushing, of The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart. He is a former reporter at The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Kentucky, and a current member of St. James Episcopal Church in La Grange, Texas.


image: Mullens, WV, once a thriving coal town.  Photo by Jon White


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Bill Bishop

Jon is right that mechanization was the real job killer in the coalfields. But when that wave of economic despair swept over Appalachia, there was a federal response. It was the War on Poverty, which began with stories about poverty and unemployment in the coalfields. (Adam Yarmolinsky said of the War, “If anything, color it Appalachian…”) This is why Johnson went to Martin County, Kentucky, to promote his initiative.
The Episcopal Church supported the War then. What’s the response to a new depression in the coalfields?

Marshall Scott

Bill, the Episcopal Church has a long history (half a century at least) of intentional ministry in, with, and for folks in Appalachia. I would point to two resolutions to General Convention, one explicitly for Appalachia (D024 Affirm and Support Ministry to Appalachia) and one for continued support for the federal entitlement programs that benefit that region as well as others (A092 Affirm Support for Government Entitlements).

Marshall Scott

Having grown up in East Tennessee, and with a family history in the mines (and family still living in coal areas), I think we can note other changes that affect this. For example, the cash crop that sustained or augmented for many families, tobacco, is not in the demand it once was (and I’m not saying it should be). From the early days of the Republic agriculture has been supported by intoxicants, legal or otherwise; and now often the intoxicants aren’t “agricultural,” as it were.

It is also the case that there are areas of Appalachia for which the emigration of jobs has been the issue. In Massachusetts and in the Carolinas especially, those small towns that weren’t based on resource extraction were based on industry, and especially textiles.

To some extent, states have prayed the easy taxes from mining or industries would continue, and haven’t reinvested when they didn’t. To some extent, it really is the case that people will feel moral obligation to take care of themselves and “take care of our own,” and so reject programs to help.

There is also a significant history of our own sort of intranational “remittance man” in Appalachia. My own grandfather, when jobs were scarce in East Tennessee, would drive north in the wee hours of Sunday and drive south as soon as the whistle blew on Friday. If – really, when – the jobs up north dried up, the “remittance men” would drive home. After all, if we’re all starving we want to starve with family.

Really, Randall, I don’t know how to relate economic viability and population in sub-regions of Appalachia right now, because many folks have moved away. I do feel that changes in the mining economy aren’t the only issue.

Mark Ash

Slight correction:

Chris Hedges chronicles just how widespread the practice of leaving areas of our society in the dust really IS.

Mark Ash

Concern for the left behind = Extremely worthy conversation
Please remember that divestment from fossil fuels did not create the problem … indeed it just might heal much of the damage.

Chris Hedges chronicles just how widespread the practice of leaving areas of our society in the dust really.

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