It’s an election year, so once again coal and coal workers have become political capital. Once again- wash, rinse, repeat -the tired old garbage is getting dragged out in the political debates as coal miners and their families are propped up in front of news cameras. For this go round’s fun and games we have Hillary backtracking on some comments and trying to sugarcoat other comments that should probably be delivered more directly while Trump stands on the opposite side of the fence falsely promising that under his Presidency we’d see those coal jobs roaring back.
What we need are politicians that will actually be dead straight honest on the matter. As hard as that may be to find, what may be even harder to find will be the audiences honest enough to actually listen. Why will the second part be so much harder than the first? Because people don’t like hard truths; especially when they mean turning the world they know upside down.
The hard truth here is a simple one. No matter what anyone says while standing on the stump and begging for votes, they will not usher in the coal industry renaissance. Coal jobs are never coming back in any significant numbers, and politics has little to do with it.
West Virginia’s coal industry employed the most people it ever has in the 1930s and 1940s. Starting in the 1950s we saw a hard, steady decline in the industry’s ability to employ workers. Some of this was mechanization. Better machines that could outperform men took the place of men. Some of this, especially in more recent times, was also due to decreased market demand.
Coal not only faced hits from the favorite publicized causes thrown about in political debates (EPA, regulations, etc.) in the last decade, but its taken some hits in the form of market competition. Natural gas has gotten easier to collect, and the result was a period where businesses and consumers were switching to natural gas usage when and where possible because it was both cleaner and cheaper to use.
Some coal industry advocates have pointed to the recent increase in the price of natural gas and the recent (and small) uptick in coal jobs as sign of coal’s return, but the jobs will never come back in the numbers they once existed in. The reason for this isn’t even politics. It’s simply the future.
Our country (and others) are moving towards other sources of energy more and more with every passing year. Both the cost to produce the means needed to harness renewable energies and the efficiency of the sources for capturing renewable energies are improving. Every step forward with these technologies is a step away from coal. Every improvement in our energy technologies is one less job in a coal mine needed.
The sad fact of the matter for families who have spent generations earning a living with coal jobs is is the same fact that hit other trades over the centuries. We don’t have candle-makers like we used to because electricity and the light bulb took the place of the candle and the oil lamp in homes. We don’t have glass blowers in every town making the various items for our homes because mass production and machines do it now. We don’t have blacksmiths like we used to because most of what they provided can be found elsewhere cheaper. We don’t have horses and buggies up and down every city’s streets because the automobile took their place.
Change is the only other thing in life as inevitable and constant as death and taxes.
The jobs are not coming back. Even if they see a blip increase as has happened in recent years, the jobs are certainly never coming back in the numbers that have been lost over the decades.
That doesn’t mean that the future needs to leave places like West Virginia or those families behind. You have people that want to work. You have people that are desperate to work in some cases. Politicians- local, state, and federal -need to stop dangling the false hope carrot of coal jobs a plenty coming back to West Virginia and shoot straight with them. They also need to work on getting some of those future jobs that will be needed into West Virginia.
Solar cells don’t put themselves together. LED bulbs don’t put themselves together. The various other things that are coming with the changes on the horizon don’t build themselves. People build them, especially people who want jobs.
The more “Coal Country” fights the future, the longer it resists the enviable change that’s coming, the worse the next collapse will be for the people there. Politicians- local, state, and federal -need to join forces to get the jobs there that will take the place of what’s been lost and that will be there when even more coal jobs are lost.