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Helvetia, West Virginia resident Rogers McAvoy, with dog Jessie, carries a child home on a spring afternoon. Photo credit: Samanda Dorger

For more than 100 years the coal-producing counties of eastern Kentucky have been dependent on the coal industry, which has dominated them politically and, submitting only to the limits of technology, has come near to ruining them. The legacy of the coal economy in the Kentucky mountains will be immense and lasting damage to the land and to the people. Much of the damage to the land and the streams, and to water quality downstream, will be irreparable within historical time. The lastingness of the damage to the people will, to a considerable extent, be determined by the people.

The future of the people will, in turn, be determined by the kind of economy that may come to supplement and finally to replace the economy of coal. Contrary to my own prejudice and sense of caution, I am going to yield here, briefly, to the temptation to talk about the future.

In talking about the future, wishes have a certain standing. My wish for eastern Kentucky, as for the rest of the state, is that the economies of the future might originate in the local use of local intelligence. The coal economy, by contrast, has been an imposed economy, coming in from the outside and also coming down from the high perches of wealth and power. It is the product of an abstracting industrial and mercenary intelligence, alien both to the nature of the land and to the minds and lives of the people. But as we humans seem always to have known, though we have often needed to be reminded, freedom is founded upon the land and upon the free use of local intelligence in husbanding the land. Disfranchisement approaches the absolute when powerful outsiders do your thinking for you. This can happen only when local intelligence is degraded and disvalued and when, as a consequence, political responsibility is sold out.

The local use of local intelligence must start with the local landscape. And so, as a necessary discipline for any wishing, we must ask what, besides coal, the landscape of eastern Kentucky offers to its people. The answer is that the other great natural resource of the region is its forest. Though the forest has a long history of abuse, and though huge parcels have been and are being destroyed outright by surface mining, forestry and the economy of forest products offer the greatest opportunities to local intelligence. And whereas the coal economy is an economy based upon the exhaustion of the resource, the forest, by good use, can be made sustainable.

The other important resource of the region is a significant, if limited, capacity for sustainable food production. The landscape is predominately steep and most of it is obviously best suited for forestry, but there are some bottomlands, gentler slopes, and ridges that can be used without damage as pastures or croplands or gardens. This is made thinkable as a prospect by the numerous people of the region who, as any observant traveler will notice, are excellent gardeners, who practice other arts of subsistence such as beekeeping, and who by such means have kept alive the spirit of self-sufficiency and independence.

I don’t know how many such people there are. Nor do I know the number of acres that might properly be used to produce food. I don’t know how near the region might come to feeding itself. But common sense and mere caution require that every region should become as self-sufficient as possible in food production, just as every community should sustain itself as far as possible by the good use of its land.

As in the rest of the state, the forestry and farming of eastern Kentucky have been wasteful, and the coal companies have made the topsoil and the forest as temporary as coal. But if the region is to replace, or survive, the coal economy, it must develop sustainable ways of using its forest ecosystems and productive soils.

We might like to suppose that it would be better for eastern Kentucky, and for the whole state, if university and government experts should ever become inclined to think about a coal-less future for the region. Maybe so. But we should be extremely uneasy about supposing so.

If these experts ever begin to dare to think beyond their long addiction to coal power, coal money, and such fantasies as “clean coal,” then we should expect and prepare for a noisy tumult of central planning, summoning of outside experts, grant-proposing, visions of high-tech development, souping up of technical education, economic incentives, tax breaks, “job creation,” and marketing of cheap labor. The result, in sum, would be yet another imposed economy for the region, making light (again) of the local economic potential of the local landscape, of local intelligence, local history, and local culture. Industrial intellectuals, as we know, do not hesitate to “apply” ideas and technologies to places they don’t live in and know nothing about. They are recognizable by their contempt for everything they regard as “provincial” and their inability to tolerate anything modest or local. They will run in headlong panic from whatever is small in scale, low in cost, or “old-fashioned.”

We are not confronting the question of whether or not another exploitive economy will try to fasten itself upon the region. That is happening already, most noticeably in the appearance of timber industries that operate, expectably, without regard for forest ecology. It is horrible to think that the coal economy might be replaced by an economy that would in effect mine, and thus destroy, the forest.

And so I wish that in the face of continuing industrial destruction, and despite the official sound and fury of “economic development,” the people of eastern Kentucky will recognize in their own minds and places the powers of economic, political, and ecological self-defense and local self-determination.

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