Coal…or Carrots?

The idea of whether the general public accepts an economic instrument depends on their understanding of the underlying issue…and its relevance to their life. This makes me think of the names that we give to different issues to make them more palatable. It also makes me think about the significant differences in culture across our country. I grew up in West Virginia, and while I have spent the last 11 years on the west coast, I’m still deeply connected with my roots.

The way that we refer to climate change and other similar environmental issues is important because it hearkens back to cultural relevance. In the small mining towns in West Virginia that are currently experiencing devastating unemployment and the highest rates of opioid overdose deaths in the nation, the immediate concern is not climate change. For decades, coal has been their livelihood–and now it’s gone. In communities like this that are struggling to survive day-to-day, it is extremely difficult to ask them to think about the impact of their current actions on the future. In order to do this, there must be alternatives, relatable reasons, and a sense of communal understanding.

Stories play a critical role in this process. In many towns in the U.S., decisions are established based on the family’s long-held beliefs. Over time, however, it is possible to shape those stories to reflect the reality of our current environmental challenges. In this case, this starts by introducing information about the environmental impacts of subsurface mining and mountain-top removal, as well as the negative impacts of carbon based fuel use. The challenge is that it must be a cohesive message across the spectrum of institutional and community leaders, and expressed in a way that provides relevance to people at all levels of community.

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Finally, there must be alternatives. Coal country is experiencing challenges relative to employment, healthcare, housing, and education, in large part because there is currently no replacement for the mines and processors that are closing. These jobs supported other non-basic jobs that are also now disappearing. So what is the next step for West Virginia? It’s time to ask the hard questions and explore the options. With vast wilderness, perhaps farming is a logical opportunity, in concert with an expansion of the outdoor adventure programs that are in place.

While I feel strongly about the injustice against the natural environment in West Virginia through coal operations, I also think that it is possible to plan for the future while dealing with the present challenges. It must be done thoughtfully and come from within. The future already exists within us as a collective, but the hard work is to understand and accept the need to change our story.

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