Originally published on CleanTechnica
by Michael Barnard
The Appalachia region of the USA was a key factor in the recent US election. The people there have become the defining puzzle of US politics, with the most recommended book right now on the left and right being Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance.
That book does an excellent job explaining who the people are, how they think, and what motivated them and the white working class to support Trump to the extent that they did. But it doesn’t answer the question of why the Appalachian region doesn’t just shift to clean technologies instead of clinging to the hopes of a coal resurgence which isn’t coming.
The reasons for slower rather than faster movement are always complex, and this is true of Appalachia as well. There are economic reasons, resource constraints, and purely human factors at play.
What Exactly is Appalachia?
The region is a 205,000 square mile (531,000 square kilometre) chunk of the eastern United States, starting in the southern portions of New York and Pennsylvania and stretching down to the northern parts of Mississippi and Alabama. That’s almost the size of France and bigger than Germany, Japan, and Vietnam, to provide a few examples. For further context, it’s about 1,000 miles or 1,600 kilometres from north to south. The Appalachian Trail, a famous hiking trail of the region, is over 2,000 miles (3,200 kilometres).
That covers a lot of territory, a lot of different cultures, a fair amount of history, and a population of about 25 million. The population makes it bigger than Australia and about 150 other countries. The size and number of people mean that any assertion of it being homogenous has to be taken as an absurd generalization, but breaking it down can provide useful analysis.
To single coal out, there were about 785,000 people employed in the coal industry in the USA in 1910 when Appalachia dominated that industry. Now, there are about 80,000 and many of those jobs are in the west in new coal basins. Fewer than 60,000 people of the 25 million in the region still work in the coal industry. Appalachia’s coal industry employment has been in decline for decades because of automation and shifting demand.
It’s a region that was blessed mostly with three things: lumber, coal, and natural beauty. Now, it’s reduced to a lower degree of natural beauty due to the extraction of as much lumber and coal as they could manage over the past couple of hundred years. The lumber and coal industries still exist as shadows of their former selves, but the wealthy spots of the region — and there are several — are cities that have reinvented themselves for the information age.
Let’s explore the reasons why the poorer parts of the region can’t simply shift to clean energy jobs from the coal jobs which were such a dominant theme of the past months.