Shocked and Persuaded


Separating Fact From Fiction

Job Creation, Energy, and Appalachia’s Long-Term Health

There is a bipartisan notion perpetuated by industry and many politicians – specifically those so utterly disconnected from their home states/districts true needs – that natural resource exploitation and large agricultural infrastructure is the key to job creation. Just a little hint before moving further if you hear this rhetoric spewing from a politician’s mouth inquire as to their primary donors. Anyway this is one of the biggest if not the biggest lies being sold the American public today and the data buttresses my argument quite robustly. Here it is in black and white when production increases whether it be in the coalmines of West Virginia or cornfields of Iowa what happens is a massive shift towards mechanization, with larger and larger combines or draglines, or Komatsu front-loaders.
The latter able to move tons of earth or overburden allowing relatively uninhibited access to the coal seam, which by the way are increasingly smaller and smaller requiring less laborious methods or more dangerous exploration of deeper seams. This is evidenced in the exponential growth in surface mining throughout the US a method that requires markedly less labor then its underground alternative. Thus, if you look at the debate in simple output:input ratio terms, with # employed as the input, you will see an inverse relationship developing quite rapidly in recent times, which is to say that large multi-nationals like Massey Energy were extracting 5,087,150.3 short tons per thousand works in 1985 and managed to nearly triple this ratio (~290.2%) to 14,762,463.5 short tons per thousand works. Keep in mind the fact that total coal extraction in the US has only increased by 129.6% since 1985.


How you ask would one go about counteracting this 160% profit disparity? Well you can start by purchasing larger and large equipment, vast swaths of land, breaking the systemic will of the UMW of America, and insuring that crimes against labor like the recent tragedies in Utah and West Virginia go virtually unpunished. If you own the hearts and minds of people like the governor of West Virginia, Senators Byrd and Rockefeller and McConnell, and the supreme courts of many coal producing states you don’t need carrots and frankly you don’t really have much need for sticks either.
If you buy that the above ratio is a valid measure of workplace efficiency and by association a primary driver behind the decline in jobs related to natural resource exploitation and agricultural production then let’s apply it to the farm sector specifically corn to see if it still holds up. The answer is as you could probably guess by my tone is that it does indeed and is slightly more robust in this instance. It turns out that if you look at data associated with corn production in the US at five year intervals since 1910 you will see that that the total number of farms and workers are currently 66.1 and 78.2% of what they were at the turn of the century, while production and output:input have increased by 347.6 and 1,595.4%, respectively.


This suggests that one of two things is occurring, either we are getting better at how we manage our agricultural lands vis à vis chemical fertilizers, pesticides, etc and crop-rotation or our current farmers are on steroids, which I am not ruling out but would hope is not the case.
This is a marked increase in “efficiency” by any standard begging the question: Why not get more from less? The answer is of course that there is no surficially viable reason, but more to the point portending that more coal mining brings more jobs when you know the exact opposite to be true is quite the bait and switch wouldn’t you say?
It is true that neither underground nor surface mining is great but it is underground mining, while extremely dangerous and liable to create vast stability problems down the road, that has traditionally been the engine employing much of Appalachia. This method imbued a greater sense of community and unification that was/is anathema to the coal companies and their strike breakers so vividly depicted in “Harlan County KY”. Much of the debate around “clean coal”, which if you ask anyone from Appalachia is a complete whitewashing, centers around jobs as does the research and production of biofuels and it is true that if done right these industries do create jobs. The fact is that since 1949 when much of the high grade anthracite-type coal was still available surface-mining accounted for 25.3% of all mined coal in the US whereas today it accounts for nearly 70% or 794,263,579 short tons. Furthermore, anthracite coal extraction has declined from 8.9 to 0.14% of all coal extracted in the US during the same period, with a parallel decline in jobs from a high 1,737,000 miners in 1985 to 776,000 in 2007.
So, what we have are two lies being pushed down the throats of Appalachia and America writ large: 1) exploitation of our mountains and arable lands is a perpetual large-scale benefit to the job market and 2) that clean coal and biofuels will benefit the environment, Appalachia, and industry. According to Judy Bond of Coal River Mountain Watch “Even if you could get rose petals to come out of the smokestacks, coal is filthy and will never be clean as long as mountains and communities are blasted and streams and communities are poisoned…The entire cycle of coal must be examined. We in Appalachia are blasted by over 3 1/2 million pounds of explosives daily and are similar to a “banana republic”. The coal industry is allowed to simply kill us slowly with toxic waste.” So, in plain English folks the only ones benefitting are John D. Rockefeller, WV Supreme Court Justice Brent D. Benjamin, and the pious head of Massey Energy Corporation Don L. Blankenship.

Category: Ecological Economics

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