Coal Mining and Population Loss

My first peer-reviewed publication is out in the Journal of Appalachian Studies. I’ve posted the full paper here,  and below is a shortened and non-technical version. The Data, Methods, and Analysis section is rewritten for this blog to make it more accessible for lay readers, while the other sections are merely abridged.

Coal Mining and Population Loss

If your community is making its living primarily by the export of raw materials for manufacture elsewhere, then along with your logs or your wheat or your cattle or your minerals you are exporting jobs, and then you will be exporting your young people to take those jobs.

– Wendell Berry (2010c, 60)


From the beginning of the European colonization of the Americas, Appalachia was notable for its rich natural resources. Originally it was desired for its wealth of timber, and then later for coal. In spite of this resource wealth, Appalachia has been poor for most of its history. The question, then, is Why is Appalachia poor? More specifically, What contribution did natural resource wealth make to Appalachia’s development? Would Appalachia have been even poorer in the absence of timber and coal, or did its natural resource wealth actually cause or exacerbate poverty?

Before coal, Appalachia was desired for its timber, leading to the destruction of rich farmland as well as a population cycle of boom and bust following the rise and fall of the Appalachian timber industry. In a detailed study of West Virginia, Ronald Lewis (1998) found that over 60 percent of West Virginia’s farmland was lost, and 90 percent of the state suffered soil erosion. It takes between 300 and 1,000 years to replace an inch of topsoil, which means this damage is irreversible for centuries. Following the timber boom in Appalachia, around 750,000 people moved out of the region.

Economic Theory in the Writings of Wendell Berry

One of the defining characteristics of a theory is the information that it considers to be relevant. Philosophical theories of ethics, for instance, are almost entirely determined by their informational criteria: utility for utilitarians, liberty for libertarians, equality for egalitarians, and so on (Sen 1999). Theories in economics are similarly determined not only by the relationships they posit among various aspects of the economy, but by the initial choice of which aspects are considered important. Inevitably, in the choice of what information matters and how it is to be interpreted, facts and values become entangled (Putnam 2002). This inevitable entanglement is one of many reasons to pay particularly close attention to the way in which individuals interpret their own economic situations.

Wendell Berry is a Kentucky farmer, author, and poet whose ground-level view of the economy stands in stark contrast to more abstract modeling. Herman Daly draws out this contrast well and points to its philosophical roots in the foreword to a collection of Berry’s essays on economics:

Aristotle distinguished “oikonomia” from “chrematistics.” Oikonomia is the science or art of efficiently producing, distributing, and maintaining concrete use values for the household and community over the long run. Chrematistics is the art of maximizing the accumulation by individuals of abstract exchange value in the form of money in the short run. Although our word ‘economics’ is derived from oikonomia, its present meaning is much closer to chrematistics.  (Daly 2010, x)

Berry focuses on economics as household management or stewardship and urges a return to a more holistic vision of economics: “Any little economy that sees itself as unlimited is obviously self-blinded. It does not see its real relation of dependence and obligation to the Great Economy; in fact, it does not see that there is a Great Economy. Instead, it calls the Great Economy ‘raw material’ or ‘natural resources’ or ‘nature’ and proceeds with the business of putting it ‘under control’” (2010d, 130).

Berry argues that the economy is built up in stages, with nature being the foundational stage, followed by land use, then manufacturing, and finally the consumer economy. For Berry, economics is about the stewardship and distribution of resources, not the accumulation of wealth. Berry also shifts the unit of analysis of economics away from individuals and toward places, writing, “[W]e need to stop thinking about the economic functions of individuals for a while, and try to learn to think of the economic functions of communities and households. We need to try to understand the long-term economies of places – places, that is, that are considered as dwelling places for humans and their fellow creatures, not as exploitable resources” (2010a, 78).

Rather than seeing individuals as components in economic production, Berry argues that the economy must instead be shaped around an understanding of people as being integrally connected to their land and community. Berry is consistently critical of an economic paradigm that reduces individuals to their productive abilities (labor) and consumer desires (consumption):

By what standard, or from what point of view, are we permitted to suppose that the displaced people were not needed in their original places? According to the industrial standard and point of view, persons are needed only when they perform a service valuable to an employer. When a machine can perform the same service, a person then is not needed…. Our mobility, whether enforced or fashionable, has dismembered and scattered families and communities…. Might it not be that displaced persons were needed by their families and their neighbors, not only for their economic assistance to the home place and household, but for their love and understanding, for their help and comfort in times of trouble? (2010b, 21)

This paper attempts to draw some specific hypotheses out of Berry’s economic theory in order to test them using the statistical tools of the academy.

First, I expect that areas with high concentrations of extractive industries will experience short term economic growth but long term economic stagnation following resource extraction. This is in keeping with Berry’s notion that because having a self-renewing ecological system intact within a locality is the foundation of a functional economy, any system that does not prioritize nature and land use will be unsustainable. Second, I expect to see declining populations following resource extraction. Berry argues that in exporting raw materials, one is exporting the basis of the economy, and therefore exporting jobs. Given the relative mobility of the modern era, this means that young people will follow those jobs and, consequently, be lost to their home communities.

Data, Methods, and Analysis

Those of you interested in the technical details  should refer to the full paper. For the purposes of this blog, the results can be summarized in a few graphs. Each graph shows the relationship between coal production in 2000 and population change between 2000 and 2010 after controlling for other factors, including the county’s size, economic state, and education levels. Thus, the results are visual depiction of the relationship between coal production and population change, other things (economy, education, county size) equal.

First, for all Appalachian counties:

Fig 1

Appalachia is quite large, covering parts of 13 states, and most counties don’t mine any coal, so I also looked at just the 110 coal-mining counties:

Fig 2

The relationship is clearer and stronger without the extra noise of all the counties that aren’t in coal country. The paper also looks at the relationship in pairs of coal-mining intensive states, Kentucky and West Virginia, Alabama and Mississippi, and Ohio and Pennsylvania. Kentucky and West Virginia are shown below, but all three state pairings show a similar pattern:

Fig 4

 Conclusion and Discussion

The analysis supports the hypothesis that increased coal mining leads to slower population growth (or faster population loss)….This study does not find support for the idea of coal production leading to economic stagnation, and instead shows coal production correlating with decreased unemployment and poverty and increased per capita income.

By starting with the work of Wendell Berry, this paper draws in another dimension to the economic and environmental debate over natural resource extraction. Berry has written extensively about the impacts on local communities that often go unobserved in statistical records and national debates. As an offshoot of the importance of places as dwelling places and not mere natural resources, Berry introduces the concept of affection as a counterweight to the ideal of scientific objectivity. Berry writes,

It is readily evident, once affection is allowed into the discussion of “land use,” that the life of the mind, as presently constituted in the universities, is of no help. The sciences are of no help, indeed are destructive, because they work, by principle, outside the demands, checks, and corrections of affection…The problem simply is that land users are using people, places, and things that cannot be well used without affection. To be well used, creatures and places must be used sympathetically, just as they must be known sympathetically to be well known. The economist to whom it is of no concern whether or not a family loves its farm will almost inevitably aid and abet the destruction of family farming .(2010a, 82).

Berry’s writings serve as a reminder that it is often things that cannot be easily measured that may be of the most importance in determining public policy. Most of the debate over the extraction of natural resources has framed it as a conflict between economic growth and environmental protection. By reframing our analysis to look at communities considered as dwelling places that need both functioning local economies and a healthy environment, Berry points to the overall impact the over-extraction of resources has in ultimately making the surrounding communities less attractive places to live.




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