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During the Presidential campaign questions about the US coal industry and international trade kept arising. It now appears that the election results hinged, to no small degree, on the perception that past administrations abandoned workers hurt by government trade and environmental policies. Perhaps now might be a good time to stand back and reflect on this question a bit as we catch our breath before the next administration takes over.
Economies, like people, change over time. Just as New England textile plants moved to the South and then on to Asia, taking their jobs with them, so society transitioned from wood to fossil fuels, to nuclear, and increasingly to solar, wind, and other renewable energy sources. Wishing that coal or textiles were viable sources of employment doesn’t make them so. Attempting to move back the clock will only hurt us.
A Dark Side of Markets
Economists have long known that as tastes, technology, and incomes change some people gain and some lose as the economy adjusts. In theory market economies shift seamlessly and easily to changing realities, moving labor and other productive resources, like buildings and machines, from one industry to another and from one region to another. Unfortunately, the reality of economies often fails to match up, once again, with our desires or theories. People all too often lack the skills and education to move from working as machine tool operators to computer programmers, or from assembly line workers to robot operators. Buildings can’t move to the next state nor can tractors make cars. Ties to land, houses, family and community keep many people from following jobs to other regions or countries. Nor may firms may not want to invest in older workers who have lost their jobs elsewhere. In the real world people hurt.
While society as a whole may benefit from, e.g., lower energy prices due to the fracking of oil and natural gas deposits, certain groups pay the price for the benefits everyone else enjoys. Oklahomans pay for lower natural gas prices with the earthquakes they now experience. Coal communities pay for the coal that keeps our lights on with polluted water and air that, it appears, lead to higher incidences of cancer and respiratory diseases. In the case of coal, mining has defined Appalachian culture in the coalfields. When coal collapses, they lose their identity. Whole towns collapse. So, winners and losers live side by side in these areas, just as regions expand and contract economically.
Recognizing these dynamics, the US has had programs that have assisted workers negatively affected by trade to adjust. Unfortunately these efforts have been woefully underfunded. So, the problem isn’t so much that we haven’t recognized that our economy doesn’t easily adapt to changing economic forces but that we haven’t cared enough about the people and their land to do much about it. We can make a similar case for the inadequate laws and regulations intended to protect the nonhuman and human communities against the worst aspects of mountaintop removal coal mining.
Bringing Light to the Dark
As faithful people concerned for all of creation, we need to come to the aid of our neighbors, whether human or otherwise, that can’t adapt to changing circumstances. This includes future generations negatively impacted by our choices. We need to strive to find ways to help regions like Appalachia shift to other industries that provide meaningful work and that safeguard the integrity of the environment that undergirds society. These efforts honor the suffering and inherent importance of all creation.
Such responses require careful listening, looking past our own preconceptions to facts and analysis, and realizing that in most cases no one set of institutions, whether private, civic, or governmental, has the capacity to deal to deal adequately with the these issues. This implies that we must bury our pride and faith in ideological approaches we know “to be true” (whether of the right, left, or middle) and to seek to learn from one another and to collaborate. If we bring all our ideas, strengths and weaknesses together, along with our compassion and determination to help one another, we may find that we can address issues like trade and environmental degradation successfully. However, if we insist on our way of doing things and our perceptions of the truth, pridefully asserting our superiority over other ways of seeing and doing, we will fail. After all, “united we stand, divided we fall.”
We would do well to remember what the psalmist once wrote:
Unless the Lord build the house, the builder toils in vain.
If the Lord is to build the house, then we’d best get ourselves out of the way. The current season of Advent, a time many Christians observe to clean the houses of their lives so that God might enter in, offers us all the opportunity to grow in humility before God and one another. It’s also a wonderful opportunity to ready ourselves for the very real work of listening to one another and working together to address the real problems we face. Let us begin.