Originally posted at There’s Research on That!
With a group of coal miners standing behind him, President Donald Trump signed an executive order in his first 100 days reversing Obama-era climate change policies, claiming that he would bring back coal while putting miners to work. Yet, can or will coal mining jobs come back, and will this lead to economic and social development in places like Appalachia?
Much research has shown that the loss of mining jobs in the U.S. is largely due to mechanization and labor-cutting management practices — not environmental protections. Thus, placing the blame on climate change policies is unfounded. Instead, it’s used to scapegoat environmentalists and draw our attention away from corporations and changes in the global economy.
Even if Trump’s executive order could bring back the jobs, it might not have the effects coal miners are hoping for. Researchers find that mining does not always lead to economic growth and well-being. Thus, keeping coal mines open does not guarantee economic prosperity and well-being. A study found that in West Virginia the counties with coal mines have some of the highest poverty and unemployment rates compared to surrounding counties without active mines.
Moreover, sociologist William Freudenberg argues that economies based solely around mining are prone to booms and busts, subject to the whims of the industry. Towns in Appalachian coal country and the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota become “addicted” to extraction. But dependence on fossil fuel industries is economically precarious.
Why don’t these facts change miners’ deep ties to mining as a way of life? Because many have strong cultural connections to mining, often coming from multiple generations of miners. Through her experiences working in a coal mine, anthropologist Jessica Smith Roylston saw how the miner identity connects with masculine ideals of hard work and providing for one’s family.
Industry has tapped into these sentiments to generate public support and weave the industry into the fabric of community life. Mining companies, particularly in Appalachia, have actively worked to create a positive image through public relations and other cultural and political tactics, such as sponsoring high school football tournaments and billboard ads.
These corporate strategies place the blame on outsiders and environmentalists, provide a cover for environmentally destructive and job-cutting industry practices, and keep coal politically relevant.
Erik Kojola is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Minnesota interested in the environment, labor, social movements and political economy.