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The Appalachian Gut Shot

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Building on my post from the other day about what the decline of coal is going to do to the already horrible economy of southern Appalachia, Brad Plumer weighs in on the matter. Like myself, he notes that while it’s probably best for the country to get off its coal addiction and for Appalachia to diversify its economy. But of course while that all sounds good, it’s all pretty theoretical to the thousands of people who could lose their jobs:

If that’s true, then Central Appalachia could eventually thrive from shifting away from its single-minded focus on coal. The Downstream Strategies report observes that the region has a wealth of clean-energy resources, from wind to solar to sustainable biomass. West Virginia, for one, is looking to get into shale-gas drilling. Still, it’d be a mistake to gloss over how disruptive — and painful — that transition could be. Just look at Detroit’s struggles in shifting away from its longstanding reliance on the auto industry.

The natural comparison for West Virginia and Kentucky transitioning from an extractive economy would seem to be the Pacific Northwest weaning itself off logging. The difference though is that the Northwest not only had a more developed tourist economy, but also had already begun its embrace of the tech and information economies and on top of that was already capturing the American imagination for its beauty. West Virginia especially has a pretty robust tourist economy in places, but the Appalachian place in the American imagination is Deliverance, the only other real economic engine for the region is drug production, and, let’s face it, not many people go to eastern Kentucky for most any reason.

I really don’t know what those areas are going to do, but the comparison with Detroit is much more apt than with the forests of Oregon. It’s going to get ugly.

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