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Work Cultures and the Post-Extractive Economy

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In the now quite long move away from employment-heavy extractive economies, environmentalists have always urged as part of the employment plan for the new economy putting unemployed loggers or miners back to work doing restoration projects. This was a huge thing in the environmental-economic conversation in the Pacific Northwest in the late 80s and 90s, for instance. It’s still pretty common. Here’s a recent example in terms of the coal economy of the West:

The pattern of abandonment is mirrored in communities from Wyoming to Utah to Western Colorado to the Navajo Nation. Community leaders scramble to find solutions. Some cling to what they know, throwing their weight behind schemes to keep coal viable, such as carbon capture, while others bank on outdoor recreation, tourism and cottage industries. 

Yet one solution to the woes rarely comes up in these conversations: Restoration as economic development. 

Why not put unemployed miners and drillers back to work reclaiming closed coal mines and plugging up idled or low-producing oil and gas wells?

The EPA estimates that there are some 2 million unplugged abandoned wells nationwide, many of them leaking methane, the greenhouse gas with 86 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide, along with health-harming volatile organic compounds and even deadly hydrogen sulfide. 

Hundreds of thousands of additional wells are still active, yet have been idled or are marginal producers, and they will also need plugging and reclaiming.

Oilfield service companies and their employees have the skills and equipment needed and could go back to work immediately. A 2020 report from the Columbia Center on Global Energy Policy found that a nationwide well-plugging program could employ more than 100,000 high-wage workers.

Massive coal mines are also shutting down and will need to be reclaimed. Northern Arizona’s Kayenta Mine, owned by coal-giant Peabody, shut down in late 2019, along with the Navajo Generating Station, resulting in the loss of nearly 300 jobs. The Western Organization of Resource Councils estimated that proper reclamation of the mine could keep most of those miners employed for an additional two to three years.

Peabody, however, still has not begun to meet its reclamation obligations. This is a failure not only on Peabody’s part but also of the federal mining regulators who should be holding the company’s feet to the fire.

This is by no means wrong. In fact, it’s outright a good idea. But it’s also a bit simplistic because this is a politics of work that lacks any input from the workers themselves. One of the problems we face in terms of creating a green economy is the masculine work cultures of extractive and industrial development. In other words, steelworkers, miners, loggers, fishermen, etc., created cultures of masculinity at work that explicitly revolved around industrial production and progress combined with overcoming the dangers of the job, ideals of taking care of your family with one wage, drinking at the bar after work, etc. Most of this world is gone. Even if industrial jobs come back to the U.S., they will be almost entirely automated. The extractive industries are so heavily automated now that they employ a fraction of what they did in the 1970s, even if they still have a place in the economy. Coal mining increasingly doesn’t, but timber production off of private land definitely does, for instance.

The transition out of that economy to a more green economy and a service economy that often prioritizes traditionally feminine values over masculine productivism is a real culture issue that has to be dealt with in some way. The Times had an article about this issue a couple of days ago, focusing on the transition of Wyoming coal towns to wind energy centers.

But the worry on most people’s minds is whether welcoming the wind industry will speed job losses in the fossil fuel industry. “They feel like wind energy is somehow in competition with coal, oil and gas,” Mr. Weickum said. “In an abstract way, it is.”

He isn’t the only local official with mixed feelings.

In Campbell County, in the northeastern part of the state and the most active coal mining area in Wyoming, hundreds of workers lost mining jobs last year. And more job losses are on the horizon.

Rusty Bell, a county commissioner there, is eager to find other uses for the coal underfoot. He recalled the time he visited Washington and peered up at all the government office buildings. They “look like giant hospitals,” he said, and in each room, he thought to himself, was someone who was writing policy that would affect him yet who had little idea about his way of life.

“This is not just our coal, this is your coal,” he said. “If that’s a resource we’re going to say we’re just never going to use, then obviously our community is going to have to change a lot.”

For many workers, that change is not met with ambivalence like with many politicians and business leaders. It’s met with outright hostility.

The question of course is what one does about this. For this, there is no good answer. If you go to Butte or Leadville, where the mines just aren’t going to come back, there’s tremendous bitterness about this, even if the mines have been closed for decades now. These are mining towns and they want to mine. It’s much the same in West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. It’s that way in the small town Northwest and the New England fishing towns. If I had a good answer here, I’d say it. But I don’t.

What I can say is that employing unemployed miners or loggers in rehabilitation project is indeed a good idea. But it’s also going to be seen as a slap in the face by those workers. It means a definitive rejection of their masculine working class cultures. It means the jobs really aren’t coming back, taking away the pointless hope that they may have.

All I can say here is that these are real issues. The rise of right-wing resentment in this nation is related to these issues as a contributing, if not dominant factor. That resentment is now basically where my scholarly research and writing lies and I hope to someday finally finish my next book that goes into this in great detail. But in fact, it’s just a conundrum without a lot of good answers.

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