My only beef with Kevin Williamson’s moving Appalachian elegy is the treatment of the coal industry, which he just briefly describes as a “bulwark against utter economic ruin.” The author suggests that one reason for the impoverishment of Owsley County, Kentucky (the poorest county in America) is the drift of workers closer to coal operations. This would suggest that mining towns are little islands of relative prosperity and happiness, but, in reality, some of the starkest poverty in Appalachia and a disproportionate level of negative health impacts are closely associated with areas where mountaintop removal mining (MTR) is taking place. Some studies suggest that coal production is actually a net economic burden rather than a boon for Appalachia, and communities near MTR sites reports some of the lowest scores in the multi-factor Gallup/Healthways Well-Being Index.
It is a conservative temptation to merely blame government mining regulations—the so called “war on coal” derided on many a West Virginia billboard—for economic hardship, but as the piece pointed out, the region often confounds the simple bumper-sticker slogans mouthed across the political spectrum. War may be an apt analogy though. There are now 500 fewer mountains in the ancient Appalachians than there were a century ago, and a greatly reduced mining workforce uses millions of pounds of explosives a day to obliterate what remains.
Elsewhere in the issue (“The Tao of Enchantment”), Christopher Tollefsen notes the long battle against disenchanted materialism by C.S. Lewis: “There are, among Lewis’s opponents, no principled limits to the use of . . . technology.” Lewis’s enemies are on the march in Appalachia. Enchanting natural beauty is replaced by blight and pollution, but the poverty endures.
(Published in National Review 1/27/14)