Coping Gracefully with Depopulation

Map credit: Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy

A Roanoke Times editorial asks a provocative question: “Should we just let Appalachia go?” Instead of trying to rebuild a new economy in far Southwest Virginia, should the commonwealth just allow the region to depopulate?

As the editorial points out, the Appalachian mountains and hollers were sparsely populated through the 18th and 19th centuries. Then, in the late 1800s there arose an industrial economy that ran on coal. “Coal happened. Railroads happened. People — many of them immigrants — poured into Appalachia. Roanoke was not the only boom town to spring up then. So did lots of other communities deeper in coal country.”

After an efflorescence during the last 70s/early 80s, coal went into decline. Mechanization eliminated jobs. Thicker, efficient-to-mine coal seams played out. Environmental regulations drove up the cost of mining and combusting coal. And natural gas began displacing coal in the utility market. As long as high-quality metallurgical coal used in steel making can be mined in Appalachia, mining will never totally disappear. But coal will be a shadow of the industry it once was.

Virginia’s coalfields have tried to diversity their economies, but they suffer enormous competitive disadvantages. They are geographically remote, far from large urban centers and interstate highways. They have a paucity of flat land suitable for industrial development. The workforce is poorly educated, substance abuse is widespread, and most ambitious young people who earn college degrees leave for better employment prospects elsewhere. And the quality of amenities and public services is low so that everyone who made significant wealth in coal mining moved out of the region. There is no moneyed business class to spark an entrepreneurial revitalization.

Some coal counties refuse to die. Wise County has been especially creative in trying to reinvent its economy around broadband, data centers and solar energy. Recent state legislation that would favor pumped storage as a complement to solar farms has Dominion Energy giving a serious look at the region. The economic impact of such a facility, if ever built, would exceed that of Dominion’s $1.8-billion Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center, which burns coal and biomass. But the economics of these dreams remain unproven.

“It’s hard to see what industries exist in which Appalachia has a comparative advantage as vast as it had in coal,” the Roanoke Times quotes economist Lyman Stone as writing. “I’m not saying none do or could ever exist; I’m just saying that if they can or do, they don’t seem extremely clear right now.”

In Stone’s estimation, without coal mining to prop up the economy, Appalachia’s population has a long way to fall. He writes: “We can’t let hopes blind us to realities. On some level, population must be associated with economic activity to support it. Coal mining is still declining, and when it’s completely gone, it’s not clear how much economic activity will remain, and therefore how much population can be sustained.”

Bacon’s bottom line: As much as I hate to acknowledge it, Stone’s prognosis is correct. The 21st century economy belongs primarily to populous urban areas. I wouldn’t discourage coalfield residents from trying to salvage their communities — indeed, I very much hope they succeed. But even if creative-thinking localities such as Wise succeed in diversifying their economies, data centers, solar farms and pumped-storage facilities employ very few workers beyond the construction phase. Such projects would bolster the local tax base, enabling counties to maintain basic services, so they are worth pursuing. But they won’t reverse the depopulation of the region.

The coalfield counties, like other remote, rural counties in Virginia, need to think how to decline gracefully. Hard-hit cities and towns in the Midwestern rust belt are learning how to cope with shrinking populations, and perhaps it’s possible to learn lessons from them. What rural counties do not need to do is invest scarce resources in desperate, long-shot bids to turn around their economies. The circumstances are dismal, but living in denial of economic reality will only make things worse.

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18 responses to “Coping Gracefully with Depopulation”

  1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    “The coalfield counties, like other remote, rural counties in Virginia, need to think how to decline gracefully.”

    Good Lord, Jim, Get a Grip?

    The 1930’s Okies of the Grapes of Wraith saved to Western World. Many did it starting with migration but thank God many also stayed to feed the rest and most everyone else who went to war to save the Western World and then those world conquering Okies returned home to build a Garden of Eden. One that will ultimately save yet again our failing urban centers.

    Meanwhile you and most all the other “experts” living in the bubble get most everyone and everything all backwards.

    Change is ubiquitous. It’s totally unpredictable. Apparent success feeds failure and Collapse every time. Value and worth can’t ever be measured by Wall Street, or by economists or by anybody else who claims to know it all, particularly experts produced by elite American higher education that is corrupt from top to bottom, and that has not a clue, yet lives on everyone else while to tries to lecture and educate everyone else, get us to feel so sorry for ourselves, the “less fortunate folk” living out in the country, as the expert elite tries to ruin them before the altar of their own Nihilism.

    Read history. This dance of self centered elite stupidly never ends, just goes round and round, eating its own tail.

    1. Yes, some Okies did stay behind and survived the Dust Bowl and farmed their farms. But they had productive farmland. The difference is that the coal counties are running out of coal that can be mined economically while actually employing people.

  2. “On some level, population must be associated with economic activity to support it.” True, true. Relatives of mine came to West Virginia to harvest the virgin timber before WWI, and they experienced the exhaustion of resources and collapse of demand of the Depression years, and they moved on — to where the jobs were in the 1940s, to Washington, D.C. The economic activity left and so did they. Go back to the site of the photos of that bustling mill town on the Meadow River where they once lived and it’s all green today, except for a half-dozen remaining ‘company’ homes along a short stretch of secondary road.

    How could it be otherwise? Well, during the Depression there weren’t a lot of places to go to; the New Deal and WWII created one in Washington. Today, there are knowledge-economy jobs in the cities, but not much factory work, and the service economy pays erratically. As Mr. Trump is finding, we cannot shut doors to globalization, we must open them wide and take on the competition with productivity and education. We cannot bring back jobs that the global economy no longer values. There is no sustainable economic activity associated with a population of laid-off loggers and lumber mill workers, or laid-off coal miners either.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      Which is the whole and entire point. It’s where today Moab came from. The genius and vibrancy inherent in change that remixes everything to create anew. It can never be looked at as a zero sum game. Life don’t work that way.

  3. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    “The coalfield counties, like other remote, rural counties in Virginia, need to think how to decline gracefully. Hard-hit cities and towns in the Midwestern rust belt are learning how to cope with shrinking populations, and perhaps it’s possible to learn lessons from them.”

    The pomposity-meter in my head really when off when I read this sentence. Marring an otherwise reasonable but familiar post, this statement shows an attitude of entitlement that makes my stomach churn.

    Who the hell is James A. Bacon Jr. who lives in one of the richest counties in the state? Think of a retired miner who’s on oxygen because of black lung, who has to walk with a walker because of coal related job injuries, who has just had his pensions and health care cut because another greedy coal company has schemed to go bankrupt so as to renege on payments and whose water and air are suspect because of leftover impacts from mining that have never been remedied and are not safe. Bacon is telling him to “decline gratefully.”

    All I can say is, “Gee thanks, Jim.”

    1. Peter, do you have any solutions other than endless subsidies that address symptoms but don’t solve the problem?

  4. CleanAir&Water Avatar

    “Change is ubiquitous. It’s totally unpredictable.” Not in this case.

    While I agree that coal mine hydro is a weird pipe dream, none of you have mentioned where the help for people caught in major economic displacement should come from … Are you all ’pure capitalists” of the Victorian kind? Are the coal workers and their towns really just on their own?

    Here is my letter published in March of 2013…

    Thank you for your article’s attention to the suffering caused by the reduced demand for coal. In many towns where coal has been “the only game in town” declining demand will continue to create suffering for many hard working families.

    The question we should now ask is … what can government, the Unions and the industries themselves do to see that this inevitable transition away from coal can happen without creating undue suffering? Economically displaced people don’t have a lot of options open to make up for the loss of jobs, and the devastation to their local and state budgets, their schools and emergency services.

    Shipping our unused coal to Asia is evidently not economically profitable or even environmentally sound. Blaming the EPA’s rules is not a solution either. Seventy percent of our coal plants are more than 30 years old. Thirty percent are basically Junkers, both toxic and inefficient.

    Policy makers around the world are trying a variety of approaches to better handle economic disruption in declining industries, but the jury is still out. A clean energy economy will benefit all of us. The sooner we make the change the bigger the benefits. Surely, as one community, we can do better.

  5. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    ““Change is ubiquitous. It’s totally unpredictable.” Not in this case.”

    Who predicted Fracking?


    Who predicted Obama?


    Who predicted “Plastics” nearby 50 years after Goodby Columbus?


    Who predicted (s) wasting other peoples’ money for one’s own self interests?

    Anyone with good sense.

  6. djrippert Avatar

    The relentless pattern of urbanization cannot be stopped. Mechanized farming vastly reduces the need for people to operate farms in rural areas. Meanwhile, huge improvements in transportation allows food grown far from a metro area to be transported to that area. This means that people don’t need to live near the places where food is produced. Nothing will change that.

    Occasionally, the flow of people from rural areas to urban areas hits a snag. One such snag was the once lucrative coal seams of Appalachia. Another was the oil fields of East Texas. Once those natural resources are depleted the exodus continues.

    The idea that people can’t migrate is challenged at best. As the left never stops saying, “America is nation of immigrants”. From the Pilgrims crossing an ocean in rickety wooden ships to Mexicans crossing the Rio Grande following so-called coyotes people have come from far and wide to get to the United States. Uneducated African Americans fled the plantations, unemployment and prejudice of the south to find work in cities like Detroit. So many poor West Virginians moved to Baltimore after WWII that an areas of the city was given the pejorative nickname “Billytown” to denote the number of hillbillies there. How odd to think that people from Buchanan County can’t migrate to Fredericksburg. Once again, the left diminishes and patronizes the abilities of working class Americans under the guise of being compassionate.

    The migration is occurring whether anyone likes it or not. Buchanan County lost 8% of its population since 2010!

    The real question is not how to stop the de-population (it can’t be stopped). The real question is how to encourage the de-population and help people in areas that can’t economically sustain the population find better futures elsewhere.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      I think characterizing this as one of political philosophy just confuses dialoge. After.all, the new deal was quinessentially “liberal” and still advocated by those who see this in terms of a govt role

      Beyond mega farming and resource extraction , “rural” always been a little thin.

      but moving from rural to Urban or even Suburban to get a job requires more education than before and housing and cost of living won’t be affordable for people working on the lower educational scale slamming want to stay on family land they own.
      the question is who pays for their education and health care.

      like the inner-city problems cranky likes to talk about this one also is a tough nut to deal with

      blaming it on liberals is equally ineffectual. Show me a proven conservative approach that works!

      1. djrippert Avatar

        The conservative approach is to say, “No more wealth transfers. You need to move to where the jobs are available.”

        The liberal approach is to say, “We’ll just tax the urban and suburban areas more and more so we can transfer their wealth to you. You can become dependent on the state.”

        The DJR answer is to say, “So, corporate executive – you want a tax break or you want to keep your existing tax breaks … we need to see 20% of your new hires for the next three years from Southwest Virginia. We have some space that your HR reps can use to interview people from Southwest Virginia.” “So, Southwest Virginia resident – you want more economic opportunity … there will be representatives from companies operating in Virginia interviewing people at the courthouse on Monday – Wednesday and Friday. You’ll have to relocate but you can have a job in advance of your relocation if you qualify.”

  7. We had family in Tazewell in the early 1980’s coal boom time I guess. I think Tazewell was in the BR news in the last 12-months for proposed wind farm, which some did not want for the impact on the beautiful views. The trends I maybe see are wind farms, nat gas lines coming closer, and some emerging effort to rebuild some manufacturing base in America, rather than outsource everything. Also possible utility pumped water storage other utility projects. We have to think long term but not sure I’d throw the towel in.

  8. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    We have been over this post-coal ground a zillion times.

    Step pone: force the coal companies to pay more back in to these communities. They have been raping the coalfields for 150 years and taken all the wealth out of the place, leaving broken people and a broken environment.

    Step two: There has to be government assistance. In northern West Virginia Robert Byrd, the late Senator, got a lot of small tech companies to locate. Placing a high security fingerprint center in Harrison County for the FBI added more than 3,000 direct jobs.

    Step three: Hold Donald Trump accountable for the fraud he is. He steals votes and then screws to locals by proposing eliminating such worthy programs as the Appalachian Regional Commission.

    Step four: Get broadband there now — even if the government has to do it.

    Step five: This has all been done, but diversify into ATV trails and more recreation. Call centers are very limited.

    The good news for Virginia is that it has a tiny coalfields region. West Virginia and Kentucky are in much bigger trouble.

    And Jim, as a former West Virginian, I wouldn’t tell someone from that state that he or she “needs to decline gracefully.” You’d get your ass handed to you.

    1. djrippert Avatar

      All well intentioned ideas. I doubt any will work.

      Force the mines to pay more back into the communities. How? A retroactive tax? I’m not sure that’s legal. Higher taxes going forward? They’ll leave before they pay enough additional money to make a difference. The total production of coal in Appalachia went down 17.3% from 2014 to 2015 – a single year!

      More government assistance. Narry Byrd didn’t bring technology jobs to West Virginia coal country. He brought technology jobs to the greater Washington, DC area in West Virginia. Miners who wanted those jobs had to relocate.

      Hold Trump accountable. The Appalachian Regional Commission isn’t working. Jobs are leaving. Misery is increasing. In 1980 West Virginia had 1,949,644 residents. In 2016 that number was down to 1,831,102 – a population loss of 6.1%. During that same period the population of the United States grew 43%. If West Virginia grew at the same speed as the rest of the country there would be almost a million more people living there. Maybe we hold Obama accountable for failing to deliver any progress in Appalachia over 8 years in office.

      Get broadband to Appalachia. I don’t know why people think this is a panacea. Is there broadband in the City of Richmond? Have the schools dramatically improved since broadband arrived? What do you think broadband will do?

      More ATV trails and recreation? Maybe, but the people who want to use those trails still have to get to very remote places if it’s going to help coal country.

      Jim never said West Virginia had to decline gracefully. He said “coal country” had to decline gracefully. I say it’s going to decline – gracefully or otherwise. Moving the people to the jobs will prove a lot more successful than trying to move the jobs to the people.

  9. While we are at it, we should go back and revive and all those Western gold and silver ghost towns. If we just put in broadband, I’m sure all the descendants will come back.

  10. CleanAir&Water Avatar

    There is a bill in Congress to speed up the release of monies for mining reclamation. Don Beyer has introduced an amendment to clarify the lines between cleaning up toxicity left and which properties can be reused for economic development. The clarification should satisfy the naysayers.
    So the money is there. Reclaiming the damaged property creates jobs and future economic development help for the locals sounds good too.
    What is not to like?

  11. CleanAir&Water Avatar

    Here is a clearer explanation of the bill

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