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The blues and the greens

By Erik Reece
The Courier Journal

Kentucky's poorest counties are also nation's saddest

There was a time, not too long ago, when the subject of happiness was deemed unworthy of serious academic consideration. These days, the most respected research institutions in the country are taking it up. Why? Certainly not because we Americans seen so happy, but rather, because we don't.

A new Gallup study finds that Kentucky is the unhappiest state in the union, except for West Virginia. In fact, Hal Rogers' Eastern Kentucky district is the most unhappy place in the country. Indeed, if you look at the Gallup map more closely, by congressional districts, you'll find that the least happy places are Eastern Kentucky, Southwestern West Virginia, Eastern Tennessee and Western Virginia. In other words, the coal fields of Appalachia.

Which suggests that maybe Diane Sawyer was onto something after all in her much-watched "20/20" special, "The Hidden Children of Appalachia." However, Sawyer seemed only interested in the symptoms of unhappiness, such as pain killers and trashed-out trailers. What wasn't on display, because it is harder to find and to film, is the systemic cause of that poverty: namely, a single industry -- coal -- that has dominated the region for a century and fought every attempt to raise the region's standard of living. A distinguished Appalachian scholar whom Sawyer interviewed told me that the first thing Sawyer said to him was that she didn't want to talk about mountaintop removal strip mining.

Well, I do. Because I have a suspicion that strip mining is a major cause of all this unhappiness. The Gallup study found that high-scoring Utah residents derive much of their happiness from the wild, natural landscapes of the West. They explore places like the Arches National Monument and find inspiration and sustenance there. Here in the East, we have some of the oldest and most biologically diverse mountains in the world. But rather than view them as a source of our own psychological and spiritual well-being, we blow them apart and waste their watersheds. In fact, as the Lexington Herald-Leader recently reported, the only tourists who are now allowed to visit Eastern Kentucky's Blanton Forest are those who are not against the destruction of the mountains. Given this inscrutable logic, it's no wonder Harry Caudill used to say poverty was Eastern Kentucky's only tourist attraction.

People on the dime for the coal industry like to talk about all of the revenue that mining generates in Eastern Kentucky. Certainly someone is getting rich. But if the region's 100 years of coal mining has been accompanied by 100 years of poverty -- 30 percent now, the nation's highest -- it may be time to quit digging. Formal logic tells us that if a corollary persists between two events over time, then there is probably a connection. And what the Gallup poll demonstrates is that the places with the most strip mining have also the most poverty and the most unhappiness.

So, the coal industry has brought neither well-being nor wealth to Appalachia, and the destruction of these mountains has only led to more health problems related to water quality and respiratory illness. And the industry knows this. That's why its spokesmen sound so frantic and desperate these days.

Then there's that whole matter of climate change, which coal, more than anything else, is causing. Feeling that heat, proponents now talk of coal as a "bridge fuel." Fine, but if it's not going to be another bridge to nowhere, we need to see what's on the other side, and we need to get there quickly.

My contention is that a new, diversified economy could solve both the problems of poverty and unhappiness. Once Sweden decided to abandon a carbon-based economy 10 years ago, its GDP began to grow three times as fast as ours because of investment in alternative energy. Here in the U.S., Van Jones, author of The Green Collar Economy

, has shown that "we can fight pollution and poverty at the same time." In Oakland, he helped create entry-level jobs for poorer citizens performing energy audits and improving energy efficiency in homes. Gov. Steve Beshear, to his credit, has begun a similar program in Kentucky. Cutting demand for coal, after all, is just as important as replacing it as a source of energy. While wind and solar innovation is obviously crucial, Van Jones points out that "the main piece of technology in a green economy is a caulk gun."

Or a shovel. Patrick Angel, who heads up the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative, has called for a massive tree-planting effort across all of the abandoned mine land throughout the mountains. Fast-growing willow trees could be planted and harvested for biofuels, while slower growing hardwoods could support at once a sustainable forestry movement and contribute to the emerging carbon credit market. Now that the dream of corn ethanol has passed, other abandoned mine sites could be planted with a more promising biomass such as switchgrass, a high-yield perennial that thrives on marginal land.

What about mounting solar panels on south-facing valley fills, of which Appalachia has plenty? Energy from those panels, coupled with some wind energy from the mountaintops, could be fed into a direct-current "smart grid" so that our sources of energy become radically decentralized along with the profits from that energy.

Where's the start-up money for this new economy? President Obama has already allocated $80 billion of the stimulus package to renewable energy, energy efficiency and grid modernization. Now, as a nation, we must quickly shift all of the fossil fuel industry's subsidies into renewables. Finally, we in Kentucky should double the coal severance tax and pour those profits into jobs that are not based on a toxic, finite resource.

Clearly, money does buy happiness, up to a point. Eastern Kentucky needs more jobs. A sustainable, renewable-energy economy could finally bring such jobs to the region, jobs that don't cause black lung, roof collapses, or lost mountains. But beyond that, to work such a green-collar job would mean knowing that you were part of the larger solution to stop climate change and mountaintop removal. A certain amount of pride goes along with that. Happiness wouldn't be far behind.

Erik Reece is the author if "An American Gospel," published this month by Riverhead. He teaches at the University of Kentucky and lives in Lexington.

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