Front Porch Blog

Anthony Flaccavento: Appalachia’s Economic Transition is Underway

{ Editor’s Note } Appalachian Voices is pulling up another chair to the Front Porch. Through our new guest blog feature, we’ll regularly invite influential voices to reflect on issues you care about — mountaintop removal, clean water, and promoting a strong, healthy economy and environment for communities in Appalachia and the Southeast. To kick things off, we invited Anthony Flaccavento, a regional leader in sustainable agriculture, local foods and their overlap with economic development, to share how Appalachia’s economic transition is already underway.

Organic farmer and one-time congressional candidate Anthony Flaccavento. Photo by Laura Elizabeth Pohl, courtesy of Bread for the World

Organic farmer and one-time congressional candidate Anthony Flaccavento works to build a “bottom-up” economy in Appalachia. Photo by Laura Elizabeth Pohl, courtesy of Bread for the World

In the mid-1980s, more than 60,000 people worked in Central Appalachia’s coal industry. During that same period, more than 75,000 tobacco farms dotted the region, helping small farmers make a decent livelihood. By 2008, the year before Barack Obama became president, employment in the region’s coal industry had fallen by more than half, and today the number of tobacco farmers in Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee is barely a tenth of what it had been.

The economy of Central Appalachia is in the midst of a long term “transition” away from tobacco, away from coal, away from relying on a handful of industries for the bulk of its jobs. Without a doubt, it’s moving away from that. The question is, what will it move towards, and how will we get there?

As more and more people grapple with this question – from coal miners and entrepreneurs to activists and elected officials – it is good to remind ourselves of this: Appalachia’s economic transition is part of a larger national, even global, transition with many of the same root causes. To be clear, with so many people laid off from the mines, our region’s problems are particularly acute, and the solutions we seek are both urgent and specific to our place. But the essence of the shift we must make goes far beyond our mountains.

For the past three decades, I have worked with many folks to build a more locally rooted, sustainable economy in Appalachia and in other parts of the country. Those efforts, along with my experience as a farmer and as a candidate for Congress in 2012, have surfaced three big questions which, for me, frame the debate on economic transition.

1. Is “the economy” for people, or are people for the economy?

It’s common to hear politicians say, “We need to train workers for the 21st century global economy.” Those same officials often ink the deals that provide millions of dollars to bring call centers, retail giants and others to the area; or provide billions of dollars to bail out megabanks with no requirements that they increase their lending to small businesses or assist homeowners with refinancing. They put their faith and our taxpayer dollars in an abstraction – “the economy” in which prosperity is supposed to trickle down as a byproduct of unleashing its mysterious dynamism.

What if the first question economists and politicians instead asked was, “What does this community need and what do they already have that we can build upon?”

2. What is the proper balance between the public and private sectors, between government and the marketplace?

More than 20 years ago, I stood with the United Mine Workers of America and striking miners fighting to keep the retiree health benefits that Pittston Coal was promising to end. So during my congressional campaign in 2012, it angered me to hear the very people who’ve worked to destroy the labor movement, to rescind health and retirement benefits, and to reduce protections against black lung disease, now claim to be fighting for miners and the working man under a “pro-coal” banner. How have they been able to do this? By concocting a “war on coal” that pits miners against environmentalists, and attributes virtually all the coal mine layoffs to health and environmental regulations. The facts contradict this, including the reality that southwest Virginia lost almost 20 percent of its coal industry jobs during the “pro coal,” anti-EPA administration of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Unfortunately, many working Americans have bought into the belief that regulation is almost always bad, and that if we’d just leave business alone, we’d be much better off.

Finding a productive, effective balance between the creative, dynamic forces of the marketplace and the need to protect workers, public health and the environment is a complex, ever-evolving challenge. It’s something about which we should have meaningful debate. Instead, we’re stuck with “war on coal” slogans, largely promoted by people with a demonstrated contempt for the miners who built the industry, for the land and for communities.

3. How do we build prosperous communities that enable us to live within our means, to cultivate more health and happiness, more security and local ownership, with less energy and waste, less dependence on either big business or big government?

In discussions about clean energy, it is often said that energy efficiency is the “low-hanging fruit.” This is certainly true, but beyond the question of efficiency lies the challenge of size: How “big” must our lives – homes, cars, wardrobes, stock portfolios – be for us to feel successful? More to the point, can we build an economy that does not depend upon never-ending physical growth, but can flourish based upon shared prosperity, sustainable resource use and more self-reliant communities?

Part two of Anthony Flaccavento’s piece on building a “bottom-up” economy in Appalachia considers what this transition might look like and three broad strategies to get us there.





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  1. Greg Leichty on November 15, 2013 at 9:39 pm

    Mr. Flaccavento,

    I am running for United States Senate in the democratic primary in Kentucky. I would like to hear more of your ideas. Are you going to be at the SOAR summit in Pikeville on December 9? Hope to see you there.

    I can also be reached via telephone at (502) 612-3416.


    Greg Leichty
    Democratic Candidate for United States Senate

  2. Kathy Curtis on November 15, 2013 at 7:39 pm

    “How “big” must our lives be for us to feel successful?” If we could only learn the gift of enough-ness in our families, neighborhoods, regions. There is enough for all of us when we choose to love where we are and what we do.

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