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PO Box 1070, Frankfort, KY 40602  Phone 502.875.2428, Fax 502.875.2845

UK Professor and author Dr. Ron Eller keynotes East Kentucky Leadership Conference  Posted: May 6, 2009

Keynote Address to
The East Kentucky Leadership Conference
April 23, 2009
Dr. Ron Eller, Professor of History
University of Kentucky

(Published by KRC on its website with permission of the author)

Living on Uneven Ground

Eastern Kentucky has certainly drawn its share of attention lately from the news media. One national survey found that not only was per capita income in central Appalachia among the lowest in the country, but people were unhappy about it. Go figure. The ABC News 20/20 program of a few weeks ago certainly rekindled old stereotypes about the region, but it also revealed the harsh truth about poverty and drug abuse in our communities. My own latest book documents the failure of government programs over the past five decades to bring prosperity to all of Appalachia. The economic ground continues to be uneven in the mountains, I argue, not only because of the weakness of our commitment to equitable change but because of the assumptions that we have adopted about progress and about the good life. But I want to focus here not on our failures but on our potential. Briefly I want to explore some of the lessons I have learned from studying our past and their implications for building an alternative future for our children. I have spent more than forty years researching the history of Appalachia and, despite all of our failures to overcome the challenges facing our communities, I am still hopeful about the future. That history tells me that if we are going to build a brighter future for all of our people, we are going to have to make some fundamental changes in our assumptions.

Journalists and historians are often accused of only reporting the negative, of being too critical of our failures. That may be true. Perhaps that is why many of my colleagues in history avoid writing about the recent past and choose not to engage in debate about current public policy. As Bill Moyers described the difference between journalists and historians, “Journalists tackle the here and now, which can rear up and bite you; historians tend to deal with the dead and gone, who are in no position to complain. Journalism encourages the making of snap judgments and the drawing of facile conclusions: history grows out of sustained study and a patient resolve to connect the dots. Journalists who make mistakes get sued for libel; historians who make mistakes get to publish a revised edition.”

Tonight I am going to step into the gap between the past and the future and challenge you to think of history not just as a tale of past events and dead people, but as a road map for how we can shape a better future for our communities. What do the lessons of history tell us about the roads we might take to build a truly new Appalachia, a 21st century Appalachia? I have tried to identify a number of these lessons in my recent book, Uneven Ground, but we do not have time this evening for me to explore these in detail. I will just have to invite you to read the book. However, a quick summary would include the following observations:

1. Appalachia is not the “other America” that the national stereotypes would have us believe but in fact is a bell-weather to the challenges facing our larger society.

2. Growth and Development are not the same thing. Growth does not always lead to fair, secure, and sustainable development for everyone.

3. Urban and national models of growth are not always appropriate for rural places. The consolidation of public services in one place can cause the decline and neglect of other places.

4. Land Use Matters. Extractive economies tend to produce social and economic inequality, environmental destruction, and short term growth.

5. Environment and Culture are inextricably connected. How we use the land affects how we see ourselves, how we relate to each other, the values that we pass on to our children, and the meanings that we give to life.

6. Development is a political act that requires democratic community engagement and open public debate. Leadership, creativity, and civic participation are essential for successful communities.

7. Community-based strategies produce more sustainable and equitable development than those based solely on national and global market priorities.

The implications of these lessons for you and me today, I believe, are clear: we must learn to think about the process of development differently, to reconsider how we define the good life, and to search for alternative ways to get there. This would not mean a return to some romantic past, but it would require a revolutionary way of thinking about the future. It would require willingness to dream and to take risks. Thomas Jefferson believed that America needed a new revolution every thirty years or so to empower each generation to think creatively about old problems. Maybe we need just such a revolution in our thinking in the mountains.

I would offer that we have a narrow window of opportunity in Appalachia today for such revolutionary thinking to take root. Global warming, the financial crisis, international recession and world terrorism create an opportunity for change, if we can seize the moment. There are no easy solutions to the challenges facing our communities. If there were, we would have already addressed them. But maybe the problem isn’t the lack of ideas about how to grow our economy but the way we think about growth and development itself. Moving beyond the assumptions of our past has implications for action, I expect, in three general areas:

1. The Environment.

First, we must change how we understand this place and how we understand our place in it. We must look beyond an extractive-based economy to one that values and enhances the landscape and the resources that it holds, one that connects our own sustainability and future to that of the mountains themselves.

We must begin by abolishing surface mining, including the radically destructive practice of mountaintop removal. Mountaintop removal isn’t necessary to the regional or the national economy; it’s just cheaper. We can continue to mine coal, gas, and other mineral resources but the impact of extraction on the land, on water, on forests, and other sensitive ecosystems must be strictly regulated and enforced. Ultimately, however, we will have to move away from an extractive economy, especially one based upon coal.

Such a policy only makes sense in a political, cultural, and economic environment that is going to see declining coal reserves, rising opposition to coal fired electric generating facilities, and limits placed upon carbon production. Over the short term, during the national transition away from coal that must occur, we can continue to support underground mining, while weaning state and local governments from the tax dependency that coal severance has imposed on the public sector.

We have the capacity to move from extractive jobs to jobs that enhance the environment. Land, mountain land, can be a source of new jobs, green jobs managing the forests for sustainable production and for carbon recovery, for eco-sensitive recreation, and for localized energy production in the form of wind, solar, bio-fuel, hydro and other sources of electricity. Jobs displaced by the loss of strip mining could be replaced by federally supported programs of reforestation and land reclamation for alternative energy production, and reclaimed and unmined lands could be added to our national forests and managed as national energy trusts for their carbon credits. Restoring and managing the Appalachian landscape itself would employ many times the number of people whose jobs will be lost with the abolition of surface mining, but that process must begin now. Let us not stick our heads in the sand, as we have too often done in the past, while the rest of the country moves on around us.
Developing a new philosophy of land use will also require a new way of thinking about the goals and purpose of economic growth itself. We need to move from thinking about producing goods only for a distant market to producing goods and services for local and regional markets. Such a shift in economic philosophy will demand the development of cooperative relationships between urban and rural places within the region and within the Commonwealth, a collaboration that has been rare in our history.

2. Localization and Regional Growth

Despite national stereotypes, Appalachia has never been isolated from the nation and from world markets. Nor should we be, but building a new economy in the mountains in the 21st century will require us to rebuild local and regional market relationships that provide for greater sustainability and autonomy, whatever the global economic situation. This means shifting our thinking from the recruitment of outside industry as our only alternative to the generation of job opportunities, from a way of thinking that expects someone else to provide a job for us to one that expects us to create jobs for ourselves.

Government and social institutions can play a major role in helping to foster and support entrepreneurship and small business development. We can break down barriers that divide our rural areas from our urban places and encourage urban communities to buy regionally produced goods and services and encourage rural places to see their urban neighbors as potential consumers of food, recreation, entertainment and cultural amenities, landscape plants, and digitally generated services.

We can encourage the decentralization of education and health care, putting schools and health providers back into smaller communities, especially rural communities where they provide not only jobs but community cohesion, collaboration, identity, and responsibility. It is much easier for a parent to be involved in a child’s education if the school is down the road instead of across the county.

In a more community based economy, many of the new jobs will be green jobs such as conducting energy audits and improving energy efficiency in homes and schools, replanting trees and bio-fuel crops on reclaimed mine sites, and constructing small hydroelectric generating facilities and wind farms for private and community energy generation. Both West Virginia and Virginia are experimenting with wind farm production and surely Kentucky’s mountaintops can help make local communities energy independent as well.

Finally there is growing potential for local and regionally coordinated tourism in Eastern Kentucky, but only if the environment is restored and protected. Central Appalachia will never develop a viable tourism economy until the destruction of the mountains and mountain streams ceases and the quality of one of the richest natural environments in the world is restored.

To achieve these goals of re-inventing our relationship to the environment and localizing our economies, we will need new leadership, one which not only welcomes new ideas but is willing to listen to a whole range of people as well.

3. Leadership Development

We must all work hard to nurture a new generation of leaders for eastern Kentucky and to find ways to free them to dream and to think creatively. Appalachia, and especially East Kentucky, is one of the most creative places on Earth. Our musicians, craftsmen and women and our writers and storytellers make magic out of nothing but dreams. Given the freedom to do so, this same culture can surely create new and innovative ways of thinking about what makes a good life and how to achieve it.

We need to nurture this creativity and diversity at all levels of our public life. Recent scholarship has clearly confirmed that there is a direct relationship between creativity, diversity and successful communities. We need to do a better job of fostering creativity through our social institutions, to encourage leadership skills, civic engagement, and social responsibility in our schools and colleges. We must do this by inviting everyone to bring ideas to the table, not just those who are currently seated there.

To that end, we should continue to encourage the expansion of higher education in central Appalachia, including the eventual construction of a regional university or even a rank I research university in the heart of Kentucky Appalachia. Most economic development professionals agree that the presence of major universities encourage the growth of research and development capacity within communities; their presence helps to retain professionals and entrepreneurs, and to support community vitality and leadership. This goes beyond the mere offering of courses and degrees; they are engines of economic and social creativity. Whether or not you think we have too many universities in Kentucky, we don’t have enough research and development capacity within eastern Kentucky, and our universities are failing to provide that leadership for an important part of the Commonwealth.

Finally, we should charge the governor and the legislature to re-establish the Kentucky Appalachian Commission and its Citizen’s Advisory Council to promote public discussion and debate and to channel new ideas to state and regional policy makers on issues of importance to the mountains. We should encourage these same leaders to rekindle partnerships with leaders in other Appalachian states in order to press the current administration in Washington to re-vitalize the Appalachian Regional Commission (created by Kentucky leadership initiatives in the 1960s) and to also establish an aggressive rural development policy that would encourage rural places everywhere to build a more equitable and green future.

Moving beyond the old assumptions about growth and progress and adopting new ways of thinking about the environment, about job creation, and about leadership will not be easy – nor will it be accomplished over night. But we can begin the journey. That journey starts with an understanding of our past, and it is powered by the courage to take the actions necessary for change. I hope we have that courage today.


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