Ron Eller: Imagine a different future

Past efforts failed to tackle root causes of E. Ky.'s problems

December 8, 2013 

The past is mother to the present, but the future is limited only by what we can imagine.

The summit on the future of Eastern Kentucky that will convene tomorrow in Pikeville is the latest in a long line of conferences designed to address the economic problems of Appalachia.

For over half a century, well-intentioned leaders have gathered to discuss the region's deficiencies and to promise action. Such meetings preceded the War on Poverty and the passage of the Appalachian Regional Development Act in the 1960s and the short-lived Kentucky Appalachian Commission in the 1990s. Sadly, the inequalities that generated these efforts seem to have persisted as well, perhaps because we have not learned from the successes and failures of earlier strategies or we have been unwilling to address the underlying problems themselves.

The success of this current initiative depends upon our learning from past efforts and our willingness to imagine a different future.

History doesn't leave us with a list of specific strategies and simple solutions, but it does provide some guidance. Without question, the improvements in infrastructure and human services resulting from government investment in Appalachia over the past five decades have benefitted the region, but Central Appalachia still suffers from social, political and economic inequality that runs deeper than the loss of coal jobs or reductions in federal funding. The failure to address fundamental inequalities in land ownership, access to economic opportunity and community decision-making has limited the success of past efforts.

Short-term projects alone will not change economic and political inequality, and repeating the strategies of the past will not bring hope to a society worn down by powerlessness and dependency. As history indicates, building an economy on extractive resources and recruiting outside industry in a post-manufacturing world will only produce more of the same dependency.

An alternative future demands new ideas and the courage to make deeper changes.

Appalachia has never suffered from a lack of creative ideas. Libraries and archives are overflowing with proposals for development strategies and projects proposed by local residents and outside consultants alike. Successful rural communities across the United States and throughout other parts of Appalachia serve as models of effective community development, and today a passel of mountain young people are energized to try new directions in small business development, sustainable forestry, tourism, alternative energy, the arts and local food production.

Thinking out of the box about land use and tax reform, reforestation, energy efficiency, the expansion of public places, water conservation, health care delivery and job training will generate needed employment opportunities and also build confidence, resourcefulness and hope.

Policies that improve government accountability, institutional responsibility, civic leadership and environmental conscientiousness likewise nurture long-term thinking.

Past efforts have often failed to tap the creativity of young people, women or minorities within the region. Too often development programs relied upon strategies that were narrow, outdated or served private/political interests. Despite calls for long-term planning, government and private initiatives have been short-lived and have often addressed symptoms rather than the sources of problems.

Little has been done in the mountains to tackle issues of land ownership and use, environmental health, responsible governance, income inequality and political corruption.

The absence of an inclusive and coordinated approach to regional development has left Appalachian Kentucky subject to the worst kind of political and economic self-interest.

The best outcome of the Pikeville gathering, therefore, would be the creation of an ongoing process to sustain democratic change in the region. Transition to a new economy demands flexibility, creativity, patience, collaboration and a willingness to accept diversity and new ideas. Defense of old guard assumptions about power and economic growth, and suspicions of outsiders and minorities must give way to widespread participation in an open and transparent process, one that brings more and different people to the table.

In the mountains, as in the rest of the world, the era of control by small groups of powerful white men is fading.

The decline of coal-related jobs is only one of many profound changes that have occurred in the mountains in the past decades. The rise of materialism, dependency and the drug problem are all symptoms of a culture bereft of its foundations. This is our real crisis, but therein lays the opportunity to reassess our values along with our political and economic institutions.

History tells us that democratic transformation is a multi-staged and ongoing process, but the first stage is the building of hope through voluntary participation in that process. Let us expect that the Pikeville meeting will not end with a conversation among the powerful but will energize deep change.

Ron Eller is an Appalachian historian and distinguished professor of history at the University of Kentucky.

Lexington Herald-Leader is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service