There are some forces that can be reckoned with: We can beat ignorance with education, get in out of the rain, build safer roads and take antibiotics to fight infections.
But it's the better part of wisdom to know when you're facing things that won't give way. Forces of nature, time and markets almost always win out. Volcanos, floods and fires don't listen to persuasion; no one's conquered mortality and no amount of grumbling will undo the technological changes that have transformed how we communicate.
The management of Kentucky Power acknowledged that time and economics were simply not to be overcome Wednesday when it withdrew an application to spend (and charge ratepayers for) $1 billion on pollution controls at the 1960s Big Sandy coal-fired electricity generating plant.
Kentucky Power, assailed by Kentucky's pro-coal forces, had retracted an earlier decision to abandon these coal plants. But, with strong opposition before the Public Service Commission to spending that would raise customer bills by 30 percent, the company turned again and withdrew the application before the PSC ruled.
While the chorus has been long and loud about the so-called war on coal fomented by nameless bureaucrats and clueless outsiders, the reality is that coal in Kentucky, particularly Eastern Kentucky, has been pounded by much more relentless forces.
True, federal clean-air laws going back to 1990, when George H.W. Bush was president, have played a role by requiring that the cost of generating power include the cost of reducing emissions of hazardous material into the atmosphere. Once clean air became one of the expenses of generating electricity by burning coal, then coal's days as a low-cost fuel were numbered.
But other factors were at work. Once the accessible seams had been mined, the cost of getting coal out of the ground grew, while better techniques for extracting natural gas, and a developing national energy market changed the landscape.
Coal's share of U.S. electricity production has dropped from 50 percent in 2005 to below 40 percent late last year. Kentucky's share of U.S. coal production has plummeted from 22.1 percent in 1975 to 10 percent in 2009.
Kentucky Power has acknowledged the new reality. It had to in order to serve both its shareholders and its customers.
Kentucky's state and local leaders must do the same. They are battling forces that can't be beaten in the long term.
If they want to serve the people and the regions that produce coal, as well as future ratepayers, they must plan for a future with less coal. That means using coal-severance dollars to develop economic opportunities in the coal fields through investments in infrastructure, entrepreneurship and education.
To help all ratepayers, it means developing an energy strategy that includes conservation and efficient building standards while diversifying energy sources to include wind, solar, biomass and other new fuels.