If Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell thunders away about President Barack Obama's "war on coal" until the 2014 election, he might win a sixth term, but that does not address the dire consequences of declining coal production and divided communities that struggle for a different future in Eastern Kentucky.
While voices across the region and the nation are writing an epitaph for coal, Kentucky politicians of all ilk, rather than addressing the challenges, spend their time distancing themselves from Obama. This, while many coal lobbyists at the national level are asking for a "dialogue" with the president.
Rather than waiting for what the president promises as "special care" for communities, like ours, that are unsettled by the energy transitions away from coal, Gov. Steve Beshear should seize the moment, face the desperate realities in the mountains and spark an effort to bring community leaders together in East Kentucky to seek new directions.
Of course, Beshear is also beholden to the coal industry but he is the governor twice elected to serve the entire state, and expresses to close friends the genuine concern that he, as a preacher's dutiful son, has for the oppressed and distressed.
Despite its long struggle with a boom-bust history, Eastern Kentucky still buzzes with young people brimming with ideas for creating a different economy that respects the environment, rejects the ugliest aspects of consumerism and reconsiders the meaning of the good life in the hills. A call by the governor for a process to listen to these young people and their "hang-tough" elders who have never lost faith in their region might ignite an economy and society built around a different set of values.
Public forums across Appalachia could uncover potential leaders, reconcile old divisions and reveal new directions for private investment and public policy. Aimed at reconciliation based upon the shared goal of a brighter future, these conversations could generate much-needed energy and hope, and lay down a pathway for future action.
A model for this process can be found in the Kentucky Appalachian Task Force created by Gov. Brereton Jones in the early 1990s. The task force resulted in the establishment of a permanent Kentucky Appalachian Commission to coordinate government development policy based upon a list of citizen recommendations. This commission had some success until Gov. Ernie Fletcher, deciding it had become too politicized, defunded it.
We recommend such a process to begin bipartisan discussions on all aspects of the future of Eastern Kentucky — education, health, economic development and the environment. With advice from a cross-section of all the interests and players, Beshear should appoint a new task force to set up a listening and reconciliation process to advise him and other policy-makers.
As a warning against the mistakes that drew Fletcher's ire, the task force should represent a broad swath of participants and interest groups, from policy-makers, business and institutional leaders, to activists, artists and spiritual leaders.
Building a better future for Eastern Kentucky is not the challenge of Appalachian communities alone but is a responsibility for the whole state. For over a century, the prosperity of the commonwealth has been tied to the prosperity and poverty of its eastern mountains.
The influence of coal on politics, economic development, education, migration, tax policy and even popular stereotypes has been as powerful in Louisville and Lexington as in Pikeville and Hazard.
The problems of the mountains are a microcosm of those facing all of us as we try to build a more sustainable economy, healthier environment and more responsive government for our children and grandchildren.
Indeed, the future of the entire commonwealth depends upon our ability to integrate urban and rural places into a locally united, as well as an internationally connected, economy. A Kentucky Appalachian Task Force that looks to a future beyond coal should reflect statewide expertise and interests.
Coal is not the issue anymore. Rather the issue is whether Kentucky has the imaginative, visionary leadership to guide a just transition in a time of change.
About the authors: Journalist and author Al Smith of Lexington was federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission, 1980-82. Ron Eller of Lexington has written two prize-winning books about Appalachia and is retiring as distinguished professor of history at the University of Kentucky, where he directed the Appalachian Center for 16 years.