Coal Miners and Resilience

New research is changing how we think about sunset industries and poverty.

Posted Aug 15, 2017

When I think about the resilience of families and communities, like those depending on jobs from coal, I’m reminded how difficult it is to know the right way to get ready for change when we know change is coming. I’ve been reading some interesting research that I think might be of help to communities that rely on coal, oil, gas and other non-renewable sources of energy that are being threatened with extinction as our economy adapts to new sources of power. How will these communities survive if new industries disrupt those that have been vital mainstays for the past century? The answer requires some radical thinking.

Consider an article by Christophe Béné which argues that being a fisherman needn’t be a sign that someone is going to be poor forever (no more than being a coal miner should be thought of as a job of last resort, or something that traps people in a cycle of poverty). Béné’s argument is that we have been caught in an out-dated way of thinking which blames those who are working in industries like fishing and coal mining for the difficult circumstances in which they live (typically, we’re told they live in rural areas with few jobs and lack the education to adapt to other industries). Béné suggests instead that we look at this problem differently. If fishermen and coal miners are mostly poor and lack the resilience to make changes to better their lot in life it might be because they don't have (1) the organization and political voice to get heard, (2) the chance to benefit from a changing economy that has made their sweat and toil obsolete, and (3) the social safety net—education, health care, jobs—to cope with change.

If a community that is producing coal wants to be resilient, they are going to have to find ways to solve all three of these problems. It doesn’t surprise me in the least that Trump-style populism is flourishing in places depending on sunset industries like coal. Unfortunately, the solutions being proposed are not going to make for long-term individual or collective resilience. Here’s why.

First, resilience means having a voice in politics. Unions certainly do that. So does voting for people who will defend your jobs. So far, so good. But what about innovation? Who is planning for your future? Whose political vision is sowing the seeds for the next industrial revolution? It strikes me that politicians and even unions are looking backwards instead of forward. That’s not leadership.

Second, are miners poor because their industry is mechanizing and pushing them out, or are they poor because they haven’t been benefiting from mechanization? One could say that miners are being exploited much like Scottish sharecroppers in the 1700s who were pushed off their land to make way for wealthy landowners to graze sheep. With each economic change, the fair and just thing would be that the wealth that is generated by the “next big thing” should help make the lives of those who are displaced a little bit better. The fact is that labour intensive good paying jobs are never returning to the United States, Canada or Europe because high wages and cheap robots make it more economical to build things without people. Wait until we start “3D printing” buildings (the technology already exists) and we’ll see a huge displacement in the construction industry, too, just as we’ve seen fewer and fewer jobs in mining.

Is it time for a radical rethink for resilience? Tax the robots? Shorten the workweek to 30 hours? These ideas may seem crazy, but are they any more crazy than when we implemented an income tax to pay to fight a war, or when we instituted laws that brought down people’s work weeks to just 40 hours? If miners are poor, it may not be that they work in an industry facing problems. It could be that their leadership just isn’t thinking about the long-term resilience of the people who work in their industry.

If you need proof that miners and others like them are being exploited badly in the emerging economy, check out a simple summary of some very complicated trends in income distribution. David Leonhardt is a columnist for the New York Times who recently wrote about a very famous study by Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman. What they showed is that real wages for lower class and middle class workers have remained almost flat since 1980, with only the upper middle class and the uber rich enjoying real increases of two, three, even six percent in their earnings. This wasn’t always the case. Back in the 1960s (is that when America was great?) it was folks on the lower rungs of the economic ladder who were watching their wages rise by three percent or more annually. Folks at the top of the ladder did alright, but nothing like today. These days, it is indeed true that the rich get richer and, well, the poor, mostly stay the same.

Coal miners might want to begin to ask for their fair share of the income from their labour, and maybe a dividend on the legacy they left behind. That would give them the resources to transition to new industries and maintain their wellbeing during the upset. If that seems strange, they might at the very least stop their politicians from giving more and more tax breaks to the rich who have already experienced huge growth in their incomes.

Third, and following Béné’s idea, if you want individual resilience you need a population as a whole to have the means to make changes. Coal will end. Renewables and battery technology are already putting a huge dent into the need for coal, oil and gas. No surprise there is a glut of oil on the market. More efficient vehicles and hybrids means less and less consumption. That won’t change. But what can change is giving people better access to education and health care which are the building blocks for productive societies. It seems remarkable that the largest economy on the planet can’t provide free postsecondary education to everyone who wants it, or free health care. With all the surplus wealth being generated by both sunset industries like coal and new industries like online services, it’s baffling that the money can’t be found for these basic human needs.

Then again, maybe I shouldn’t be all that surprised. After all, the only solution I’ve heard to make the lives of miners better is to make sure they keep pulling coal from the ground whether there is a market for it or not. That’s not a formula for individual or community resilience. It’s simply the foundation stone for a bigger, nastier social crisis.


Béné, C. (2003). When fishery rhymes with poverty: A first step beyond the old paradigm on poverty in small-scale fisheries. World Development, 31(6), 949-975.