Holiday reading: Appalachia explained

I had eight vacation days to use or lose, so I was off for the past two weeks.  I had great Christmas and New Year’s celebrations with my family, ate too much, took a cold bike ride, hiked at Raven Run nature preserve and made a start on the big stack of books I bought at the Kentucky Book Fair in November.

The best thing I read during my break was Uneven Ground, by Ron Eller, a University of Kentucky history professor.

Eller has been researching and writing about his native Appalachia for three decades, and Uneven Ground is an outstanding analysis of the region’s history since 1945.  Eller covers a lot in 260 pages of well-chosen words. It is highly readable and often profound.

Appalachia’s lack of progress has sometimes been blamed on its inhabitants’ cultural differences or fear of change. But Eller thinks it has a lot more to do with money and power. For most of the past century, Appalachia has been run like a colony, with outside interests owning most of the wealth, reaping most of the profits and leaving behind an impoverished population and a wasted landscape.

This paragraph on page 223 offers a concise summary of why a half-century of focus on improving Appalachia has made limited progress:

The Appalachian economy, for example, had always been tied to national markets, despite popular images of the region as isolated and underdeveloped. The postwar effort to modernize the mountains came at a time of rapid transition in the national economy, but politics and misperceptions of the region’s history limited the actions of planners and policy makers to playing games of economic catch-up rather than to designing a sustainable, place-based economy for a changing world. During the 1970s and 1980s, as promoters of Appalachian development were building industrial parks, supporting the expansion of coal mining and chasing runaway branch plants, the United States was undergoing a fundamental change from a manufacturing-based economy to a service-based economy. At a time when Appalachian leaders were struggling to recruit labor-intensive, low-wage manufacturing plants to an underdeveloped region, technology and globalization were moving these older forms of industrial growth abroad. Traditional industrial recruitment strategies not only perpetuated the long pattern of wealth flowing out of the mountains, but failed to provide a sustainable economic foundation or to protect the region’s sensitive environmental resources. Branch plant economies provided jobs but created little permanent wealth in the communities where they operated. As the rest of the nation invested in expanding higher education, improving environmental quality, and ecouraging creativity for a higher-tech and more service-based world, the core communities of Appalachia remained tied to the old, extractive economy.

Uneven Ground should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand the region that includes so much of Kentucky. 

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