Suggestion — October 4, 2013, 2:30 pm

The End of Illth

In search of an economy that won’t kill us

A coal miner two days after the April 5, 2010, explosion at Massey Energy Company's Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, West Virginia. © AP Photo/ Bob Bird

A coal miner two days after the April 5, 2010, explosion at Massey Energy Company’s Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, West Virginia. © AP Photo/ Bob Bird

On April 5, 2010, a fireball ripped through underground shafts at the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, West Virginia, killing twenty-nine miners. It was the worst mining disaster in the United States in over forty years. When I heard the news on the radio that morning, my first thought was, “I bet it’s a Massey mine.” And it was. Under the ruthless leadership of CEO Don Blankenship, Massey Energy had unapologetically accumulated one of the worst safety records of any coal company in the country.

Between January 2009 and the day of the explosion, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) cited the Upper Big Branch mine for 639 violations, and in the past decade, fifty-four miners have been killed in Massey mines. Jeff Harris, a former Massey employee who quit to work for a union mine, told a Senate committee three weeks after the explosion that the company routinely chose productivity over safety. “Soon as the inspector would leave the property,” Harris said of Upper Big Branch, “they jerk all the ventilation back down and start mining coal.” Unfortunately, as a Labor Department investigation later revealed, the ventilation system could have played a significant role in preventing the methane buildup that ignited the explosion on April 5.

Testifying before the House Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, surviving miners from Upper Big Branch described repeated ventilation violations that left flammable coal dust collecting on conveyor belts. That was nothing new in a Massey mine. In the fall of 2005, Blankenship sent a memo to employees that read, “If any of you have been asked by your group presidents, your supervisors, engineers or anyone else to do anything other than run coal (i.e., build overcasts, do construction jobs, or whatever) you need to ignore them and run coal.” That “whatever” might have included stopping a conveyor belt long enough to remove combustible coal waste — on January 19, 2006, a fire broke out along a belt at a Massey mine in West Virginia, killing two men.

[1] In response to the naming of the Wildcat Coal Lodge, writer Wendell Berry withdrew all of the personal papers he had donated to the university’s special-collections library.

Twenty-four days after the tragedy at Upper Big Branch, two more miners were killed, this time in my home state of Kentucky, because a roof collapsed on them 500 feet underground. That occurred at the Dotiki mine, which seemed to follow Blankenship’s premise that installing support beams to stabilize roofs gets in the way of running coal; the mine had been cited for 2,973 violations in the previous five years. (The Dotiki mine was operated by a subsidiary of Alliance Resources, whose chief executive, Joe Craft, had recently brokered a deal with my own employer, the University of Kentucky. Last October, Craft pledged $7 million to build a new dorm for the basketball team if, and only if, UK agreed to name the building the Wildcat Coal Lodge. The dorm opened last year.)[1]

As I pondered all of these violations and deaths, a question formed over and over in my mind: What if the workers themselves had owned those mines? That question led to others. Unionized mines do a better job of maintaining worker safety than nonunion ones; would a worker-owned mine be better still? Would the ventilation curtains have remained in place even after the inspectors left? Would the workers have sent themselves a memo, like Don Blankenship’s, pointing out the importance of profits over their own lives? If the miners themselves had owned the mine, would they still be alive?

[2] I also discovered an outfit far beyond the southern mountains, in Wyoming, called the Kiewit Mining Group, whose website touts its “broad-based employee ownership.” I checked out the safety record of its Buckskin Mine in Campbell County. According to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, Kiewit harvests on average about 15 million tons of coal there each year, and in sixteen years has been cited for only thirty-nine injuries and zero deaths.

I began doing some research to see if any such mines exist among the coalfields of Appalachia, but I could find none. From 1917 to 1927, however, a cooperative mining town called Himlerville did exist in Martin County, Kentucky, across the Tug Fork River from the notorious company towns of “Bloody” Mingo County, West Virginia.[2] The Himler Coal Company was founded by a Hungarian coal miner named Henrich Himler on the premise that the workers would be the stockholders and the stockholders would be the workers. Each year the company’s profits were distributed as dividends, and every miner, no matter his position, shared equally in stock bonuses.

At first Himlerville flourished, with handsome cottages, gardens, and indoor plumbing. It had a library, an auditorium, a school, and a bake shop. Residents didn’t suffer from typhoid, as they did across the river in Mingo County, nor did gun thugs patrol the grounds to intimidate miners and thwart attempts at collective bargaining. By 1922, the Himler Coal Company had raised its capital base from $500,000 to $2 million, and so decided to open two new mines. But then coal prices plunged, and the railroads brought in competition from larger corporations. “In 1927, the company was sold at auction to private capitalists,” writes historian Ronald Eller, “and the only effort at cooperative mining in the southern mountains came to an end.” Today, only Henrich Himler’s dilapidated Victorian home, in what’s now called Beauty, Kentucky, stands as evidence of the experiment.

One can say today about an Appalachian deep mine what Sarah Ogan Gunning sang almost eighty years ago in her anthem “Come All You Coal Miners”:

Coal mining is the most dangerous work in our land today.
Plenty of dirty slaving work and very little pay.

Trapper Boy, Turkey Knob Mine, MacDonald, West Virginia, October 1908. Courtesy the Library of Congress

Trapper Boy, Turkey Knob Mine, MacDonald, West Virginia, October 1908. Courtesy the Library of Congress

The pay has gotten better, thanks to unions, but the work remains deadly. And Gunning, who had watched children starve to death in coal camps, meant it when she sang the last line: “Let’s sink this capitalist system to the darkest pits of hell.” Of course in today’s America, this sentiment represents the worst kind of heresy: a denial of capitalism’s benevolent hand and the free market’s capacious ability to best know our human needs. It’s socialism, wealth-spreading, devil-worship.

But what if it isn’t? Pause for a moment to consider how this country might look if we did shift wealth away from predatory lenders and speculators, toward real workers who produce real wealth, in the form of goods and services? What if this shift represented a radical and ethical form of democracy — one grounded in trust, decent work, and marketplace morality?

The financial crisis of 2008 had a long gestation period that can be traced back to 1783, when Alexander Hamilton persuaded Continental Army soldiers, desperate for cash, to sell their war bonds to his speculating friends at one-thirtieth of their value. In the earliest days of the republic, Hamilton and financier–politician Robert Morris were making shady deals to funnel American wealth to the banking class of New York. Hamilton wanted to centralize the country’s wealth and power as fervently as his nemesis Thomas Jefferson wanted a decentralized nation of agrarian, self-sufficient wards. But of course we adopted Hamilton’s vision, not Jefferson’s, and as a result the United States now has the largest income gap of any country in the northern hemisphere — one that is now wider than at any point in our country’s history.

In their 2009 book, The Spirit Level, epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett concluded that every societal problem, without exception, can be tied directly to income inequality. The United States has higher levels of mental illness, infant mortality, obesity, violence, incarceration, and substance abuse than almost all other “developed” countries. And we have the worst environmental record in the world. When they died, the twenty-nine West Virginia miners were digging coal that the rest of us consume twice as fast as Americans did in the 1970s. Yet still we leave unquestioned the overarching goal of infinite economic growth on a planet of finite resources. The American economist Kenneth Boulding once remarked, “Anyone who believes that exponential growth can go on forever is either a madman or an economist.” But as we listen daily to the president, to members of Congress, and to the financial analysts who sail by on cable news, the dominant message is that endless economic growth is this country’s singular destiny.

In his biography of Hamilton, Ron Chernow wrote, “Today, we are indisputably the heirs to Hamilton’s America, and to repudiate his legacy is, in many ways, to repudiate the modern world.” Exactly. We are indeed Hamilton’s heirs, and to repudiate his legacy will mean repudiating what modern capitalism has brought us: toxic loans, toxic securities, toxic energy sources, and toxic growth.

But what if we replaced our Hamiltonian economy with a Jeffersonian one? Or, put in other terms, what if we took as our model not an economy of unchecked growth, but one based on the natural laws of the watershed? By its very nature, a watershed is self-sufficient, symbiotic, conservative, decentralized, and diverse. It circulates its own wealth over and over. It generates no waste, and doesn’t “externalize” the cost of “production” onto other watersheds. In a watershed, all energy is renewable and all resource use is sustainable. The watershed purifies air and water, holds soil in place, enriches humus, and sequesters carbon. It represents both a metaphor and a model for an entirely new definition of economy, whereby our American system of exchange in the realms of wealth and energy is brought into line with the most important and inescapable economy of nature.

The closest example I could find of the watershed model lay in an old warehouse in Glanville, a crumbling neighborhood in Cleveland. There, I encountered the antithesis of a shareholder-owned coal mine: a worker-owned business that installed solar panels throughout the city. At the time I visited, Ohio Cooperative Solar (which is now known as Evergreen Energy Solutions) employed twenty-one men and women, mostly from Cleveland’s lower-income neighborhoods. But OCS wasn’t a welfare experiment; it was a business, one that was turning a profit five months after launching.

OCS was part of a larger network of worker-owned businesses in Cleveland called the Evergreen Cooperatives. The Evergreen network was founded in 2008, after the new CEOs of Cleveland Clinic, Case Western Reserve University, and University Hospitals — all of which are located within a one-mile radius of what’s known as Greater University Circle — started giving serious thought to the eight square miles of shuttered businesses and derelict homes in the neighborhoods that surround their institutions. At the peak of the manufacturing boom in the 1950s, Cleveland was the seventh largest city in the country; today it is the forty-fifth largest and among the poorest.

The “anchor institution” CEOs knew that their organizations were spending $3.5 billion per year on goods and services from outside the Cleveland area. So they asked themselves: Why not redirect some of that purchasing power in order to create an economy that would employ men and women from the surrounding neighborhoods? If only 10 percent of that $3.5 billion was redirected locally, it would inject $350 million into an area facing an unemployment rate of over 25 percent.

Construction of the Green City Growers Cooperative greenhouse in Cleveland, Ohio, September 19, 2012. Photograph by Beverly Moseley, U.S. Department of Agriculture

Construction of the Green City Growers Cooperative greenhouse in Cleveland, Ohio, September 19, 2012. Photograph by Beverly Moseley, U.S. Department of Agriculture

The philanthropic Cleveland Foundation ponied up $3 million in seed money, the institutions each added $250,000, and the Evergreen Cooperatives were born. The primary goal was to create good, environmentally sustainable jobs that would not be outsourced. The co-op’s pilot business was the Evergreen Cooperative Laundry, which set up shop in October 2009 to service the Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals. Today the laundry, which uses energy-efficient washers and dryers, is housed in a one-story LEED-certified building. Facing the street are three frescoes, each featuring the slogan PEOPLE PLANET PROFITS. That is the succinct philosophy of the Evergreen Cooperatives, and it suggests how their model upends the usual socialist–capitalist antipathy. The laundry employs fifty men and women, who clean twelve million pounds of linens a year and who will eventually own 100 percent of the company. Are they socialists who own the means of production, or capitalists who own their own company? The answer, I suppose, is that they represent a new economic model that eschews such false dichotomies. They have solid jobs and are accumulating wealth.

The basic economic logic of any Evergreen Cooperative is to say to the anchor institutions, “What can we provide that you will buy?” The answers tend to fall along three streams: waste, food, and energy — goods and services that cannot be easily outsourced. OCS formed soon after the laundry, with the goal of providing thirty installations of 100 kilowatt solar panels for hospitals, schools, and municipal buildings across Cleveland. In 2009, the Ohio legislature mandated that, by 2012, 60 megawatts of the energy used statewide must be solar-generated. But because most of the anchor institutions were nonprofits, they couldn’t benefit from the federal government’s 30 percent kickback to businesses that invest in solar energy. Instead, OCS installed a 42 kilowatt unit on the roof of the Cleveland Clinic, which paid rent on the panels plus another 12 cents per kilowatt hour for the energy generated — comparable to the rate they paid for electricity from the grid.

I pulled my truck up behind OCS’s four-story warehouse on a sweltering day in the summer of 2010. All five of its four-person work crews were out on installation jobs. But office manager Loretta Bey met me at the loading dock and offered to show me around while I waited for then CEO Steve Kiel. (Kiel left the company in 2011.) We wandered among stacks of shipping pallets loaded with solar panels, and Bey explained the basic operation of a large wet-spray unit used to blow insulation into leaky walls. (When inclement weather prevented OCS from installing solar panels, the company provided a variety of weatherization services for homes and schools). We stopped at Bey’s small, unair-conditioned office, which was filled with photos of her family. I asked her what she thought of OCS. “This is the best job I’ve ever had, by far,” she said. “I feel like I’m part of this company versus just working for it.”

While about 11,000 U.S. companies offer some form of employee stock ownership, far fewer give workers real input into decisions. OCS operated on a one-worker/one-vote model, for everyone from the CEO to the newest hire. They all gathered at 7:30 on Monday mornings to discuss company business. “It’s like we’re part of the board,” Bey told me. “We don’t look at Steve as a superior. He’s equivalent to us.” And Kiel was paid accordingly, at least compared with the average American CEO, who makes 300 times more than the average employee at his firm. OCS’s bylaws, Kiel told me, stipulated that the highest-paid member of the cooperative could never be paid more than five times the earnings of the lowest-paid member.

After a six-month apprenticeship period, OCS employees could apply to join the broader Evergreen Cooperatives. If voted in, they received a $3 per hour raise and began buying into the company through a payroll deduction of 50 cents per hour. In about three years, this would add up to $3,000, an ownership stake that, based on the co-op’s projections, could be worth $65,000 in another six years. (Median household income in the neighborhood is $18,000.) Still, Bey told me, “Being an owner is nice, but it isn’t the most important thing. We’re a team, and for a team to win, it has to be profitable. So everybody has to do the best they can to help the team. That’s what makes it work.”

Later I spoke with crew leader Mike McKenzie, who echoed Bey’s sentiments. “You feel like it’s part of your own,” he said of the cooperative, “so you take it a lot more seriously. People work better together because of the common goal of being more efficient and making the company more profitable. You share in the profits and you have some say in the direction of the company.”

If that sounds like syndicalist thinking, rest assured that when Kiel showed up in his businessman’s attire, he looked like the last person to lead a revolution. He spoke with Bey about some invoices that needed her attention, and then he and I walked up to his office on the top floor of the warehouse. I told him about the twenty-nine dead miners in West Virginia, the two in Kentucky, and asked if he thought the Evergreen Cooperatives model could be applied to coal mining.

He responded by bringing up a town called Mondragón, in another mountainous region, Spain’s Basque Country. Like Appalachia, the Basque region is set off from the rest of the country by both geographical boundaries and a distinct cultural identity that grew in some ways out of that physical isolation. During the Spanish Civil War, the Basques sided with the Republic, which promised them regional autonomy. In 1937, Franco rained down retribution on the Basque capital of Guernica, and took as prisoner a young Catholic priest named Don José María Arizmendiarrieta. After the war, José María was appointed the parish priest of Mondragón, where he preached a gospel of collective responsibility, rather than one of individual salvation. Inspired by José María, five Mondragón men established Spain’s first worker-owned company, Ulgor, in 1955. Like OCS, Ulgor started with just a handful of workers. Its original constitution and bylaws stated that it would permit no outside shareholders, that all business decisions would be made by workers with equal voting rights, and that all profits would be distributed directly to each worker’s capital account. José María didn’t develop a systematic or ideological framework for the cooperatives, but he said this of their spiritual and social vision: “Cooperativism seeks to create a new state of conscience, of culture in a word, through the humanization of power through democracy in economic affairs, and through solidarity, which impedes the formation of privileged classes.” Today Mondragón is home to 120 cooperatives that employ more than 80,000 worker-owners, and it earns some €14 billion annually.

Kiel traveled twice to Mondragón with other members of the Evergreen Cooperative, and they were using the town’s model for guidance and inspiration. “The economic renewal will be moral,” José María said, “or it will not exist.” Echoing the priest, Kiel told me, “If you can collectively and cooperatively enter into an industry that is run for profit but practices some morals in that — community-based morals — you don’t have to take everything and put it in the pocket of the highest producer.” Instead, concentrations of wealth were to be distributed more fairly, to the men and woman who had, after all, earned it.

As CEO of Massey, Don Blankenship hadn’t dug up an ounce of coal, but in his last year at the company he walked away with $17.8 million and a deferred compensation package valued at $27.2 million.[3] Kiel told me that under the formula OCS had developed, profit-shares were determined one third by a worker’s wages, one third by the hours he or she had worked that year, and one third by his or her overall tenure with the company. The model sought to reward commitment to the co-op and to the community.

[3] Blankenship ran Massey Energy from 1992 until 2010, when stockholders forced him into retirement. In June of 2011, Alpha Natural Resources bought Massey for $8.5 billion. Today, it is the third largest coal company in the United States and the fifth largest in the world, operating 150 mines and forty coal-preparation plants.

“The deal we make with employees is that this is not an overnight ATM machine,” Kiel said. “You’re going to have to work here eight to ten years before you see the benefits of ownership. . . . What we get in return as a community is people living in these neighborhoods for long periods of time with long-term job security, and that leads to the entire community stabilization we’re looking for.” What’s more, when the workers are the stakeholders, long-term thinking about what’s best for the company replaces the short-term, profit-driven motives of today’s average shareholder. “Most capitalists have a return-on-investment threshold,” Kiel said. “Typically venture capital is going to put up a million dollars up front and will look to get a [huge] annual return. We don’t have that capitalist on board, so we have a different measure, which is how many people can we hire.”

A business paradigm that doesn’t involve venture capitalists and hedge-fund managers seems almost unthinkable in this country, or at least it did before the financial collapse of 2008 and the rise of Occupy Wall Street. Then, for the first time in ages, we allowed into our collective conversation honest talk about the fallout from income inequality and the fundamental unfairness of a country run by the now-famous one percent. Economist Milton Friedman, who may have been wrong about many things when it came to deregulated, laissez-fair economics, was right about this: “Only a crisis — actual or perceived — produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.” Today, the economic model set down in Cleveland is alive and available, and the unsustainable logic of our current financial system may soon make it very much inevitable. 

Twenty-five years ago, Kentucky farmer and writer Wendell Berry looked at the industrialization and mechanization of the American farm and asked this question “What are people for?” The answer, or at least part of the answer, is that people deserve dignified, useful work. “I think we’ve mechanized ourselves into a bad economy,” Kiel told me. “What we’ve done is create monetary wealth out of mechanization that has fundamentally unemployed a whole bunch of people who now hang around on the public dole while the two or three people who got rewarded for the mechanization effort and sold their company because of higher productivity are gone. . . . It’s not good long-term thinking.” So, OCS had a different kind of bottom line with a different definition of wealth. Under this model, wealth means good pay, health benefits, a democratic workplace, an equity stake for every worker, and jobs that don’t get outsourced and that do reduce the country’s carbon footprint.

That is not Massey Energy’s definition of wealth. Coal operators amass their wealth by externalizing the true costs of coal mining onto the land and the people, in the form of poisoned streams, toxic air and inattention to safety. So while Blankenship and his stockholders reaped their wealth, almost everyone else reaped its opposite — what John Ruskin aptly called illth. Research published over the past four years by Michael Hendryx of the Institute for Health Policy Research at the University of West Virginia has shown that men and women living in heavy coal-mining areas are far more likely to die prematurely of heart, respiratory, and kidney disease, and that birth defects occur in communities near strip mines at a rate 42 percent higher than in communities without strip mining. Gallup’s 2012 State of Well-Being report found that southern West Virginia’s third district ranked dead last among the 436 U.S. congressional districts in physical health and overall well-being, while eastern Kentucky’s fifth district ranked second-last.

One of the worst episodes of shared illth happened thirteen years ago in Martin County, Kentucky, the same county where Heinrich Himler started his worker-owned mine. On October 11, 2000, a coal-slurry impoundment pond owned by Massey Energy broke through an underground mine shaft and dumped more than 300 million gallons of black, toxic sludge into the headwaters of Coldwater Creek and Wolf Creek, near the town of Inez. With the speed and consistency of lava, the sludge flooded both valley communities, rising five feet up the trunks of trees lining the streams. The sludge brought with it all manner of heavy metals, and the water in Inez hasn’t been fit to drink since.

Ten years after the Martin County disaster, I drove down to Inez to look up a local agitator and retired high school English teacher named Mickey McCoy. Wild-haired and uncensored, McCoy had just been arrested for protesting mountaintop-removal mining in front of the White House. He climbed into my truck, looking a bit worn out from the ordeal, and we headed to a nearby house that bordered Coldwater Creek. When we arrived, a boy was chipping golf balls into an empty field where, I later found out, his family had raised a garden for generations before the slurry disaster.

McCoy grabbed a shovel from the back of my truck, and I reached under the seat for an empty pickle jar. We went down to the water, and McCoy sank the shovel into the creek bed. Then he threw up onto the bank an ugly heap of black sludge.

“See? Still there,” he said, looking downstream toward his own house. “Bang-up job, EPA.”

I scooped the toxic mess into the pickle jar, a sad artifact of corporate and government malfeasance. The incident — which the Environmental Protection Agency called one of the worst environmental disasters ever to hit the southeastern United States — had merited two $55,000 fines, which were lowered to $5,500 each on appeal and subsequently voided entirely.

Coldwater Creek flows into the Tug Fork River, which supplies water for Inez. I asked McCoy if he drank from the town’s water supply.

“Hell no,” said McCoy. “My wife does, through a filter. But I figure one of us has to be around to raise our grandchildren.”

Forty-five years ago, Garrett Hardin gave what happened in Inez a name: the tragedy of the commons. Corporations like Massey Energy took what should have been a shared inheritance — air, mountains, oceans, rivers — and polluted this commons with waste over which others had no control. According to its constitution, the state of Kentucky is a Commonwealth, and once, perhaps a hundred years ago, eastern Kentucky did look like a true commons, with families running hogs up and down the mountains to feed on hickory nuts and other mast. Today, a Democratic governor sues the Environmental Protection Agency for trying to keep mine waste out of the state’s rivers and streams, and thousands of guard shacks have been set up to keep the people of Appalachia away from resources that are privately held.

The fundamental tenets of nature’s economy were set down sixty years ago by the American conservationist Aldo Leopold: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community,” he wrote. “It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” This clear and profound distinction between right and wrong, between the ethical and the unethical, can carry us quite far. The practice of mountaintop-removal strip-mining, for example, has destroyed more than 500 mountains in Appalachia, cleared more than a million acres of land, and buried more than 2,000 miles of streams. A healthy mountain ecosystem embodies geological stability, biological integrity, and beauty; a strip-mined one embodies the opposite.

An engineer named John Todd has proposed building “agro eco-parks” on the barren Appalachian land that used to be mountaintops. These parks — more like farms, really — would generate food and fuel, slowly repair the watershed, and sequester carbon. Todd’s plan begins with the planting of native grasses, which would then be burned to produce biochar, a nutrient that quickly rebuilds soil and sequesters carbon. Reforestation would follow. The Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative estimates that 2,000 jobs could be created to plant 125 million trees on former strip mines. In Todd’s scheme, half of the new trees would be native hardwoods — managed for conservation and biological diversity, carbon sequestration, and carbon markets — while other trees, such as fast-growing willows, would replace coal as local biofuels. Todd’s experiment in a “restoration economy” can only be achieved, he writes, “by dissolving the distinction between resource and waste.” In other words, it would produce no illth, because externalized wastes would either be eliminated or converted to nutrients.

When the distinction between resource and waste dissolves, the economy starts looking less like a linear process that ends at a toxic dump and more like a circulatory system. What I am envisioning here is an economy that finally abandons growth based solely on gross domestic product as the primary marker of its success. As Robert Kennedy pointed out back in 1968, GDP includes the economic activity that goes into incarceration, cigarette advertising, and clear-cutting forests, but does a poor job of measuring the demonetized virtues that contribute to well-being. “It measures everything,” said Kennedy, “except that which makes life worthwhile.” A new post-growth economy would be driven by three objectives: 1) lessening and correctly accounting for damage to the natural world and the use of natural resources, 2) improving citizens’ physical, psychological, and social well-being, and 3) democratizing wealth, and by extension, political power.

It isn’t difficult to figure out how wealth and political power came to be distributed so undemocratically in this country. In the past thirty years, union membership has dropped from 30 percent in 1983 to around 11 percent, tax laws have been rewritten to favor the wealthy, and the financial industry has run amok in the absence of strong regulation. Today the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans receives over a fifth of the country’s income — about double the share they received three decades ago — and pays taxes at a rate less than half that of 1970. Some $6 billion is spent annually on lobbyists to preserve this state of affairs, and direct corporate influence on politicians continues apace — after the twenty-nine deaths at Upper Big Branch, the coal lobby doubled its political contributions, to a total of $6.4 million, and as a result, Congress killed new mine-safety legislation. These are the practices of a Hamiltonian plutocracy, not of a Jeffersonian democracy.

With the political right entrenched in its opposition to unions, worker-owned cooperatives represent a less divisive yet more radical model for returning wealth to the workers who earned it. The jobs Ohio Cooperative Solar created didn’t solve Cleveland’s unemployment problems, but they offered a model for the democratization of wealth. And as Mondragón has proven, this model can be scaled up to create recognizable change in both the economics and the consciousness of the larger culture. To that end, José María liked to quote the Spanish poet Antonio Machado, who wrote, “se hace camino al andar  (we build the road as we travel).”

I’m encouraged by the thought that the Cleveland model might be transferable to other struggling regions of the country, including Appalachia. Like Cleveland, eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia have high unemployment rates and many poor people. And like Cleveland, central Appalachia has anchor institutions — hospitals, universities and community colleges, government centers, even prisons — that could shift their service needs to local, worker-owned businesses. Given the frequency with which eastern coal operators declare bankruptcy, a cooperative modeled after Ohio Cooperative Solar could quite easily take over a deep mine and operate it according to the highest standards in the industry. Former Mine Safety and Health Administrations Academy director Jack Spadaro, a whistleblower driven out of his job by the Bush Administration, would be an excellent candidate to convene a task force to draw up the nation’s toughest mine-safety standards, creating a Safest Mine Protocol. Co-op miners could then be hired and trained according to these standards, and voted in as owners after six months, by which time they would have the expertise required to hold themselves and their co-workers accountable under the Safest Mine Protocol. Regular MSHA inspections could test the theory that a worker-owned mine is a safer workplace. As a next step, utilities and local institutions with their own physical plants and boiler rooms (I’m thinking again of my employer, the University of Kentucky) could be persuaded by consumers and employees to purchase coal harvested under the protocol. It’s time we aligned our human economy with the symbiotic laws of the watershed. The words “ecology” and “economy” both derive from the Greek root oikos, which refers to the daily operations of a household (or, as we used to call them, home economics). We must start thinking of the atmosphere’s thin membrane as a roof that tenuously protects our planetary household. By 2050, some nine billion people will live on earth, and economic and political cooperation will have to win out over competition for limited wealth and limited resources.

Cooperation played an immense role in our evolutionary past. That is the reason democracy has a future, while “free market” competition has been exposed as a serpent that eats its own tail. Frustrated by the “corruption, bribery, falsehood” of his own time, the American poet Walt Whitman maintained late in his life that democracy was still “a good word” whose fruition “lies altogether in the future.” It lies there still, but the urgency to make it real has never been greater.

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is the author of, most recently, The Embattled Wilderness, and the editor of The Guy Davenport Reader. He lives in Nonesuch, Kentucky.

More from Erik Reece:

From the December 2005 issue

Jesus without the miracles

Thomas Jefferson’s Bible and the Gospel of Thomas

From the April 2005 issue

Death of a mountain

Radical strip mining and the leveling of Appalachia

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  • Craig

    This was a really interesting article. It’s hard to imagine a world in which workers are not disenfranchised, exploited, and worked near to death, but Reece manages to describe one.

  • stevelaudig

    It isn’t capitalism, it is toxicism….

    • Josh Weaver

      I agree Steve, I think Capitalism and the free market are being at least partially misrepresented here. Crony Capitalism (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crony_capitalism) is probably a more acurate word to describe much of what this article bemoans (i.e. business success being linked to favoritism from the government achieved through lobbying, special treatment etc.) In the free market no business would get special treatment.

      The author does raise some good points about companies developing a view to long term sustainability and giving their workers incentives, but I don’t think that would be outside the definition of a free market either.

      Definitely a thought provoking and at times unsettling article.

      • beenwiser

        Regardless of ideology, basically everyone in the conversation agrees that the current system isn’t working right? Well, this system is commonly referred to as “capitalism”, and i don’t think anyone considers it to be a truely free market. If what you really want is “the free market”, why even bother trying to rehabilitate the word “capitalism”?

  • Alan

    I am a great believer in community, but the government makes it impossible. What the author describes is not Capitalism at all, it is cronyism, where corporations (themselves creatures of government regulation) buy favors from politicians up to and including the President at the highest bid. That is the reason for the one percent problem, the capitalists had nothing to do with it. And Capitalism *is* necessary to build (for instance) a billion dollar semiconductor plant that manufactures the computers we use to discuss these issues. It’s big risk and big money, and only rich people have the required resources, risk tolerance and good judgement to get that done. The government simply contains insufficient feedback mechanisms to be efficient and make unbiased (resource based alone – money) judgements. So while I appreciate (and encourage!) these ideas, it will always be a bit play.

    • Josh Weaver

      I agree alan… I didn’t read your reply before I commented above, but I think I was thinking on the same line regarding crony capitalism (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crony_capitalism))

    • beenwiser

      “only rich people have the required resources, risk tolerance and good judgement to get that done.”

      You are seriously going to commend rich people on their “risk tolerance” AND their “good judgment” in the same sentence, after the financial crash of 08??? c’maaaaaan

      “The government simply contains insufficient feedback mechanisms to be efficient and make unbiased (resource based alone – money) judgements.”

      Sounds like existing feedback mechanisms could stand to be improved upon and new ones discovered. Thats probably true of any sort of interaction between people, be it a govt or a business or a marriage or an amateur bowling league. and your line about unbiased judgment is rather ironic- if you think that resources and money is the basis for any rational decision, that IS a bias.

  • Ant

    Great read. I’d be interested to hear your take on certain microbreweries that are now becoming employee owned. I believe New Belgium is, and it has become a massive national operation with a strong distribution network and a great product.

  • don bronkema

    Kropotkin smiles in his grave…

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