Words matter. The words we use shape our perception of things.
In sports, if that one controversial player is on our team, he is “fiery” or perhaps “a competitor.” If he’s on the other team, he’s simply “hot-headed.”
That’s why in politics there’s often a battle over what words we use to frame a particular issue. Some call the tax on inheriting property the “estate tax.” Others call it a “death tax,” which certainly changes our impression of it. In immigration right now, what some call “chain migration” others call “family reunification.” Same thing, but they produce two entirely different emotional responses.
It’s in that same spirit that we propose a word change closer to home: Should we continue to call the communities in Virginia’s southwestern corner “the coalfields”?
It’s true, of course, that that’s where coal is mined in Virginia — in the counties of Buchanan, Dickenson, Lee, Russell, Wise and Tazewell. Calling that area “the coalfields” is certainly nomenclature people understand, and an easy way to distinguish those counties — and their particular challenges — from the rest of Southwest Virginia.
“Southwest Virginia” is a broad and imprecise phrase, anyway. If you’re in Richmond, Roanoke is part of Southwest Virginia, but are we? The further west you go in Virginia, the more you’ll find that psychic boundary changes. Maybe Southwest Virginia begins in Roanoke. Or maybe it begins when you cross the New River. In any case, even that narrow definition of Southwest Virginia still covers a lot of territory — most of which has never seen a coal mine.
Even the phrase “far Southwest” doesn’t fully capture the geography we’re talking about. Bristol is in far Southwest Virginia, but it’s a long way from coal country. Besides, “far Southwest” betrays a certain geographical bias. Far from whom? If you’re in “far Southwest,” you’re not far; you’re already home. From that part of the state, it’s our capital that’s far away, both geographically and politically. Perhaps we should start referring to the urban crescent as “far Virginia”?
So, yes, the word “coalfields” has the advantage of being very precise, and when it comes to language, precision is good. It doesn’t really take into account Scott County, which we may consider being in the coalfields, but doesn’t actually have any coal mines. Still, close enough; Scott is certainly part of the cultural and economic ethos of that part of the state.
So what’s wrong, then, with the word “coalfields”? It’s certainly a word the region has embraced. There’s the Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority, the proposed Coalfields Expressway and the Coalfield Progress newspaper in Norton. Here’s the question, though: Is that phrase “coalfields” simply outdated? Is it too limiting as the region looks to the future?
Nobody believes that coal is the future, no matter how much President Trump proclaims that he will bring back coal. Coal sales may be up temporarily as the market wiggles and jiggles (driven exclusively by exports, which are up, while domestic consumption is down). However, its long-term trajectory is clearly downward. American utilities aren’t building new, expensive coal-fired plants. Instead, they’re retiring them, as other forms of energy become cheaper. Dominion Energy recently announced that the utility will close nine of its older plants — all but one of which either was or recently used to be coal-fired. Instead, it’s investing in natural gas and renewables. The “war on coal” is now being waged in the free market and the market always wins out.
Politicians from coal-producing counties understand this, even if they can’t always admit it for fear of offending voters who still cling to dreams of a mythical coal revival. When your whole civic identity is wrapped up in a single product, and that product is dying, it’s hard to let go. Still, here are the undeniable facts: The latest labor statistics show Virginia has only 2,516 coal miners — only 22 percent of what it had in 1990. While there are certainly spin-off businesses, the point is — the coal industry in the actual coalfields is now actually quite small. That’s why you see such a stunning population exodus from those counties.
Those counties — whatever you want to call them — need a new economy. That’s why we have to wonder if calling them “the coalfields” is actually counter-productive, because it limits the public imagination. We recently gave a presentation to a Roanoke business group about the economy of the coalfields, and many of the questions were along the lines of — can’t the governor simply try to sell more coal overseas? Not when even China and India, two big overseas customers, are investing heavily in renewables. The better question is: How can those counties build a new economy?
We don’t call Southside Virginia “the tobacco fields” or “the textile counties,” even those industries once were powerful there. So why box in Virginia’s coal-producing counties with nomenclature that is redolent of the past and not the future? We don’t have a proposal for a new phrase. We certainly don’t need some cutesy marketing phrase. Remember when the Roanoke and New River valleys were supposed to be “NewVa”?
Building a new economy there will be hard, no doubt about it. But not impossible. Wise County has been trying to position itself as a center for drone research, cybersecurity and data centers. That’s entirely plausible. The county has lots of open land (good for drones, which sometimes crash). It’s got a surprising amount of broadband (good for cybersecurity and data centers). It’s got the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, which everyone agrees should be expanded to create a bigger economic engine for research spin-offs.
That’s just one county, but the point is that the coal counties need not be a lost cause in a post-coal era. Since 1989, 13 high schools in that part of Virginia have had to close — and that’s not counting shuttered elementary and middle schools. Many are still in sound shape. What if each of those were declared a tax-free zone — a potential business incubator for aspiring entrepreneurs? Could that be one small part of building a technology sector? Across the border in Kentucky, there’s similar talk of trying to create a “Silicon Hollow.” That’s a rather nice turn of phrase, one that Virginia might want to embrace, as well.