You may agree or disagree with the conclusions of the story; I leave that to you to decide. But I urge you to at least read the story even though it appears in a PhD thesis dissertation for a doctorate of philosophy in history. The story told is of coal mining in West Virginia from the earliest times up to the advent of mountaintop coal mining. This perfect volume tells the story of the land, its people, the unions, the politicians, the lawyers & judges, and the environmentalists involved in a story of the stark realism that mines come and go, technology changes, and no job, no place, no way of life is forever.

The thesis is Bringing Down the Mountains: The Impact of Mountaintop Removal Surface Coal Mining Southern West Virginia Communities, 1970 -2004 submitted in 2005 by Shirley L. Stewart Burns to the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences at the West Virginia University. The author is the daughter, grand daughter, and sister of miners. Clearly changes in the way coal is mined, from small underground operations, to strip mines, to current mountaintop removal has changed the people, the communities and environment of West Virginia. Employment is down, skill demands are up, communities have gone, and people have moved and been moved. The author sketches in readable prose the decrease in jobs but the upward increase in salaries—who is better off? How does a society choose between many low paying jobs in dangerous underground mines and few, well paid jobs in safe above ground operations? Maybe the answer lies in those conundrum touched on by the author: the failure of politicians and society to build an economy beyond mining. South West Virginia is still a colony exploited by absentee owners for the good of the center.

We have no need to travel to foreign climes and places where they do not speak English or use the dollar to study the impact of mining when volumes such as this are so close at hand. I challenge my friends and others who write so much about indigenous peoples in far-flung places to put down their pens, and first read this thesis—then reformulate your theories based on what is happen right here and now in America. Or at least take a trip and observe for yourself and explain the good and the bad in a dispassionate and objective way. Reconcile the good and the bad; face the fact that the Clean Air Act is what set mountaintop mining on its path; face the fact that mining is now safer; take a clear view of the restoration that, if not in this thesis but elsewhere, is documented to be successful if not replicative of the past; tell us why we should go back to old style underground mines if you liked sustainable mining or tell us how to create sustainable employment in a nation where it should surely be easy; debate if this is a failure or realistic success of people, societies, companies, laws, and judges in dealing with irreconcilable forces.

Personally I read all through this thesis enthralled. My own opinion is that it is the best setting out of the realities of life in a mining community that I have come across recently. The world is an open system. Mines are but a small part of that open system. The first and second laws of thermodynamics operate in such systems: the first is that you only get out what you put in (conservation of mass); and the second (re entropy) is that in a closed system all things tend to chaos, but in an open system with new input, diversity and complexity increase and all rise to live better. Compare the closed society of North Korea with the open society of so many other places, including South Korea. Is this just a story of a closed society which like so many other closed societies is doomed to pass, or is this the story of an open society that must change in strict accord with the second law of increasing complexity and upward movement even though some persons are displaced and hurt.

This thesis provides the material to try out so many of the ideas and proposals we see bandied about in the mining world about sustainable development, responsible mining, indigenous peoples rights, free markets, the role of law in promoting proper behavior on the part of mining companies. I suspect a whole conference could be organized around these questions and answered proffered on the basis of the case history of West Virginia alone. For example, one final session could be focused on the fascinating question: would the region be better off if no coal had been mined at all, but the equivalent amount of energy had come from nuclear power plants—sure to spark a debate particularly if we are forced to compare West Virginia to France which produces somewhere around eighty percent of it power by nuclear. Well maybe a final, final issue for the conference: are people better off now that Wal-Mart is one of the top five employers of the mining counties where mining employment has dropped most?

I will entertain your comments on this piece only after you have read the thesis. Please send them along.