Film Version of ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ Better Depiction of Appalachia

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When Ron Howard’s “Hillbilly Elegy” dropped last week on Netflix, I was skeptical of how Hollywood would again portray Appalachia based on the film industry’s dismal performance.

Films like “Deliverance” and “Next of Kin” are so blatantly offensive that it leaves Appalachians a little bit gun shy when it comes to big screen portrayals.

I was also skeptical because I was left dissatisfied after reading J.D. Vance’s book of the same name, his memoir that was riveting and insulting. I am glad that Vance wrote his book and told of his success and how he overcame difficult challenges to succeed. We need stories like that to reinvent a region that has long been misunderstood and caricatured.His story is heroic. I just wish he hadn’t dragged the rest of us down when telling it.

Sure, his experiences found people who were lazy, misguided and unambitious. But that isn’t the full picture of Appalachia, and equally important, don’t people like that exist in every pocket of America?

Of course they do, but we don’t have broad generalizations about laziness and a cultural crisis for people from New England, now do we?

I know about towns like Middletown, Ohio, where Vance grew up. In fact, I grew up around Ashland, Kentucky, where there was an ARMCO steel plant – the sister plant to the one in Middletown. The region is blue collar, a little bit hard scrabble and tough, like many parts of Appalachia.

And yes, there are people there just like the ones Vance described in Middletown. But there are also doctors, lawyers, developers, and countless other professional people who overcame circumstances perhaps similar to Vance’s to succeed. Besides that, there are everyday people doing heroic things to get along in the struggle of life.

Although Vance clearly loves Appalachia and its people, he made some broad generalizations about the region, about poverty and our people that are not only unfair to the very people he cares about, but actually exacerbate the stereotypes we despise. To first understand why such characterizations are loathed, we have to first recognize that as a nation – whether that be in Appalachia or elsewhere – personal accountability has always been expected, but the demonizing of the poor must stop.

We can start by understanding social assistance programs better. For example, many people on social assistance have a job. Perhaps the assistance is financial, perhaps it’s child care, perhaps it’s transportation, perhaps it’s housing. Often, these programs are utilized so someone can have a job. The overwhelming majority of people on social assistance programs are off the programs within five years, which means they are effective and should not be defined solely by the small percentage of people who game the system.

There also has to be a recognition that unemployment in areas that are rural is not high because people are simply lazy for crying out loud. Surely, we’re smart enough as a society to see that housing, transportation, internet access, child care and many other substantial hurdles are factors in Appalachia’s struggle.

That doesn’t mean we don’t have the J.D. Vances of the world who overcome them. What it means is those barriers – which can be found virtually anywhere in Appalachia – are real and that not everyone impacted by them receives an equal distribution of opportunity. We can hope that the poor overcome those obstacles one at a time, or we can get serious about the systemic problems the region faces and consider more federal and state investment to address them comprehensively.

The good thing about Ron Howard’s depiction of Appalachia is that the big screen version of Vance’s story did not have the book’s clear political undertows and could have been told from anywhere in America. And perhaps that was the point, that Appalachia’s story is America’s story in many ways.

Perhaps Howard was trying to get to a space where the characters in the film were relatable to anyone and that the people of Appalachia did not have to be viewed solely through the lens of their struggles, but their ordinary heroism in battling them.

I’ll give Ron Howard the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps the people who watch “Hillbilly Elegy’”will do the same for the people of Appalachia.

Copyright 2020 Rick Greene. Greene is a longtime journalist in the Ohio Valley and is an award-winning columnist and editorial writer. He can be reached at [email protected]

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Governors Have Impossible Task With COVID

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The good news for Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine is that much of Ohio’s rural areas have strong followers of President Trump. The bad news for DeWine is that much of Ohio’s rural areas have strong followers of President Trump.

In a polarized society where virtually all social issues get overly politicized, that has certainly been true with the COVID-19 pandemic.

So while DeWine enjoyed the red Trump areas of Ohio pushing him past Democrat Richard Cordray during the 2018 gubernatorial race, he now finds himself in a predicament – like some other Republican governors – because he now has the responsibility to protect citizens with policies that are often diametrically opposed to the president’s posture.

DeWine went from state hero to state villain in warp speed because he was left holding the bag when necessary state policies arose that ranged from inconvenience to financial devastation. Not only did President Trump not provide any cover to governors like DeWine, his downplaying of the virus and his dismissal of COVID’s threat only turned up the heat on state leaders.

DeWine, and governors like him from coast-to-coast, find themselves in as vexing a political dilemma as any in recent memory. That’s because the right answer is the wrong answer for many citizens. And the right answer is also the wrong answer to those who subscribe to the president’s school of thought. Decisions that are made for the common good still lead to vocal criticism from those who are negatively impacted or see the approach as out of step with the president.

Should restaurants be restricted or shut down? How about fitness centers? How about libraries? How about retail centers? And, of course, by all means, how about schools and sports?

The reason the issue is impossible is because the answers are as different as the demographics of the people in Ohio. Thumbs down from owners and workers of those places. Thumbs up from people who are or have family members who are at risk. Americans have gotten away from the idea of the common good, therefore, if it’s bad for “me” then it’s a dumb decision and bad for everyone.

Then comes the weird justifications. Masks don’t work. Statistics can’t be trusted. Testing results aren’t completely reliable. How can the state do THAT, when it allows THIS? And on and on. Examination of all of those issues should occur, but not if the intention is only to come to a predetermined conclusion that COVID’s very real threat should be dismissed.

Where political leaders fell short – and continue to fall short – is an honest dialogue on COVID-19. The fact is, people died and people are going to continue to die until the pandemic is over. It’s a pandemic and people die during pandemics and they sometimes die at alarming rates, particularly the elderly and the vulnerable.

Most everyone agrees on that. What everyone doesn’t agree on is what the state’s posture should be if the consequences are that THEIR grandparents or loved ones are the ones who might be laid to rest. The pandemic becomes real to people when the impact becomes real.

What is also true is that leaders cannot completely shut down the nation or a state to control what cannot be controlled. The answer, as Gov. DeWine and other governors know perfectly well, is a reasoned balance that doesn’t decimate state economies and doesn’t allow COVID to run rampant, cause more deaths and overwhelm medical facilities.

Both of those things cannot be accomplished with one set of policies. Economic hardship and increased deaths are the reality of a pandemic and that should have been better communicated from the beginning and should be better understood by the American people. Political figures who have tried to tap dance around those realities and navigate these waters without sternly communicating the obvious consequences are fighting a losing battle.

It is an impossible task to find a balance that satisfies everyone. DeWine’s political reality is that COVID-19 permanently damaged his brand, but not because his actions have been wrong. Ohioans should recognize DeWine is in a no-win situation and his policies have been reasonable, even though many have been disaffected.

As a vaccine appears imminent and we head into what is hopefully the final furlough of this awful race, the clear reality is there are no winners in a pandemic. The only question is how much are we going to lose – whether that be economically or in terms of funerals – and our political leaders are doing their best to steer a boat through the choppiest of choppy waters.


Copyright 2020 Rick Greene. Greene is an award-winning columnist and editorial writer, and the editor and publisher of Southern Ohio Today. Green can be reached at [email protected]

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Trump’s Followers Deserve a Better Conclusion

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“I urge all Americans who supported me to join me in not just congratulating him, but offering our next president our good will and earnest effort to find ways to come together and find the necessary compromises to bridge our differences and help restore our prosperity. … Whatever our differences, we are fellow Americans and please believe me when I say no association has ever meant more to me than that.” – John McCain, from his 2008 concession speech to President Barack Obama

In sports, most of the historic speeches made by coaches all had one thing in common. They came from coaches who won.

Nobody would have cared about the story of winning one for the Gipper if, well, the Irish hadn’t won one for the Gipper. Team USA Hockey Coach Herb Brooks was immortalized for his inspirational words before a hockey match against the Soviet Union in the 1980 Olympics, but it took a “miracle” for them to mean anything.

In politics, it’s a little different.

Dating all the way back to 1896 when William Jennings Bryant, who is credited with initiating the American tradition of concession speeches, the losers of America’s presidential elections play a key role in an even more important tradition – the peaceful transition of power that sets the United States apart in the world.

It’s not just an opportunity to be a patriot, but a chance to help the nation heal and unite. Equally important is for the loser to wish the winner well because it’s in the best interests of all American citizens.

What is also important is a recognition to all the people who worked to support the losing candidate during the campaign and those citizens who offered their loyalties.

So far, Trump has lost the moment. He lost the ability to stand in front of America, take credit for his historic political rise that will be analyzed for generations, graciously bring an end to his tenure by congratulating Joe Biden, and thank all the people who either battled with him during the campaign or fiercely defended him with vigor in towns from coast to coast.

There are adjectives to describe what the president is now doing. Damaging. Desperate. Calculating. Dividing.

I choose to describe it as disrespectful.

It is not only disrespectful to the mighty office that he holds, and the new president-elect, it is disrespectful to the millions of people who support him. They deserve their moment, too, to be recognized as players in a political movement that was – and continues to be – one of the most powerful in American history.

But for them to have their moment in the sun and be recognized for their contributions, there has to be a recognition that a smooth transition from one administration to the next is what has always been expected from all Americans.

The ridiculous notion that the election was stolen or somehow illegitimate is nothing more than political theater aimed at the most gullible and naive among us. It’s also a premeditated action to position the president’s machine for the next chapter, whatever that may be.

For there to be another chapter in the Trump story – and there surely will be – its success will likely rest on whether Americans have confidence that President Trump truly does care about the nation and its people. Because if he does, there is one path forward, and one alone.

It’s time to shut it down.

It’s time for him to do his duty. It’s time for him to recognize that the quality of the transition from the Trump presidency to the Biden presidency will be a direct reflection on him and the team he has assembled. The responsibility of a smooth transition rests with President Trump and a clumsy one – which would be damaging to the nation – would be his to own.

It’s not too late to ensure a smooth transition, not too late for him to have his moment in the sun, not too late to congratulate Joe Biden, not too late to give his team members and followers the credit they desire.

Anything less is not only a stain on the president’s legacy and brand, but is a disrespectful exit that is beneath the office and beneath the expectations of the American people.

Copyright 2020 Rick Greene. Greene is an award-winning columnist and editorial writer, and the editor and publisher of Southern Ohio Today. Greene can be reached at [email protected]

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Unbelievably, U.S. Elections Shows Even Deeper Divide

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“And if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand.” – Mark 3:25

There is an important question for the people of the United States to ask following a bloody presidential campaign that somehow revealed a deeper divide in the country than we previously thought.

Is it more important for the country to be unified, or is it more important that a person’s individual agenda be implemented?

Are we as a society to the point that we are willing to accept civil unrest and the demoralization of half the country as long as American politics shape up the way we would like?

I thought hard about how I would personally answer, and I believe I would rather have a united country than to see all aspects of my political preferences come to fruition.

Some may agree, and some may disagree.

But there is something that should be agreed upon. If the objective is to bring this nation closer together, then President Trump was never going to get that accomplished.

That doesn’t mean all his policies were right or wrong. But his demeanor, his political philosophy, his willingness to personally attack those who disagreed with him, his tendency to undermine American institutions – all of which is documented – all add up to a polarizing figure who creates division, not a person who can heal the wounds of a nation, which is sorely needed in our moment in time.

It is certainly unclear if Joe Biden could pull off the feat either. But if people were honest with themselves, I think they would agree – regardless of their views on particular issues – that Biden’s demeanor and his history of working across the aisle gives the country its best chance at returning to a normalized climate, difficult as it may be.

To say he has his work cut out for him is an understatement. In my county in Southern Ohio, Trump did the unthinkable and increased his dominating advantage from 2016 by a whopping 7 percentage points and won the county with a once unimaginable 73 percent. That trend was true in much of Ohio’s Appalachian region and rural areas throughout the Midwest and the nation.

On the other side, voter turnout in urban areas was off the chart. More votes were cast in 2020 than any other election in American history, and while that may be a sign of a vibrant democracy, it is more telling that our divisions are only growing deeper.

I’m not sure if Joe Biden can do what he says and bring the country closer together. I hope President Trump’s supporters – who are experiencing the pain now that many Democrats felt in 2016 – try to meet him halfway for the interests of our nation.

It is time to put American conflict in the back seat. We have enough adversaries around the world to occupy our attention. It is time we look forward, not backward, to a better place where our civility and our cohesion as a nation is recaptured.

Copyright 2020 Rick Greene. Greene is an award-winning columnist and editorial writer, and the editor and publisher of Southern Ohio Today. Green can be reached at [email protected]

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Democrats, Republicans Should Agree On Peaceful Transition

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Much has been made about President Trump’s unwillingness to agree to a peaceful transition of power should he lose to Democratic challenger Joe Biden on Tuesday.

As both campaigns head toward the finish line, the candidates have hit key areas in swing states or places to try to shore up support and hold the line. As part of the stretch run, Trump made a visit to Circleville, Ohio, and again brought the issue of a peaceful transition of power into the mix.

“They ask me, ‘If you lose, will there be a friendly transition?’ Well, when I won, did they give me a friendly transition?” Trump asked. “They spied on my campaign, they did all this stuff. That was not a friendly transition.”

To be fair, all examinations of the investigation into the Trump campaign found that it was prudent, based on the relationships some members of the campaign – who were later jailed – had with representatives of foreign adversaries. But that isn’t the point.

Regardless of who does and doesn’t support the president, it must be understood that he has been effective in shaking the public’s confidence in American institutions. The FBI. The EPA. The media. Climate change scientists. Health professionals on COVID-19. Other institutions that have stood in the way of his agenda by their mere existence.

But there is one institution the public cannot lose confidence in just because the president appears to be on the ropes in this election. And that is America’s gold standard election process.

Certainly, like all institutions, there are flaws and mistakes are made during elections. Sometimes technology inefficiencies, poor planning, human error and the like occur. But none of that should overshadow the fact that America has an election system that is among the best in the world.

Local Boards of Elections work tirelessly, not to ensure one candidate wins, or that a particular issue gets passed, of course, but to ensure all votes are counted and that each candidate at every level gets a fair shake. Are there mistakes made by election officials occasionally? Sure. Does the 2020 election present particular challenges as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic? Certainly.

But it is beyond a stretch to think that any mistakes or errors would rise to the magnitude of swaying a national election. I have faith in the people operating our local elections in southern Ohio. I have faith the results from the state of Ohio will determine the winner accurately. I have faith that America’s electoral system – despite a few expected bumps in the road – will do as it has always done … put the correct person in the White House.

Naturally, if there are races in some states that require a photo finish, the results will get challenged legally, as would be the case in any other year, particularly if the overall outcome is in question (see Florida 2000). That would not be out of bounds, but what would cross the line is a blanket dismissal of the outcome – from either candidate – based on exaggerations of the impacts of some routine irregularities that just come with the territory.

Unless there are some rare or extraordinary circumstances, the candidates should accept the results of the election and play their parts to ensure the nation moves peacefully to the next administration, whether that be Trump or Biden.

But it doesn’t stop with them.

Anxieties are high in the United States that civil unrest will occur as a result of the election. That is a sad commentary and suddenly places the U.S. in the same category as some underdeveloped countries where citizens have no faith in the outcomes of their elections.

Is that what we’ve come to? Have we now dropped to the point that we will allow the very fabric of American democracy to come into question because the incumbent is trying to undermine this institution as he has so many others?

Trump’s supporters should do their duty and go to the polls and vote for him. His detractors should do their duty and go to the polls and vote against him. But the freedoms we cherish in America – including our sacred freedom to vote – comes with responsibility.

After this election, we should all do our duty and recognize that to not have a peaceful transition of power – and to not accept a legitimate outcome regardless of who it benefits -– diminishes our standing in the world and violates our responsibilities as American citizens.

Copyright 2020 Rick Greene. Greene is an award-winning columnist and editorial writer, and the editor and publisher of Southern Ohio Today. Green can be reached at [email protected]

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National Leaders Incapable of Uniting America, So It’s On Us

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I remember growing up in the 1980s when our neighbors’ political affiliation was a complete mystery.

At least it was to me, a teenager who was more interested in finding a local sandlot game or pickup basketball game at one of the courts in my very pleasant, lower-middle to middle class, Northeastern Kentucky neighborhood.

Those were the days before America’s political parties drew the lines so sharply. The days before opinion programs on 24-hour news channels pitted Americans against each other. The days before social media ripped the decorum right out of us and turned us into something much less sophisticated.

I miss those days.

But more importantly, I wonder if we can ever get back to that place, or at least to a place closer to it than this angry, bitter, divided and, yes, dangerous climate we find ourselves in now.

Can we ever stand united again?

Well, that depends. It depends on the president, Congress, and most importantly, the citizens of the United States. It would be an interesting exercise to ask Americans what would need to happen for the United States to retreat from the vitriolic discourse of today back to a more civil, thoughtful and objective place that now seems so far away.

It might be a president who does the unthinkable and appoints members of the opposite party to a cabinet position or two, or something equally as bold that shows our government’s wherewithal should not be constrained by making personnel choices from a pool of less than half the population.

Perhaps it would be a president with the wisdom to understand that just because an election was won doesn’t mean it has to provide him an inflexible responsibility to carry out every aspect of his party’s agenda. Elections do in fact have consequences, but to point it out and use that as justification for not finding compromise on our most pressing issues not only prevents the public from rallying around a president, but actually pushes people further apart.

Perhaps it would be a U.S. Congress that might, well, never mind.

The truth is, it is a stretch to think that the people in the most powerful positions in the nation, influenced by the most powerful political lobbies in the nation, will ever take actions to prioritize uniting the country ahead of the interests of their particular parties. It is truly a shame that some of the best work that occurs in the nation’s capital is overshadowed by the partisan fighting that defines and dominates today’s American politics.

No, the uniting of these United States can’t be left up to them. They are incapable of it, so it’s on us.

I once told a person running for local office that the best local elected officials are the ones citizens can’t even identify as a Republican or a Democrat. After all, if someone takes steps to fix the potholes on your road, do you really care if it is a Democrat, a Republican, an Independent, or someone from outer space?

The same can be true for local housing, local transportation, technological divides, economic development, local education, and on and on. Americans don’t have to agree – or even talk about – abortion or immigration or other red button issues that are distractions to actually improving our communities and our country.

American citizens need to rise to the occasion to find common interests and work collaboratively at home to make the most impact on improving the quality of life for neighbors and ourselves. Nobody stops to ask a needy family which way they vote when assistance is provided to them and nobody stops to ask what political affiliation a person is who is doing the helping. When a vehicle accident occurs on the road, nobody checks political bumper stickers first before making sure everyone is OK.

Our differences in those instances are, believe it or not, absent. They are absent in every neighborhood from California to Texas to Florida to Michigan to New York to Northeastern Kentucky and Southern Ohio.

So despite our leaders’ inability to bring this nation together, we can all strive for moments like those at home and recognize that our division should not and cannot drape the true character, compassion and capabilities of the people of the United States of America.

Copyright 2020 Rick Greene. Greene is an award-winning columnist and editorial writer, and the editor and publisher of Southern Ohio Today. Green can be reached at [email protected]

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If Athletes Are Condemned For Speaking Out, Who’s Next?

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Muhammad Ali. Jesse Owens. Arthur Ashe. Tommie Smith. John Carlos. Bill Russell. Billie Jean King. Carlos Delgado.

These are just some of the many athletes not named Colin Kaepernick who decided to make political statements during their careers met with criticism and praise.

As the United States becomes more and more divided, it’s not surprising that athletes’ recent leap into the political arena has been met with anger and backlash. Unless, of course, the statements being made are in alignment with someone’s own political persuasion.

Just as it’s mostly biased viewers that level criticism against media, it’s also true that criticism of athletes tends to come from those who disagree with their particular positions or causes.

“I totally agree with my favorite basketball player, even though he’s an athlete and shouldn’t be speaking about it,” said no person ever.

Isn’t it a little bit arrogant for some members of society to suggest that other members of society should not speak up on issues that are personal and concerning to them?

Or, as a prominent opinion show host once told LeBron James, “Shut up and dribble.”

Really?

Since when do people in this nation get to decide who gets to participate and who doesn’t? And since when should anyone’s financial status – including athletes’ – be a determinant of whether someone can or should participate in the political process?

If that’s true, then perhaps more vitriol should be directed at people like Jeff Bezos and Jamie Dimon. Should the same standard have been held to Donald Trump before he was a serious threat for political office?

Just shut up and sell condos?

Of course not.

It is also worth noting that sometimes athletes are criticized for NOT engaging in politics. Take Michael Jordan, who was often called out for not speaking up on social issues because many believed his stature and platform could have led to social change.

Jordan did become more involved politically in later years. In 2016, as police brutality and equality issues surfaced again, Jordan said something particularly poignant.

“I can no longer stay silent,” Jordan said. “We need to find solutions that ensure people of color receive fair and equal treatment AND that police officers are respected and supported.”

What an obvious, yet brilliant concept. Too bad we can’t pay any attention to it, you know, because the guy could dunk.

Whether anyone agrees or disagrees with a particular athlete is not the issue. Athletes have opinions all across the political spectrum. But to suggest they – or any other segment of society – should be silent on issues that matter to them flies in the face of any open society and the foundation of this nation.

Everyone should agree that if lobbyists on K Street can use their platforms and resources to shape public policy, then surely we can all agree everyone – including athletes – should be welcomed to contribute to America’s political tapestry.

In other words, there are no restrictions and no prerequisites for participating in the Great American Experiment. Politics and sports have always gone hand in hand and they will continue to do so. Jackie Robinson anyone?

Most importantly, the public should be careful not to suggest that any group of people remain silent and be criticized for engaging on their issues of concern.

After all, who would want to be in such a group, and who’s next?

Copyright 2020 Rick Greene. Greene is an award-winning columnist and editorial writer, and the editor and publisher of Southern Ohio Today. Green can be reached at [email protected]

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What Democrats are Still Missing About Appalachia

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It’s like clockwork. Every time a presidential election occurs, the issue of climate change and arguments about fossil fuels become a central theme. Obviously, it’s a topic that’s given particular attention from the people of Appalachia.

Many Republicans take the position that the earth is warming, but they are somehow not convinced that human beings are exacerbating the problem. Democrats cater to the powerful environmental lobby, everyone digs in their heels and the same old fight occurs over and over with no substantive policymaking taking place.

The scientific community has identified this issue for more than 30 years. It wasn’t fake then, and it isn’t fake now. It is true Democrats have taken a more aggressive approach to trying to address the problem, for which they should be commended.
In a “60 Minutes” interview recently, climatologist and geophysicist Michael Mann put it this way.

“There’s about as much scientific consensus on human-based climate change as there is about gravity,” Mann said.

Still, Democrats are missing the mark in Appalachia, which in recent years has become more politically potent because of its impact in key swing states. “Renewable energy” is the darling catch phrase, and energy solutions that center around renewables are at the heart of the Democratic platform.

Their problem is every time people in many parts of Appalachia hear that language, they also hear an unspoken assault on the coal industry and fossil fuel industries that are a strong part of the region’s economic health. Therefore, the solution – from either party – cannot be that climate goals are to be achieved at the expense of the livelihoods of the people of Appalachia and the fossil fuel industries.

Democrats and environmentalists can obviously stick to that messaging, as long as they don’t mind getting their brains beaten out politically in areas where coal and other fossil fuels are king.

There are some inconvenient truths when it comes to fossil fuels and America’s reliance on them for energy. Fossil fuels make up nearly 65 percent of all energy generation in the United States, so – unless people want to go without electricity about four days out of seven – fossil fuels must be part of America’s energy portfolio and there has to be a long-term transition.

And that transition will never be supported in Appalachia unless it is accompanied by something else … jobs. Truthfully, many people who work in the fossil fuel industries might be just as content with equivalent paying jobs making solar panels or wind turbines or having jobs related to hydropower.

But what is absent in the debate on climate change has been a consistent and detailed message for how the people of Appalachia can transition to new economies. In fairness, efforts related to job creation with renewable energy are occurring in parts of Appalachia and some of those regions are already trying to reinvent their economies through their own, independent transitions.

But there is a reality to face. The pace at which climate change needs to be addressed must be consistent with the amount of investment and job creation for renewables in the very areas that environmentalists believe are the culprits for increased greenhouse gas emissions.

People in Appalachia understand the issue. They understand that coal and other fossil fuel industries are dirty and that climate change is real. They know because it’s been those people who have been in the mines, on the railroads, and in the plants who have powered this country for generations.

So if Democrats want to find a receptive audience to their environmental goals in the very areas they need support from politically, they better refine their message and start finding a way to push along investment and the diversification of Appalachian economies.

Copyright 2020 Rick Greene. Greene is an award-winning columnist and editorial writer, and the editor and publisher of Southern Ohio Today. Green can be reached at [email protected]

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