Legacies of Unjust Transitions: Lessons from the South Wales Coalfield

The transition to a “green” world is praised as a matter of the common good, therefore sacrifices are necessary, it is said. Significantly, these sacrifices are also to be made by those who are already among the exploited and suffering, as the scientist Amy Walker shows in her contribution to the BG’s “After Extractivism” text series.


The current efforts to move rapidly away from climate-damaging economies via programs of ‘Just Transition’ and other associated interventions are overdue. And when governments actually push transition measures, politicians always insist that sacrifices are necessary to protect a global future. These may be framed as personal sacrifices, such as reducing harmful individual consumption and “ways of living,” or as community sacrifices, in the loss of industrial work. Often, these ‘sacrificial’ communities have been those that have previously depended on extractive industries, with coal-mining towns and villages serving as examples of such marginalized and exploited communities.

Sacrifice Zones’ emerge from changing and globalized energy networks being reconfigured, framed as necessary casualties in the network of energy production processes. Globally, coal-mining communities are at the forefront of the transitioning efforts, positioned once again as sacrifice zones after decades of poor working conditions and injustice. Despite the widespread awareness in academic work, in the EU’s Just Transition Fund, and in various governmental policies of the need to better support communities at the center of the transitional process, the complex legacies of how these sacrifices are justified merit further reflection. Even in communities where the sacrifices have long ago been made, the impacts still resonate.

Sacrifice Zones: The British Coal Mining Village

There is little evidence of the coal-mining industry still clear in the landscape of the South Wales coalfield colloquially known as the Valleys. This is an area of historically industrial towns joined by trailing small villages scattered along the base of a series of steep-sided valleys that stretch from the coastline cities of Newport, Cardiff and Swansea to the mountainous Brecon Beacons. Typically, these small villages grew in response to the establishment of underground coalmines in the latter half of 19th century, with pit shafts that led to miles of underground passages. Mine-owners – typically English businessmen – built cottages in the areas immediate to the pits for their workers.

These communities grew because of the coal, fueled by British industrial demand. Usually, every man on a street would work at the same pit; their wives taking up the tradition role of housewife or with some employment, often still related to the mine. Sons worked with their fathers in the same pit. Social clubs, political groups, schools, and hospitals were usually supported by local miners’ donations. The pit defined the town.

Artwork: Colnate Group (cc by nc)

Coal-mining communities such as those in the South Wales valleys can be perceived as ‘sacrifice zones’ through almost their entire histories. Mining towns and villages had been ‘propping up’ the UK energy demand, and the industry had experienced decades of mismanagement and a lack of investment throughout the 20th century. For the communities, coal miners experienced dangerous working conditions and economic hardship, shouldered by their whole communities. Local residents of one particularly marginalized region of The Valleys, in the county of Blaenau Gwent, recalled living whilst the coal pits were operational:

“It was so cold in the morning, you could draw on your windows when you woke up … We didn’t know we was poor, because everyone was poor.”

“People talk about how you could leave your door open and no one would take nothin’- that’s cause you had nothin’ worth taking! No one even had carpets.”

“I’ve seen men die in the pits in so many ways… Some of the most awful ways… And every time you went down, you never knew if you were coming back up.”

“the [coal]dust is so fine…it floats continuous…and it goes down in your lungs, and it’s floating there, and sticks in your lungs…and that’s how you die.”

Conditions were worsened by the frequent threat of redundancy; pit closures weren’t uncommon and worsened following the nationalization of the industry in 1947. Industrial action was commonplace, with notable strikes in 1969, 1971 and 1984-1985. From an academic lens, the defeat of this final miner’s strike is considered as a key component of the shift towards neoliberal capitalism under Thatcher. The traditions of Fordism and Keynesian principles were replaced with models of unregulated markets, and the dismantling of state-owned industries, such as coal mining at the time, were central to such programs.

For those living in such communities, it was not so complex. There is an enduring sentiment across post-industrial communities that the coal mining industry was decimated by the Conservative government either as punishment for the industrial action or as a calculated effort to diminish the UK trade union movement. Following the defeat of the strike in 1985, the closure of the coal pits rapidly accelerated. Across the South Wales coalfield, 9 pits were closed in 1985 alone. Between 1983 and 1994, the number of pits in the UK fell from 174 to just 15.

Whilst the shift towards neoliberalism and associated forms of globalized capitalism exacerbated inequalities, this shift was again an example of extractivist communities being labeled as ‘necessary’ sacrifices. Public support for the striking miners was limited, and Thatcher successfully labeled the coal mining industry as out-dated, ‘sick’, and ready to be replaced with ‘modern’ industries. As one local resident of the South Wales coalfield said to me “the pits were dying, they [the Conservative government] hurried it along but they were on the way out.”

Whilst the same political motives are, perhaps arguably, not at play in the context of the current programs of transition, there are obvious parallels here; these closures are justified in prevailing common discourse. Sacrifice zones are framed as necessary, expected, justified by economics and, in the contemporary case, by the need to save the planet.

Consequences of an Unjust Transition

Despite the majority of coal extraction in the South Wales Valleys ceasing by the end of the 1990s, the impacts of these closures are evident even today. The impact of deindustrialization in both economic and social terms has been widely reported, and geographically isolated, mostly mono-industrial communities such as these pit villages are the hardest hit, compounded by subsequent economic crises and UK government programs of austerity.

These communities, and others like them, experience population decline, low educational attainment, low wages, high rates of unemployment, high numbers of disability claimants, high rates of mental illness, addiction and suicide. Other costs of deindustrialization are less easily defined, such as in the decline of buildings and infrastructure, a sense of uncertainty and a loss of dignity, and in distrust of institutions and political resentment. In Blaenau Gwent, the statistics are also borne out in how the community sees itself, as quoted in a BBC report:

“The numbers tell a long and sad story of decline. ‘We are top of every league you don’t want to be top of,’ a man tells me. Poverty, sickness, worklessness – Blaenau’s name is always among the worst…the communities settled here [were] extinguished.”

Similar sentiments were echoed by other residents, who explained the decline that followed the mine closures but in attitudes that endure:

“The people who worked in the mines, a lot of them stopped working in their 40s and 50s, and they are kind of left-behind. People are still resentful about that…they’re like a loitering generation. Even their kids, they feel the same way.

At whom the resentment is leveled at is difficult to pin-point; instead, a general sense of being neglected and forgotten endures, even across generations, but it is rooted in a history of marginalization that cumulated in the ultimate punitive death-blow of the rapid mine closures. It is not only the loss of jobs that has overwhelmed these communities. A small local museum in the area contained artifacts of the strike, including a mock-up newspaper with the headline “when they close a pit, they kill a community”. Jobs were gone, but it was the loss of a way of life that gripped such places, and it is difficult to convey how grave and deep this societal shift feels even three decades since the last pit in the valley closed.

“It’s sad, to see what it’s

become.” One resident said to me, simply.

“There’s almost nothing left.”

Justifying a Sacrificial Transition

Thatcher’s policies and the miner’s strike in 1984-85 did not feature in the everyday conversations I witnessed in Blaenau Gwent, but the sense of resentment, marginalization and betrayal endures. The decline of these communities, whether swift in pit closures or gradual via long-standing economic marginalization, is still widely justified by a sense of the closures being necessary. Many miners themselves reflected that the mines had been so chronically underfunded that they were no longer viable. Yet these justifications do not lessen the loss and difficulties experienced by these places.

In light of the current plans for transition, and the likely positioning of current coal-mining communities to once again be sacrificed in the name of progress, albeit a hopefully more sustainable and equitable form of progress, the South Wales coal-mining villages may serve as a clear warning. The impacts of deindustrialization are hard to overstate in communities that grew directly with industries that shaped their economic but also social worlds, especially for sacrificial zones that were marginalized as a result of their own role within the energy system that is now reforming. Whatever the reasoning for such transitions, acknowledging that for these marginalized communities it is vital that this transition is an opportunity to readdress a history of sacrifices, or risk a future that is mired with them indefinitely.

Editor’s note: This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “After Extractivism” text series; its German version is available here. You can find more contents on the English-language “After Extractivism” website. Have a look here: https://after-extractivism.berlinergazette.de

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