In the first half of the 20th century, the American Midwest incubated a world-leading culture of innovation in science and technology.
Orville and Wilbur Wright did most of their aerodynamic research and development of gliders and aircraft in Dayton, Ohio in the early 1900s. Thomas Edison's formative years were spent in the Midwest at a time when the number of patents coming out of the region was unparalleled anywhere in the world.
The assembly line that's still used countries around the world today came out of a Ford auto factory in Dearborn, Michigan. Midwestern-based scientists helped eradicate rickets in most countries, a disease that afflicted millions of children, and were responsible for advancing our understanding of vitamins across a host of scientific fields.
People in middle America saw the Democratic party take a position that favoured the environment over their own livelihoods
The region finds itself faced with a very different reality today. But why has it fallen so far? Having suffered significant environmental degradation and the loss of millions of jobs, its history of pathbreaking scientific and other investigation should have meant the industrial Midwest ought to have become an environmental science and clean energy research hub in the 21st century.
That never happened. Instead, the money and human capital fuelling research in environmental science today has ended up in Silicon Valley or in universities and research institutes on the east coast of America. Tellingly, though nine of the world's top 30 universities for citations per paper in environmental science are American, none are based in the industrial Midwest, according to the latest QS World University Rankings.
Countering climate change
Who or what’s to blame?
For more than a century, the coal mines of West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, steel factories of Pennsylvania and auto manufacturers of Michigan and Ohio were, simultaneously, powerhouses of American industry and strongholds for the Democratic Party.
In the 1980 US presidential election, West Virginia was one of only six states in the country where a plurality of voters backed Democratic Party candidate Jimmy Carter. Even as blue-collar jobs began disappearing in the 1970s, 80 and 90s due to international competition and mechanisation, communities in the industrial Midwest remained loyal to the Democrats: Bill Clinton again won West Virginia, by 13 percentage points, in 1992.
But when the Democrats began pushing for environmental regulations and laws to counter climate change – without offering alternative jobs – people in middle America saw the party take a position that favoured the environment over their own livelihoods.
In Boone county, an isolated district in West Virginia where less than 10 percent of residents hold a college degree, coal production fell from 22,500 tonnes a year in 2005 to 8,400 tonnes 10 years later. In 2014, the Obama administration announced plans to cut power plant emissions by 30 per cent. For people in those areas – without being presented an alternative way out – killing coal was tantamount to killing the community.
Now, America's post-industrial heartland is a Republican bastion. Four years ago, former US president Donald Trump romped home in West Virginia, defeating Hillary Clinton by a whopping 40 points. In November, he prevailed in Ohio, formerly a crucial bellwether, by eight per cent.
And while president Joe Biden restored the so-called "blue wall" of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin in November's election (while Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia all went Donald Trump's way by considerable margins), the socio-economic histories of the industrial Midwest suggests they never really should have been in play in the first place.
Failure to articulate
As environment-related scientific enquiry around climate change moved rapidly forward in the 2000s, Democratic Party politicians at the local and state level failed to articulate why the environment and science should really have mattered to people’s lives.
Blue-collar jobs vanished and thousands of coal workers suffered serious health issues such as black lung, and people turned their backs on the Democratic Party. "Maybe it's a bit our fault," Democratic Party chairwoman for West Virginia, Belinda Biafore, said in 2017, a year after Trump's surprise election victory. "Maybe we don't have the right message or put the message out in the right way."
For residents, concepts such as climate change and clean energy – vocabulary with little to no grounding among youths who could earn $85,000 (€70,000) working in a coal mine straight out of high school – were deemed a terrible threat.
"The narrative of the war on coal started in 2009 with [president Barack] Obama. It was failed leadership in West Virginia. It was a complete cop out by our political leadership," says Prof James Van Nostrand, director of the Center for Energy & Sustainable Development at West Virginia University.
He says local and state leaders at the time were mostly Democrat. "Joe Manchin led the charge; a Democrat. He's a coal guy. Earl Ray Toblim (West Virginia governor from 2011 to 2017); these [people] were mostly Democrats."
“[Then] you have Trump coming in 2016 saying ‘I’m going to bring the coal jobs back; I’m going to dismantle the EPA (the federal government’s Environmental Protection Agency).’”
That was despite coal for energy outputs in America falling more under the Trump administration than during the first four years of Barack Obama’s presidency.
Experts say the failure of Democrats to take into account the reality on the ground or offer a path into the renewable energy industry has sealed their fate.
To be sure, the Midwest isn't a total scientific wasteland. A researcher at the University of Michigan was involved in the discovery of the largest black holes in 2011. In 2017, California-headquartered Tesla opened its Gigafactory 2 New York plant in Buffalo, a city in upstate New York that's lost more than half of its population, on the site of a former steel mill. Van Nostrand points out that third-level institutions such as Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh does stellar work in environmental science research.
But for the most part, the region has been overlooked by the major industry players and Democratic Party politicians for clean energy investment.
All the while, observers point out that, as communities in West Virginia and Kentucky are some of the sickest in the US (in large part due to environmental and industrial degradation), they ought to be ground zero for a host of environment-focused research and development initiatives.
The failure of the Democratic Party in the post-industrial Midwest has opened the door for climate change denying business moguls such as Charles and the late David Koch, who have pumped millions of dollars into universities and research institutes in Ohio, Wisconsin and elsewhere.
And though universities such as the Ohio State University and the University of Michigan at the same time attract large sums of money to their respective science departments, they do not exist in a vacuum: the local climate, dominated in the political sphere by Republicans, greatly affects how people think about science and environmental issues.
This was borne out in October, when the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the largest newspaper in a city with a metro population of 2.3 million people, endorsed Trump for president. It claimed: “Thanks to him, middle America is on the map again and the Appalachian and hourly worker has some hope.”
For a region the world once depended on for the next major breakthrough, it’s been a sorry fall from grace.
“We need the jobs,” Van Nostrand adds, “right now we’re missing out on all the [clean energy] job growth.”