(Opinion) Film and Coal

A recent tweet about the similarities between the decline of film and the impending end of coal struck me particularly hard. While nobody in my immediate family is a coal miner, the decline of film played a leading role in my family’s story.

Film dried up almost overnight, it seemed. Even to those in the business who saw it happening and aligned themselves with the way the winds were going, it was a fast change.  Although the first work on self-contained digital cameras began in the 70s, digital cameras that took reasonable photos didn’t become widely available until the late 90s.  In 2003, digital camera sales overtook traditional cameras.  By 2012, Kodak, giant of the industry, had declared Chapter 11 Bankruptcy.

In less than 20 years of change, an incredible number of jobs and revenue streams changed completely, or even disappeared.  Film manufacturing (and the jobs of people who were paid to manufacture, organize, store, and ship it) all but disappeared. Film development (and the jobs of all those clever scientists who kept making it better and better) essentially stopped. Camera shops (and the jobs they offered) that developed everyone’s home photos disappeared; people rarely print more than a few photos anymore. Film sales dried up, cutting into store profits from local camera stores to WalMart. Projectionists at movie theaters lost work to computers. Professional photographers had to change the way they operated, including adapting to a huge influx of new competition, driving prices down. Kodak declared bankruptcy, and Fuji and Konika (and Polaroid, Ilford, and Agfa) changed dramatically or disappeared–folks from office assistants to executives were purged.

Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of jobs practically evaporated.  In 1988, at its largest, Kodak alone employed 145,000 people; in 2010, its employees numbered only 18,800 with just over half of those in the US.  The livelihoods of these people were destroyed, and formerly massive corporations all but imploded–Kodak’s revenues were nearly $16 billion in 1996.  Bankruptcy was declared just 16 years later.

I am intimately aware of these details because my father has worked in the photography business in one form or another since the late 70s, working for Fujifilm starting in the late 80s. As digital took over, Dad’s job changed.  He had to learn new things–digital cameras, software, different kinds of printers, and more. Then it changed again, because his job was eliminated. We were lucky; Mom was employed full-time and is a wizard with budgeting, but our family’s income was slashed by two thirds, and with one kid at university and another headed that direction, there were tight times. Dad also saw it coming, is a fast learner, and wasn’t afraid to try new things, including new employment. We made it–my parents to semi-retirement, their children through university and on to gainful employment. Others probably weren’t so lucky.

This story has been told hundreds of times before, with each new technological advancement rendering what came before obsolete.  It’s been happening with coal in the UK for decades; coal’s peak production was in 1923, and has been declining very steadily ever since.  In the US, production has been more stable, but stock changes have been negative about as often as not, and often steeply so.  Besides being technologically replaced, first with other fossil fuels and then with renewable energy sources, the coal supply is finite and exceptionally bad for the environment and human health at every stage of its extraction and use.

I grew up on film, and I miss it–the color is better, it can be more crisp, and the sound of a roll winding after the last photo is sweetly nostalgic. But that doesn’t mean we go back, even if we could. While far from perfect or completely sustainable, digital means less wasted material for film and printing. Digital means faster photos. Someday very soon, digital will mean better photos, too, even to the most critical eye. Plus, despite literally ruining lives, digital eventually brought new jobs. Manufacture, sales, research and development, repair, teaching people how to use them, and a ridiculously expansive suite of photo-editing software and the development, maintenance, and use of those tools. The economy moved on and even grew.

Every film-related job did not move forward with a digital companion, though. My father had education skills, flexibility, and a spouse with stable income to fall back on, and was able to make a niche for himself teaching the average consumer to harness the power of their cameras to take great photos without sitting at their computers for hours. A camera repair technician, and the thousands of local camera shops that used to exist whose jobs hinged on selling and developing film or fixing delicate moving parts, might not have moved into the future so easily.  In order to remain viable, Fujifilm was very proactive with diversification, including developing optical films to improve television visibility rather than to take the images to show on them.

Fuji’s flexibility is a great model for what remains of the coal industry–looking for ways to use existing expertise and technology to move another field forward.  Jobs in machine maintenance, geology, and logistics work will transfer with relative ease into the future of energy or an entirely different field.  According to the US Energy and Employment Report, many of these jobs have already transitioned.  Job training and strategic positioning of renewable energy or other analogous industries in areas supported by coal at present or in the past is crucial.  Some skillsets won’t have an easy path, and that will require creative thinking by job-creators and flexibility by employees.

Finally, let’s be clear:  my point is not, “my family had it hard so these guys can just deal with it.” Quite the opposite. We have to think forward, and that means helping the families who are impacted including putting pressure on corporations not to leave them behind. We can’t–and shouldn’t–bring coal back. If we try to resurrect coal, the world will move forward without us.  Germany, for example,  is making great strides toward reliance on renewable energy sources.  These advances will leave the US clinging to coal in the dust.

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