Re-Conceiving the Concept of Stewardship: Coal Production and the Importance of a
New Christian Context for Appalachia
By: The Rev. Marshall Jolly and Dr. Clint Jones
I. Introduction
Historically discourses about justice have focused on a singular aspect of life (i.e.
economic, social, political, class, etc.) while failing to acknowledge other areas or
minimizing their importance in relation to the perceived dominant narrative. Only in the
last half century have theorists, activists, and citizens begun to understand these
discourses not as beliefs that occasionally intersect or share goals but rather as being
intertwined and dependent upon each other. The more holistic our understanding of
justice the more likely we are to build successful justice-focused movements at all levels
of society. However, the more holistic our understanding of justice the more likely we
are to see the goal of achieving justice as unattainable.
Additionally, a holistic understanding of justice still needs to be anchored to a
framework that legitimizes each narrative without privileging one over another while
providing the necessary state of affairs through which all struggles can be understood as
linked together as parallel struggles that cannot be addressed in isolation. As Joyce Barry
persuasively argues, the struggle for environmental justice provides “the best framework
through which to explore [other social] problems because such a framework exposes
class, race, and gender divisions, which precipitate and sustain environmental
degradation.”1 Hence, addressing environmental degradation attends to these injustices as
well.
Our paper asks what it would mean for churches, and other religious
organizations generally, to return to a revitalized concept of stewardship by utilizing
1
Barry, Joyce. “Mountaineers Are Always Free?” p. 117.
1
Wendell Berry’s terminology—terminology that is laden with deeply theological
meaning—in order to navigate the crisis generated by the coal industry in Appalachia. In
particular, we are concerned with the current rhetoric utilized by proponents of coal
mining to create a context in which coal mining is ecologically, economically, and
morally justifiable—this is especially pertinent in exposing the “Friends of Coal” which
has been the primary organization for driving the rhetorical context of Appalachian lives
as more and more people outside Appalachia seek alternatives to coal for our country’s
energy needs. By applying Berry’s terminology to this crisis, we contend that instead of
understanding the crisis of coal production in terms of efficiency, numbers, quantities,
and data, this crisis is better understood in terms of care, character, condition, quality, and
kind.2
II. The Appalachian Context
Understanding the immediacy of questions regarding environmental degradation
in Appalachia requires that we account for what is happening in an Appalachia
dominated by coal-profiteering. By briefly focusing on the destruction of the
Appalachian Mountain Range via a coal mining process known as Mountaintop Removal
Mining (MTR) it is easy to see that coal is not just destroying the environment but is also
destroying the ability of Appalachian residents to generate the social capital necessary to
stop, prevent, and recover from the destruction of MTR.
MTR sites are often described as ‘moonscapes’ because the desolate landscapes
conjure up notions of the moon’s surface. Like the moon, MTR sites are dusty, gray, and
inhospitable, with a pockmarked riddled topography. However, MTR sites differ from the
moon in two important ways: first, lunar landscapes are naturally crafted, whereas
2
Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace, (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2003).
2
Appalachian moonscapes are not. Second, unlike MTR sites the moon is almost
universally considered beautiful; an opulent and glowing beacon in the night sky that is
the source of mystery and majesty, calling to mind the promise and possibility of worlds
beyond our own. MTR sites have quite literally cut out the mystery and majesty that was
once emblematic of the Appalachian Mountains.
It can be difficult to comprehend the impact of MTR without a scale, especially if
people think of MTR as a pothole-esque scar tucked away and unnoticeable in the larger
mountain range. But MTR is not a pothole-size anything. “[The] average single-mining
operation is approximately 450 acres” or “roughly the size of 360 football fields.”3 These
are not small innocuous plateaus, they are vast swaths of destruction, craters of giant
proportions and their presence is felt well beyond the now-extinct mountains of which
they are painful reminders. Essentially, “moonscape” amounts to Appalachian shorthand
for “mountain stump.”
If we are to embrace the idea that MTR in this case, or environmental ruin in any
context, is the appropriate locus for social justice then we must come to understand the
environment as more than just the ‘place’ we inhabit. Following arguments by Wendell
Berry and Wes Jackson, Bill Martin argues for a “new agrarianism” approach to the use
of the earth. For Martin such a concern is about more than just developing and
maintaining sustainable agriculture. The real issue is the loss of ‘place.’ As such, Martin
argues for an “ecological existentialism” in place of “an urban ideology.”4 Martin’s
argument is instructive because we must begin to understand the environment as what
constitutes us beyond the notion that the land is where food comes from. Our lived
Joyce Barry, “Mountaineers Are Always Free? An Examination of the Effects of Mountaintop Removal
in West Virginia” Women’s Studies Quarterly (2001): 121.
4
Bill Martin, Ethical Marxism, (Chicago: Open Court, 2008): 274-75.
3
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experience is a constant reproduction of our interactions with the aesthetic qualities of the
world that surrounds us. We are at once enclosed and expanded by the environmental
context we find ourselves in each day. Too often in today’s fast paced world we are
encouraged to believe that the aesthetics which sustain us can be manufactured, but no
one ever suggests that we stop and smell the rose-scented candles or picnic in a parking
lot. We have been coerced to believe that the environment only matters for agricultural
and recreational purposes when the truth is incredibly more complex than that—and that
complexity demands not only a more robust understanding of how we are to be stewards
of the land, but also that we become better stewards of the land in practice. As Ellen
Davis right observes, “An urban world completely uninvolved in and ignorant of
agriculture is a quite new phenomenon, an necessarily a transitory one.”5
III. Contextualizing Stewardship
Environmental stewardship in Appalachia is tangled not only in interpretive
problems of Judeo-Christian Scripture and theology, but also in the anti-environmental
corporate rhetoric that shrilly proclaims dominion over the earth. For the proponents of
coal, mining in Appalachia is a God-given right and doing so to improve the lives of
Appalachian residents is land use even God would approve of. Of course, for the many
opponents of coal such use of Christian principles is both a distortion and a dangerous
application of the concept of stewardship. Yet, both sides can find support for their
claims by adhering to a particular version of Biblical hermeneutics. Somewhat ironically,
Biblical support for both sides rests upon how one defines a handful of key words from a
few critical passages. These verses help highlight the problem of developing a viable
5
Ellen F. Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible (New York:
Cambridge University Press, 2009), 3.
4
land-ethic in Appalachia, and make the need for a new kind of Christian stewardship in
Appalachia readily apparent.
The Biblical tradition from which these interpretative methods are developed stem
primarily from Genesis 1:26-28. There are three probable interpretations for what
exactly God commanded, or perhaps desired, humankind as a creation imago Dei in
relation to the rest of creation—Environmental philosophers place these interpretive
methods into three categories: the despotic, stewardship, and citizenship interpretations.
During the creation story of Genesis the Bible states,
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have
dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock
and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.
27
So God created man in his own image, in the image of god he created him; male and
female he created them.
28
And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the
earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the
heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” 6
26
The critical words here are ‘dominion’ and ‘subdue’ and from the use of these
words a despotic approach to the relationship between humans and nature is derived. The
despotic interpretation is established by generating an understanding of humankind’s
relationship to nature as parallel to God’s relationship to humankind an as imago Dei—
one of master to servant. That is, “if God is the self-described jealous and wrathful lord
and master of man, man is, by implication, the jealous and wrathful lord and master of
nature.”7 As such this interpretation expresses a belief that humans are special and have
been given certain rights and privileges where nature is concerned that allow us to do,
6
English Standard Version Study Bible, Genesis 1:26-28, Crossway, 2011. Emphasis added. A similar
sentiment is presented in Psalms 8:5-8 where dominion and the command to subdue are expressly stated.
7
J. Baird Callicott, Earth’s Insights: A Multicultural Survey of Ecological Ethics from the Mediterranean
Basin to the Australian Outback (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994): 15.
5
essentially, whatever we want free of moral constraints. The despotic interpretation is the
party line of the coal industry.
Contrary to this is the stewardship interpretation of those same passages from
Genesis. One could argue, persuasively, that God’s command that humans should have
dominion over everything in existence on earth and in the skies and subdue them is not
meant to be permission to pursue whatever plan of action we think is in our own best
interests—though we have certainly done that for a very long time—rather, that God’s
trust in humans to act as God’s viceroy on earth entails certain responsibilities and duties
to those creatures and beings we have been set above without an expectation that they
reciprocate. Chief among these responsibilities and duties, if we choose to understand
God’s command in this way, “is man’s duty wisely and benignly to rule his domain, the
earth. To abuse, degrade, or destroy the earth is to violate the trust that the regent (God)
placed in His viceroy (man).”8 Such an idea stems directly form God’s direction to Adam
to “dress and keep the garden” where “dress and keep” are analogous to the pastoral land
ethic readily and ably explained in the works of Wendell Berry. Yet, one might find that
failing to do this is a deviation from God’s command. Moreover, it might easily and
rightly be claimed that failing to act responsibly even on the despotic account, perhaps
especially on the despotic account, is a perversion of the command to have dominion and
subdue the earth.9
8
Ibid, 16.
Callicott provides an insightful and extremely helpful analysis of the dueling creation myths of Genesis
which theologians and biblical scholars have wrestled with and which usually are not given adequate
interpretation in environmental critiques. The six day account of creation and the Garden of Eden story—
labeled J and P respectively by scholars can be pivotal in understanding how the stewardship and despotic
accounts can be explained in the text of the bible. For Callicott’s account see Earth’s Insights pgs. 16-17.
9
6
However, the controversy has deeper theological roots than mere definitional
problems where dominion and the imperative to subdue are concerned. There is a third,
and far more radical, interpretation of the relationship we were intended to have with
nature, or more generally, creation. According to the citizenship account humans were
placed in the Garden of Eden and given every advantage suitable to their wants and
needs, but they lived there as one of many creatures created by God. One of the many
plants included in the Garden of Eden was the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil from
which Eve, after giving in to temptation, ate a piece of fruit. There is a lot of speculation
about what eating that piece of fruit did to Adam and Eve, but for the purposes of this
paper it is only necessary to focus on the outcome that citizenship interpretation
advocates claim. The conclusion they draw is that Adam and Eve became self-aware in
relation to other things. Not merely that they were aware of Good and Evil, but that they
were able to determine Good and Evil with reference to themselves in relation to the
world—that is, Adam and Eve adopted a position of anthropocentrism.
Hence, anthropocentrism is the “fall from grace” that has besmirched humans
since Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden. The citizenship
interpretation, then, claims, “[the anthropocentrism of Adam and Eve] upset the balance
and order of nature as a whole—as God had created it and as, surely, He wished it to
remain. God, we may suppose, intended man to live harmoniously within the whole of
creation as a member, not to transcend it as its master—or, for that matter, as its
steward.”10 Though the citizenship position is far more radical in its interpretation of
Biblical lore, what it entails is not exactly achievable in terms of finding our way back
into God’s good graces. This, of course, leaves us to choose between the despotic
10
Callicott, Earth’s Insights, 19.
7
account and the stewardship account. Our position is that the stewardship account is not
only preferable but a necessity in order for Appalachia and its residents to be saved from
the destruction wrought by those who believe moving a mountain with a DC-9 bulldozer
falls under the purview of what God had in mind when God used the terms ‘dominion’
and ‘subdue’.
IV. In Appalachia “Utility” Is More Than A Light Bill
A despotic approach to Appalachia requires that we believe we can satisfy all of
our needs, and especially our aesthetic needs, in an industrial context. Such a belief
entails that we stop caring for the environment as anything other than instrumental in
purpose. It is this lack of care that has allowed MTR and many other destructive
practices to flourish in Appalachian communities. Before we can change the social
circumstances that allow environmental destruction to exist, we must replace our love of
technology, convenience and wealth with ethics and aesthetics. As Erik Reece rightly
points out “we love what we find beautiful, and we do not destroy that which we love.
What a strip job demonstrates, then, is the absence of any ethic or aesthetic.”11 Put more
bluntly, our actions belie our words; we have no love for Appalachia.
Coal mining and production is a major source of employment for most
Appalachian communities. In Kentucky alone during 2013, 12,000 people were
employed in coal mining and production, extracting approximately 85 million tons of
coal.12 Coal mining and production comprises approximately five percent of all
11
Reece, Lost Mountain, 212.
Lyn Peters, “Facing Coal’s Difficult Future” (Speech presented at the Fall Managers’ Meeting of
Kentucky Electric Cooperative CEO’s, Lexington, Kentucky, August 21, 2013),
http://www.kentuckyliving.com/article.asp?articleid=3952&issueid=405.
12
8
manufacturing jobs in Kentucky.13 Therefore, any conversation that suggests elimination,
or even augmentation, of the coal mining status quo in Appalachia must recognize the
inherent economic ramifications. Regarding the necessity of MTR, coal company
executives claim that without cheaper production methods coal mined in Appalachia will
not be competitive with coal mined in other parts of the US or with foreign coal and the
result would be job loss, decrease in economic viability, and the decline of overall
community health.
However, these negative impacts result from MTR as well, and so the question
being begged is whether or not MTR is necessary, that is, does it offset these negative
impacts more than it exacerbates them without causing additional problems for the
region? The obvious answer is that MTR is not necessary because it is incapable of
producing social goods that will outweigh the negative consequences of pursing MTR.
Perhaps more importantly, at 2010 levels of production “mines currently in production
can only maintain existing levels of production for roughly another 11 years.”14 So, over
the next decade or so MTR will be used to eradicate mountains and decimate
communities while coal executives continue to crusade against competing sources of
energy knowing full well that coal is not only an exhaustible resource, but also that easily
mined coal is rapidly diminishing in Appalachia.
In many cases, the mere mention of augmentation or elimination of coal mining in
Appalachia is enough to quash any conversation that bears the potential for meaningful or
13
Ibid.
McIlmoil, Rory and Evan Hansen. “The Decline of Central Appalachian Coal and the Need for
Economic Diversification” Downstream Strategies (January 2010): 21. This article is an excellent study in
the problems of competition, depletion, cost, regulation, and economic alternatives facing coal in
Appalachia. The primary obstacle to the distribution of this information is the continued reinforcement of
necessity and need by the coal industry.
14
9
impactful change. In the lead up to the 2012 presidential election, a billboard was erected
on Interstate 77 just north of Charleston, West Virginia that proclaimed, “Obama’s No
Jobs Zone.”15 Propaganda such as this serves as a distraction from the larger issues
surrounding coal mining in Appalachia and reduces them to a single issue: access to jobs.
Moreover, proponents of coal mining often employ the principle of utilitarianism
in an attempt to show that the economic benefits of coal mining outweigh the ecological
and cultural costs. In its most basic formulation, utilitarianism is a calculus used to
distinguish between the moral and the immoral by calculating the outcome that produces
the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.16 Recast in economic terms,
utilitarianism calculates which economic policy or proposal is likely to produce the
greatest amount of wealth for the greatest number of people. Of course, such an
approach must necessarily treat “wealth” and “happiness” as measurable, communicable
ideas equally applicable to and mutually understood by all those being considered in the
calculation. Moreover, this “economic utility” operates on the assumption that wealth
and happiness are inextricably linked; that is, the wealthier I am, the happier I will be.
As Brad Woods and Jason Gordon point out, “The ‘coal means jobs’ mantra is
clearly of vital importance for justifying the initiation and maintenance of extraction
activities in coal-dependent communities.”17 The economic benefits of coal mining are
threefold: high wages for individuals, tax revenues for communities, and high profits for
corporations. Therefore, the principle of economic utilitarianism is employed to make the
Jason Howard, “Appalachia Turns on Itself,” The New York Times, July 9, 2012.
Jeremy Bentham, A Fragment on Government, Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 1.
17
Brad R. Woods and Jason S. Gordon, “Mountaintop Removal and Job Creation: Exploring the
Relationship Using Spatial Regression,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 101, no. 4
(April 28, 2011): 807, doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00045608.2011..567947.
15
16
10
argument that coal mining benefits Appalachia at three levels: personal profit, community
profit, and corporate profit; whereas, without coal mining, these profits are either
diminished, shift to ‘other’ entities, or disappear altogether. Compounding the problem is
the extreme poverty and economic needs of the region and, with constant repetition of its
importance to the region and nation, coal companies have compelled many in the region
to view MTR not “as an act of political injustice but as a burden of economic
necessity.”18 Regrettably, because the mountainous terrain makes large-scale agriculture
difficult and other industry shies away from the area because of its poverty and lack of an
educated workforce, coal has managed to manufacture not only dependence on, but also a
high level of loyalty19 to, an incredibly destructive monoeconomy. Few in the area are
willing to abandon coal even when confronted with evidence of the industry’s
unsustainable future and complicity in producing a hazardous living environment.
However, the fundamental flaw of the principle of economic utility lay in its
central premise: that the most important goods for the people of Appalachia are tangible,
monetary goods. Economic utilitarianism cannot measure more nuanced—but no less
important—aspects of socio-economic status, education, race, or gender. Nor can
economic utility measure the non-quantitative emotional harms inflicted on the health
and wellbeing of individuals and communities.20
In his 1994 pastoral letter, Gratissimam Sane, Pope John Paul II observed that,
“Utilitarianism [cultivates] a civilization of production and of use, a civilization of
“things” and not of “persons,” a civilization in which persons are used in the same way as
18
Reece, 72.
The coal industry uses the disarmingly named “Friends of Coal” organization to maintain high levels of
public approval for the industry.
20
Marshall A. Jolly, “The Dark Side of the Mountain,” Anglican Theological Review 95, no. 2 (Spring
2013): 325–333.
19
11
things are used.”21 The dichotomy of economic gains versus economic losses that
economic utility superimposes upon Appalachians is unhelpful at best and harmful at
worst. Even more disturbing is the inherent self-sacrificial nature of the utilitarian
position which, in economic terms, means that Appalachian citizens are taught to
embrace—primarily through the propaganda of a corporately corrupted culture—which
then sacrifices those self-same citizens to the corporate greed currently destroying
Appalachian lives, livelihoods, and communities.
V. From “Conquerors and Victims” to “Exploiters and Nurturers”
In attempting to refocus the relationship of Appalachians to the land we are at the
beginning beset by obstacles since the words ‘environmentalist’ and ‘environmentalism’
are burdened with social suspicions that make many people reluctant to identify
themselves with environmental movements. Usually this suspicion begins with the
misguided idea that one should care more about plants than people. Rather, what is being
claimed is that without a proper concern for plants (or any other forms of non-human life)
one cannot possibly care about the well-being of people. How we get beyond this
problem may be one of merely changing the terminology or it may be conceptually more
difficult. Toward this end we are advocating for the environment as the necessary
foundation, the meeting place, of all justice narratives that find their confluence in
Appalachia. At this point it is important to keep in mind that we are not here advocating
for the best method for situating environmental concerns at the forefront of society’s
justice conscience but instead that environmental justice is the right struggle within which
Pope John Paul II, “Gratissimam Sane: Letter to Families from Pope John Paul II,” 1994,
http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/letters/documents/hf_jpii_let_02021994_families_en.html.
21
12
we ought to ground all others. As former Czech president Vaclav Havel said, we must
‘reconstitute the natural world as the true domain of politics.’22
In his essay, “The Unsettling of America,” Wendell Berry observes that much of
human history can be understood in terms of “conquerors” and “victims.” However, these
terms are problematic because of their simplicity and their inherent mutual exclusivity. In
other words, these terms require classification into one of two categories. Berry suggests
the terms “exploitation” and “nurture” as helpful alternatives because these terms allow
for, not simply a division between persons, but also a division within persons.23 People
can be—and often are—simultaneously exploiters and nurturers. Berry’s terminology
and understanding of this relationship parallels Daniel Quinn’s labeling of “leavers” and
“takers” as the fundamental paradigms that drive human culture.24 For our part, we
believe that while Berry is correct to surmise that an individual can simultaneously be an
exploiter and a nurturer, this dichotomous identity has, historically in much of
Appalachia, been centered inside of a “leaver” mentality.
Exploiters are, Berry argues, identified as specialists or experts, whereas the
nurturer is not. The standard measure of the exploiter is efficiency; the standard measure
of the nurturer is care. The goal of the exploiter is profit; the goal of the nurturer is
health—the land’s health, personal health, familial health, communal health, and national
health.25 The implications of Berry’s terminology for our purposes are apparent: coal
mining in Appalachia is not simply a matter of profits and losses; winners and losers; or
22
Quoted in Reece, Erik, Lost Mountain, 213.
Wendell Berry, “The Unsettling of America,” in The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of
Wendell Berry (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint Press, 2002), 39.
24
Daniel Quinn, Ishmael (New York: Bantam, 1995).
25
Wendell Berry, “The Unsettling of America,” 39.
23
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conquerors and victims. Instead, the crisis of coal mining presents a far more complicated
struggle that exists not only between persons, but also within a person.
Exploiters and nurturers, however, can be identified not simply by the
characteristics of their moral code, but also by the fundamental question with which they
approach the use of the land. Exploiters ask of the land how much and how quickly it can
be made to produce. Nurturers ask a far more complex and difficult question: What is its
carrying capacity? In other words, how much can be taken from the land without
diminishing it; what can it produce dependably for an indefinite period of time?26
Nurturers are inextricably connected to a place, but exploiters are not—hence, not only
the qualitative and quantitative difference in the questions they ask, but the need, the
necessity, of cultivating a nurturing ideology in Appalachia. MTR is a rupture that
dislocates people from their routine, normal lived experience by destroying their
environmental location and “in a number of Appalachian contexts are communities
whose experiences of place as a reliable life rhythm have been disrupted, even
traumatized.”27 When thinking about this in terms of the identities that many people have
built from their lives in the mountains, lifetimes spent gleaning knowledge and
enjoyment from the landscape, generations spent learning to be a part of the ecology; the
resulting rupture of that bond with the environment is devastating to more than just the
mountain.
VI. Selling sacrifice ‘downstream’—Commodifying Appalachians
The fact that much of Appalachia is both white and impoverished highlights the
tension between idealized notions of race and poverty in the United States and the reality
26
Ibid.
Herbert Reid and Betsy Taylor. “John Dewey’s Aesthetic Ecology of Public Intelligence and the
Grounding of Civic Environmentalism” Ethics & The Environment vol. 8 no. 1 (2003): 82.
27
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of lived inequality.28 Even in the twenty-first century, cultural notions about poverty and
race in the United States assume that wealthy Americans are white, and that poor
Americans are black—or at very least, non-white. In keeping with this faulty cultural
assumption, American consciousness identifies white Appalachians, not as “white,” but
as “white trash” placing them somewhere between the 19th century idea of the Irish
immigrant and the early 20th century idea of the Italian immigrant. In many cases, the
overt mention of race is eliminated altogether and Appalachians are reduced to the
pejorative colloquialism, “hillbillies.”29 This is in stark contrast to the self-image of many
early Appalachians as “mountaineers,”30 a linguistic shift in popular cultural
consciousness that has allowed mainstream America to think of Appalachia as a place
“worth less” than other places—often being pejoratively termed a ‘national sacrifice
zone.’ Because of the belittling imagery attached to the notion of “hillbillies” and
because of the positive media façade coal companies have spun throughout political
campaigns, the cultural imagination, and even the Appalachian community itself, most
people think of Appalachia as a place to be exploited because, well, what else is it good
for?
Consider just one recent episode in coal’s checkered history: in 2000 in Martin
County, Kentucky a slurry impoundment pond burst sending 300 million gallons of coal
waste into the community of Inez and the surrounding area. The slurry flood was twenty
five times bigger than the Exxon Valdez oil spill and polluted more than 75 miles of the
Big Sandy River killing 1.6 million fish, washing away wildlife, plants, roads and bridges
28
Rebecca Scott, Removing Mountains: Extracting Nature and Identity in the Appalachian Coalfields
(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), 33.
29
Ibid.
30
Loyal Jones, “Appalachian Values,” Voices From The Hills (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.,
1975): 507-517.
15
and contaminating the water supply of 27,000 people in its wake. There was little media
coverage of the incident, the spill never even made it into the New York Times, even
though the EPA described it as the worst environmental disaster in the Southeastern
United States. Years later the slurry sludge still sits barely below the surface slowly
poisoning everything with alarmingly high rates of arsenic, cadmium, nickel, lead, and
mercury to name but the deadliest. This is not akin to floodwaters that recede bringing
mud that can be washed off of things rather, the “slurry took all the color out of [the]
valley and turned it into a gray apocalypse.”31
It is no accident that the two most iconic images emerging from Appalachia are
that of the hillbilly and the coal miner. While they may seem to be opposite one
another—the coal miner a modern industrial worker undergirding America’s rise to the
top of the capitalist hill and the hillbilly a slur meant to portray a rural, backward peasant
that siphons off resources by being lazy or unwilling to participate in society—the two
are often portrayed interchangeably.32 Thus, in an effort to explain away the aberration of
poor white communities, Appalachians suffer the dehumanizing effects of racism without
the cultural sympathies that attend to other communities subjected to racist domination.
The interchangeable nature of the “hillbilly” and the “coal miner” have allowed nonAppalachian Americans to think of the coal miner as a reluctant worker who begrudges
the coal companies efforts to sustain and support them because, well, given their druthers
they would all rather be sippin’ ‘shine in the hills doin’ nothin’. Of course, nothing could
31
Reece, 133. Other sources that speak explicitly about these incidents are Shannon Bell and Richard York
“Community Economic Identity” and Jeff Goodell Big Coal. I have derived my accounts of these events
from these sources. However, literature about MTR, coal, and Appalachia generally are rife with reports of
these events and many more like them. There are an estimated 700 slurry impoundment ponds in
Appalachia and more than half of them are considered “at risk.”
32
Ibid, 37.
16
be farther from the truth regarding both hillbillies, coal miners, and the residents of
Appalachia generally.
Although the term bears dehumanizing racial and ethnic connotations, “hillbillies”
are still relatively safe to disparage in American popular culture, largely because of the
pervasive stereotyping of Appalachians.33 Iconic cultural images such as the Clampett’s
from TV’s The Beverly Hillbillies or MTV’s “reality show,” Buckwild, dominates
American consciousness, all the while insisting that Appalachians are poor, ignorant, and
prone to violence—a notion reinforced by our cultural indulgence in the Hatfield and
McCoy feud most recently revisited in 2012 by Kevin Costner in AMC’s three-part miniseries. Americans cannot conceive of an Appalachia that is creative, sustainable, and
capable of intellectual thought, not because it does not or cannot exist, but because it has
never been adequately represented in American culture.
The systematic cultural, ethnic, and economic commodification of Appalachians
further complicates the crisis of coal mining because it prevents understanding of the
problem as one in which all Americans—and, indeed, all humans—have a stake. Instead,
Americans are taught to think of the problem as something that affects only the “other,”
whose lives occur in a time and place completely foreign to the experiences of many
urban and sub-urban Americans. Appalachia is often described as a Third World, or
Developing, Country, completely separate from the rest of the United States because of
its dire economic lag, runaway drug problems, educational under-performance, and lack
of industrial development outside of coal mining. Hence, coal companies presume the
moral high ground in defending their continued existence in Appalachia. Effecting a
Kathleen Blee and Dwight Billings, “Where ‘Bloodshed Is a Pastime:’ Mountain Feuds and Appalachian
Stereotyping,” in Back Talk from Appalachia: Confronting Stereotypes, ed. Dwight Billings, Gurney
Norman, and Katherine Ledford (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1999), 119-120.
33
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change in the cultural representation of Appalachia is not simply important; it is essential
because for Appalachia’s citizens the struggles for economic, racial, class, political or
any other kind of justice only makes sense in a struggle to save, preserve, conserve, and
protect the environmental setting of their lives. The effects of MTR “not only alter the
physical geography of [Appalachia], but [MTR] also place[s] the people who inhabit
these areas in direct jeopardy, as traditional mountain culture and ancestry are being
razed along with the mountains.”34 Without a newly formed notion of stewardship
directed at redressing the current status quo in Appalachia, the struggle to save
Appalachians, and ourselves, will have consequences that few of us are prepared to face.
34
Barry, Joyce. “Mountaineers Are Always Free?” pg. 123.
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Coal Production and the Importance of a New Christian Context