Engaging with Appalachia’s Coal Crisis

by Sarah Riccardi-Swartz

There’s no whitewashing the dark environmental effects of coal mining and fracking in West Virginia and other parts of Appalachia. Most assuredly, coal is toxic—for the environment, for local economies, and for life more broadly the Mountain State. In “An American Guilt Trip,” his recent article for Public Orthodoxy, Dr. Fr. John Chryssavgis draws on a brief trip he took to West Virginia in order to witness first-hand the cost of “black diamonds.” As an anthropologist, I’m tremendously supportive of scholars conducting ethnographic research in order to think through broad societal questions and problems. However, as someone who has just returned from twelve months of living in West Virginia for my dissertation research, I am also deeply attuned to the problematic ways in which we scholars often talk about or even for Appalachia and its inhabitants. For those of us who work on issues of environmentalism in its various expressions, even adjacently, I worry that sometimes we fall prey to colonialist assumptions of privilege, often subconsciously, that feed into our narratives of communities dealing with ecological devastation. As someone who works in the social sciences and humanities, I wonder how we might highlight issues of the Anthropocene in a way that critically examines toxicity as it relates human neglect for the environment, while also being mindful of the other crucial sociocultural issues of power at play historically. This is important particularly when we approach regions such as Appalachia that have long been subject to external mechanisms of power that mine the area for its natural resources while suppressing, subjugating, and stigmatizing those employed as extractors. 

Long stereotyped pejoratively in terms that emphasize their alterity, insularity, and so-called inability to keep up with the rest of capitalist America, Appalachians are incredible local community builders who see themselves as part social networks of self-sufficiency that encompass humans and the rest of their natural world. The majority of contemporary Appalachians are not supportive of the ongoing toxicity, in its various manifestations, of the coal industry, for they understand all too well the way in which it has affected their lives, families, and region. Even as black lung consumes whole families and their mountain home landscapes are laid to waste by the increasingly mechanized forms of mining, West Virginians still wonder what “life after coal” will look like. Documentarians from the region, such as Elaine McMillion Sheldon and Tom Hansell, highlight the realities of the coal industry, while anxiously anticipating post-coal Appalachia, gesturing towards how this region might create a new way forward through green-collar economies. Entrepreneurs, such as Brandon Dennison, who lives not far from the log cabin I rented in southwestern West Virginia, are creating successful initiatives that nod to the history of coal capitalism, but move beyond it to create sustainable employment, housing, and agricultural opportunities.

Rather than giving into the Appalachian monoculture created by contemporary media—one that focuses the figure of a white, low-income, coal miner who is part of “Trump Nation”—Appalachians are continuing to resist. As one teacher said to me when I stood with him on the picket line during the historic West Virginia teachers’ strike in late February and early March of 2018, “We can’t be all talk and no action. The miners taught us that,” which was a reference to the historic and ongoing labor organizing by coal miners throughout Appalachia. West Virginians are not “tragic pawns”; rather, they exemplify ways forward for all of us who are concerned about issues related to environmentalism. Despite being pushed unto a system that has persistently focused on big industry rather than its laborers, West Virginians are actively creating new narratives for the region, throwing off stereotypes and embracing a green future.

While the desire for Orthodox Christians to be mindful of the cost of energy usage and production is admirable, West Virginians I know would not want us to remember them sadly when we turn on our heat during the winter; rather, they might ask us to consider how capitalism and the lingering effects of colonialism have created a system in which we are dependent upon fossil fuel. They might also ask us to think about how the opioid crisis, social violence, and lack of necessary infrastructure in much of rural Appalachia are all part of this failing capitalist system that promotes profit over people. More likely though, Appalachians might ask us why we care about their region if we are not living there and actively promoting social, political, and environmental change locally. The West Virginians I know would call us to action rather than analysis.

As an anthropologist who feels strongly about the region(s) I work in, I believe we need to let the work of locals come to the fore, which is why I was hesitant to approach these issues in such a public way. Yet the need for both environmental change and a reorientation of our perceptions about Appalachia compelled me. This is not so much a response to Dr. Fr. Chryssavgis as it is a launching point for us to think more deeply about how we as Orthodox Christians engage with the world around us. For that reason, I have included links throughout this article to a wide variety of public and scholarly material about Appalachia and the coal crisis. Several years ago, I gave a paper at Harvard about Orthodox ecology and ontology. During one of the breaks, a conference goer approached me about Orthodox ecological on-the-ground initiatives, saying boldly, “Orthodox ecologies always seem theoretical rather than practical.” Ashamedly, I did not have a rebuttal. For all of our notions of being green Christians, I think we have yet to get our boots dirty in order to clean up the mess we have made of the earth. We have much to learn from Appalachians on this front, so let’s move beyond stereotypes of “disarming simplicity,” and see communities in this region as exemplary collaborators in this ongoing race to change our ecologically damaging ways before it’s too late.

Sarah Riccardi-Swartz is a doctoral candidate in Sociocultural Anthropology at New York University.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.