Green Politics in Coal Country: Resisting the Environmental Culture Wars in Appalachia
By Eleanor Griffiths
On March 13th 2016, at an Ohio town hall on the campaign trail, Hillary Clinton uttered 13 words that, by her own admission, would haunt her for the rest of her life. Those words were: “we’re going to put a lot of coal miners out of work.” The fallout was immediate with the right-wing media pouncing on the soundbite, mercilessly. Despite largely being taken out of context by bad faith actors, (the longer quote adds that they would be employed in renewable Green energy as part of her plan for the region) the damage was done. That June, A vox-popped Appalachian Pennsylvania coalminer told Politico “Trump says he’s for coal, and Hillary hates coal—and that’s a shame. Because, in my opinion, he’s a little nuts. She’s more qualified. But if she wants to take my job—then, no.” In her memoir What Happened, Clinton labelled the remark the thing she regretted ‘the most’ from her doomed campaign. Despite her ruminations and recriminations, the incident irrevocably ignited a flashpoint in the culture wars that continue to shape contemporary American political discourse. In the new political vocabulary that evolved seemingly overnight during the 2016 election cycle, environmentalism was the preserve of ‘coastal elites’, out of touch with ‘flyover country’. In my master’s thesis, I argued that in the lead up to and aftermath of the 2016 election, elements of the American Left and the media had often inadvertently colluded with the Right to portray Appalachia as the mythical ‘real America’, an emblem of ‘authenticity’ and everything that coastal, affluent cosmopolitan America had forgotten and neglected. Political and media discourse focussed disproportionately on the region, unshakeable in the conviction that the answer to the election of Donald Trump lay in these communities. But these portrayals were largely flawed and one-sided, spawning an entire genre coined as ‘Trump Country journalism’, by historian Elizabeth Catte. In revulsion and shock at Trump’s electoral success, liberals cast Appalachia as a reactionary and backwards enclave, certainly not a novelty in its history. Catte’s characterisation of the reporting that came from the region as ‘narratives of omission’ was a framework that seems convincing and helpful to understand the region and the discourse surrounding it.
But my PhD dissertation, which centres on progressive activism in the region, is aiming to be a correction to this. If the dominant 2016 depiction of Appalachia was inaccurate, who and where were the people providing the counter narrative to that? My initial intention was to research the labour movement, Appalachian feminism, queer activism, and anti-racism work in separate but interconnecting chapters that explored current conflicts on the American Liberal Left through the prism of progressivism in ‘Trump Country’. Environmental activism was not originally part of this plan, but as I began my research, I became increasingly aware of how much the contemporary culture wars intersected with ideas of class and environmentalism. Eventually, I couldn’t ignore environmentalism’s place in this story of Appalachia, and as a result, in my research. In this article I will show how the Trump-era narrative of an America split along intersecting class and regional lines with regards to environmentalism was yet another crude simplification of a complex and nuanced region.
In June 2017, less than six months into his first term in office, Donald Trump withdrew the US from the Paris climate agreement. In his speech announcing the move, he remarked “I was elected to serve the citizens of Pittsburgh not Paris.” With this rhetoric, he further entrenched this same fissure with regards to Green and environmental politics. And crucially, it was an Appalachian town that was used to illustrate this supposed chasm. The comments caused controversy and though he did not expand on his choice of American city to make his crude point and although there is no doubt that it was a decision partly driven by punchy alliteration, the subtext was clear. To his supporters, Trump was clearly coding Paris as the epitome of ‘liberal elitism’ and positioning Pittsburgh as a scrappy, blue-collar city, reliant on the coal and steel industry and populated by people with interests diametrically opposed to green politics. Essentially, he was tapping into the politically expedient notion of environmentalism as a culture war battleline.
This idea that environmentalism is the preserve of the elite or often even an eccentric and comedic pastime is a tactic not only employed by the US Right, but increasingly widespread elsewhere in the West. One pertinent example would be politicians’ reactions to the ‘insulate Britain’ protests last autumn. Portrayed as dated hippies from the fringes of society, the activists who stopped traffic in Britain to put pressure on the government to take steps to tackle climate change by 2030, were repeatedly inferred by politicians and the right-wing media to not be living in ‘the real world’. They also received a lot of anger from members of the public with some even experiencing physical violence.
But in the US, where climate change denial is not a fringe position but one espoused by both mainstream media and politicians, this culture war masquerading as class divide arguably has a deeper and more convoluted hold. Award winning journalist on radical politics and protest, Jack Shenker, argued that those he terms climate ‘inactivists’ have redrawn the battle lines of debates on climate change. He believes they have a new “weapon in their armoury” and that it comes in the form of an “appeal to social justice: one that casts environmentalists as an aloof, out-of-touch establishment, and the inactivists as insurgents, defending the values and livelihoods of ordinary people.” And indeed, this division has not always been difficult to sow, as environmentalism has often been an attractive cause to celebrities and/or wealthy individuals with varying levels of sincerity. The now discredited and discouraged focus on individual consumption habits in particular also led easily to charges of hypocrisy and ultimately possessed an air of sanctimony that was repellent to many. The right-wing media have relished stories of rich liberal celebrities using private jets after lecturing people about saving the planet, and in a conversation where ‘inactivists’ have positioned themselves as the anti-establishment stance, these episodes are often an open goal for bolstering this narrative.
But why has Appalachia appealed to right-wing reactionaries as the symbolic ‘inactivist’ antithesis of the green movement so much? There are several, interconnected reasons. Perhaps most ostensible is its identity which is largely interchangeable with ‘coal country’. The US coal industry has mainly been concentrated in counties across Appalachian West Virginia, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Kentucky. This industry seamlessly crosses over with the attached steel production in Appalachian Pennsylvania and Ohio, areas which are also referred to as the Rust Belt. (Although the two terms are not interchangeable, places can be part of Appalachia and the Rust Belt.) As we saw with the Hilary Clinton gaffe , it appears easy to position areas where livelihoods depend on polluting industry in opposition to environmentalism, both in terms of activism and policy. Similarly, it seems easy, through invoking a physically laborious industry in a rural area, to code the region as ‘male’ and ‘white’. This is partly why coal country, and Appalachia more generally, has already been the staging zone for a myriad of culture war clashes in the 2010s and designated ground zero for Trumpism.
Whilst my thesis focusses primarily on contemporary activism, a research trip to the Interference archive in Brooklyn left me struck by instances of fusion between class and labour politics and environmentalism evident in the output of a radical printing press in West Virginia in the 1970s. Even though I knew the conversation was more nuanced than the crude culture war narrative I have outlined in this article, it was interesting to confront some of the stereotypes I’d ingested myself about Appalachia, labour and environmental activism. I was hoping to prove that these causes could happily co-exist but the more I researched both historical and contemporary case studies, I realised that they were often interdependent and mutually inclusive. And, crucially, any class conflict that did arise was often between middle-class outsiders and working-class locals within environmental activism. (This was particularly remarkable during the 1970s and the ‘back to the land’ movement when many urban radicals moved to Appalachia to try to embrace an off the grid, simple lifestyle, but often ended up commandeering environmental causes and offending Appalachians with their approach). One publication that the press published, Mountain Call, addressed labour concerns, environmentalism and ran rural lifestyle features in confluence.
Certainly, some of the most infamous labour disputes in US history took place in Appalachia. These include incidents like the Battle of Blair Mountain and Matewan. On the Left, coal companies have long been seen as the enemy of the Appalachian working-class. But they’ve also been the opponent of the Appalachian environment. This is not just activist hyperbole, the practices of coal companies have been particularly brutal in the region. There are entire bodies of work across a variety of disciplines on ‘mountain top removal’ and the degradation of the local environments and communities as a result of those practices. The process was often blamed for flooding and landslides, and hired thugs of coal companies were documented harassing and intimidating locals who complained. It is easy to see why in the 1970s the theory of the region being an ‘internal colony’ took hold. It has since fallen out of favour amongst academics because of the inherent problems with ignoring that the area was colonised for settlement and the accompanying displacement of indigenous people. But the accompanying notions of extractivism of the geographically rich area and the labour that extracts it are clear and understandable. Crucially, it also describes an era when these causes coalesced.
Unfortunately, in the ensuing period, the interests of coal country and the interests of coal companies were deliberately conflated and presented as one and the same. In the contemporary era, we regularly see this attitude from both the political Left and Right. Perhaps this is best demonstrated by Democratic senator of West Virginia Joe Manchin, who recently came to even international attention when he apparently scuppered Joe Biden’s Build Back Better bill and climate agenda. Manchin is himself a coal baron with stock worth millions in the industry. He is also regularly touted as ‘the only Democrat who could win in West Virgnia’, despite his dwindling popularity there and his obstructiveness to Democrats’ wider progress.
And thus, despite Appalachia’s history of labour and environmental activism and the previous harmony of the two, The Green New Deal arrived perfectly packaged as a flashpoint in the culture wars, designed and sponsored by perhaps one of the most emblematic people of the ‘liberal’ side of the divide, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. Its focus, although not overtly stated, was to once again unite labour and environmental causes, creating strong union jobs whilst diversifying the US economy and investing in green energy. It was predictably disparaged by the Right, although also rejected by a significant amount of Democrats, who once again invoked the language of privilege and elitism as their go-to tactic to shut down environmental policies. Donald Trump even went as far as to brazenly use the language of the Liberal Left against themselves with his claim that the program would ‘disproportionately harm minority communities’.
Despite the Right’s attacks on the program on the federal level, on a community level there are some (small) signs of hope for those in the region who care about an inhabitable planet and are tired of being portrayed as uniformly anti-green policy. Indeed, despite the ‘coal is king’ ethos, the coal industry doesn’t and hasn’t employed many people in the region for a long time. The fact that the industry has always been ‘boom or bust’ has meant that it has been easy to exploit workers’ hopes that another ‘boom’ is coming. But it seems many people, including miners and former miners, now have a more realistic perspective on the industry. An activist retired West Virginia miner and proponent of the Green New Deal told a Guardian journalist in 2019 that “coal was over”. Many in the region would attest that this is common knowledge something I can confirm, anecdotally from my visits to the region, but that it needs to be handled carefully to avoid culture war landmines. Jocelyn Sheppard, a West Virgnian who started a lavender farm on a former strip mine and who is employing locals with criminal records, explained that many in the state avoid the red-blue divide when interacting with each other, a practice which can be galvanised to diversify the economy when the rhetoric is not littered with dog whistles. “I see this as a truly purple project. Regardless of your views on the past, present, or future of coal, it’s fairly clear to everyone in our community that we need to diversify our economy—and we need to find safe and productive uses for the land that’s no longer being mined.” Many working to place solar panels in abandoned strip mines have the same attitude despite solar panels being particularly representative to some of the much disparaged ‘out of touch environmentalist’. They often face uphill challenges against the coal companies, who continue to own the majority of the land needed for these projects without employing anyone to work on them.
Another cause for hope that the depiction of Appalachia the cynical cultural warriors push will become increasingly inaccurate is the potential for a changing demographic in parts of Appalachia. States like West Virginia have long seen most of their young people leave for urban centres in search of work and those that have stayed have often been disproportionately affected by the opioid epidemic. Projects like STAY, an enterprise ran by young Appalachian people focussing on staying and fighting for their communities, are determined to change that. They campaign for things like accessible and fast internet so the boom in remote working, accelerated by the pandemic, can benefit the region and stem the exodus. If this is a trend that can be sustained it raises the possibility that the demographics of the region will even out the political landscape and possibly make it more resilient against the culture wars as research shows that ageing populations are the most vulnerable to certain manipulative talking points and outright disinformation. There are plenty of young people who are proud of Appalachia, want to live there and invest in their communities and fight for an inhabitable planet at the same time.
In Appalachia we have seen national battles of the culture being fought for a long time but they have , either deliberately or ignorantly, obscured a complex situation on the ground that does not fit into the Left or the Right stereotype of the region. With my research into Appalachian environmentalism, I hope to dig further into this nuanced picture, speaking with locals and organisers alike, and in the process help address wider questions at the intersection of culture and class in the 21st century US.
About the Author
Eleanor Griffiths is a PhD candidate in American Studies at the University of Nottingham. She lives in the city with her cat, Roger Sterling, and uses yoga, loud music and old films to distract herself from the current state of the world, with varying levels of success. Twitter is: @elle_griff
Cite this blog post
The Editors (2022, July 6). Green Politics in Coal Country: Resisting the Environmental Culture Wars in Appalachia. HCA Graduate Blog. Retrieved February 23, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/pg5v