Why Appalachia?

When I tell people about my research, sooner or later I get the question, “Why Appalachia?”

Did I grow up in Appalachia? (No.) Do I have relatives there? (Not that I know of, unless the founders of Farley, WV were long-lost relations.) Is there any connection at all that might explain why a girl from suburban New York State might develop an interest in the southern mountains?

In other words, am I just another interloper like generations of interlopers before me, come to gawk at poverty without giving anything back?

Like many outsiders, I first became intrigued by the idea that a place exists within the US where so much that we take for granted is different. Where I grew up, even things as benign as affordable housing bring out hordes of NIMBYs. The idea that things as disruptive as surface mines could be built (seemingly) with impunity seemed like something that shouldn’t happen here.

For so long, Appalachia has relied on its natural resources–coal, timber, and increasingly natural gas–to support its economy. It seems quite clear to me that this has caused devastating environmental consequences as well as startlingly unequal economic development. Many people have noted how Appalachians fiercely support the coal industry–which makes sense, given that coal jobs have historically been some of the best-paying jobs in the region. But what if it didn’t have to be that way? What if there were more options?

As the coal industry in Appalachia declines, I see the region at a crossroads. Even if coal is no longer economically feasible, there are still other natural resources (especially timber and gas) to exploit. But there are some Appalachians thinking creatively about Appalachia’s future. Can Appalachia use its natural resources to build a sustainable future? Can the forests and mountains support an economy that enables healthy and prosperous livelihoods for everyone, not just the lucky few?

I want to learn how all of this works. And through my research, perhaps I can amplify the voices of Appalachians who are working to make their home a better place.

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