Insight

As Climate Change Hits, It’s Time to Rewrite the Narrative of Appalachia

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Written by 
Ryan Eller
September 2022

Stereotypes and tropes about Appalachian people are commonplace.

These perspectives were not created in a vacuum.

Hollywood has long imagined the mountaineer as a shoeless, toothless, uneducated moonshiner dawning a coon-skin cap and playing the banjo on the front porch next to his all-too-familial spouse. From classics like the Beverly Hillbillies to Deliverance, these stories paint the false but convenient picture of a homogenous, “uncivilized” people.

But, that has never been the whole story, or even an honest one. The popularity of this single story, however, has left the region ignored by entrepreneurs, deemed unworthy by investors, and made vulnerable to extractive economic practices. Popularized books like JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy breathe new life into the neoliberal portrait of a mountaineer, adopting the conclusion that the region is poor not because of structural challenges or systemic marginalization, but because of the very culture itself.

These frames are particularly painful when seeking new investments in education, infrastructure, and economic development.

For more than three decades coal has been in steep decline in the region, and yet, Appalachia is often approached with nihilism as opposed to the willingness to pursue solutions that can prepare its people for a renewed future. While conservatives like Vance and the authors of sagas like the Hatfields and McCoys suggest that the only salvation from the mores of poverty is to move to the west coast (as Vance did), liberal storylines have been equally problematic.

This summer, flash floods ravaged the parts of central Appalachia, killing forty people in Eastern Kentucky alone. Generations of poor mine closure practices, rampant absentee land ownership, and unseasonably dense rainfall due to shifts in the climate left entire communities under a mix of thick mud and water. And yet, even as families searched desperately for their loved ones and thousands mobilized, with no regard to race, religion, political affiliation, Twitter was fluttering with posts about how folks did not deserve the government’s aid or worse, were responsible for their plight because of their voting habits. These unnuanced takes are yet another extension of age-old tropes about Appalachia and its people and serve to add fuel to the growing polarization that is taking America by storm. They do nothing to solve the broken systems that actively facilitate cycles of poverty in the region, and instead, give them credence.

Both conservative and liberal outsiders declare the plight of mountain people as a condition of their own cultural making. As Appalachia’s coal and timber-driven economy burns out, the political class’s response thus far has been to drive an economic development strategy based on building [largely private] prisons. And so it goes: Impoverished people build prisons to house impoverished people, all while sending revenue to external, extractive shareholders whose margin is reliant on the housing of more poor people.

But, what if this wasn’t the narrative?

On September 30th in Hazard, Kentucky a group of leaders, venture capitalists, philanthropists, artists, and more will gather for the Appalachian Big Ideas Festival. We will meet to better understand the devastation of recent floods and unpack the systemic failures that resulted in them. More importantly, we will gather to reimagine our communities, together, and ask ourselves: What big ideas can shape a sustainable future for Appalachia?

What would it mean for the region whose coal powered the Industrial Revolution to be a leader in the transition to a green economy? What would happen if more people recognized the diverse and rich racial, cultural, religious, and ideological heritage that runs deep in the mountain soil?

My Coeuraj colleagues and I look forward to joining the festival to listen and help community members explore how these ideas can lead to action — and there's no time like now.

The passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act, provide generation-defining opportunities for the mountains. Not since the New Deal or War on Poverty has there been an opportunity to leverage federal funding in such a transformational way.

Like New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, Australia following the 2020 wildfires, and Central America following El Niño, Appalachia stands at a crossroads. It can either stay on the course towards an unsustainable future or reimagine itself as a people who defied the odds and became the cornerstone of America’s resilient, green energy revolution. I’m betting on the latter.

Rev. Ryan M. Eller is a leading narrative change strategist, storyteller, and a proud descendant of Appalachia. He’s the Head of Strategic Partnerships at Coeuraj and President of Beloved Community Foundation. A frequent media presence, he is a former ED of Define American, chaplain, manager of congressional campaigns, and was the first Bill Moyers Fellow at the Baptist Joint Committee.

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