A newly emerging network called the Central Appalachian Sustainable Economies (CASE network) has launched an interesting social media campaign focused on New Year’s Resolutions for 2014. Yet, what these resolutions won’t tell you are what stereotypes and renewable energy development have in common.
A region that has failed almost every experiment in economic development may just succeed in the modern age of sustainability. If successful, it will largely be due to a profoundly simple equation:
Yes, it’s really this simple…or is it?
What can be considered the first occurrence of the hillbilly stereotype, the now infamous Hatfield-McCoy Feud has come to define the manner in which most American’s think about central Appalachia today. For example, according to Appalachian scholar Susan Sarnoff, “It was not until the end of the 19th century, when lumber and coal companies sought to exploit Appalachia’s natural resources… that the ‘ignorant hillbilly’ took shape.”
Today this rigid icon is alive and well if one simply accounts for the popularity of the History Channel’s “Hatfields & McCoys” series as well as its more disconnected manifestations with the “Hatfields & McCoys: White Lightning.” The problem is that with most if not all of these portrayals, they never seem to get it right… They never seem to paint a complete picture of a region that has suffered the brunt of these stereotypes that, according to Appalachian historian Henry Shapiro, formed “the background of our public values” as Americans. Can the same thing be said about modern conceptions of coal communities? And if so, this brings us to the first part of our development equation:
Less Stereotypes and More Reality
Appalachian historian Anthony Harkins found that by the turn of the twentieth century, the idea of mountaineers as being a race of violent savages who threatened the nation’s progress had become “firmly entrenched in the American psyche.” Perhaps a similar trend is true today with modern environmentalism’s helpless or “endangered” hillbilly fighting the good fight at what some aptly refer to as "ground zero" of the climate change movement. Moreover, similar trends are emerging where America’s ideal of “sustainability” takes the form of renewable energy development and what is believed to be “threatening” its progress are evil coal companies and the communities who rely on this industry for their livelihood.
Fueled by images of barefoot and toothless, slothful hillbillies these myths reinforce American ideals of progress that historically sought to promote Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty and continue forward into our modern era with contrived reality shows and movies, like the “Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia.” These disconnected realities and many more like them carry on the mythical stereotype of the American other. Given this situation, maybe traditional approaches to social change will not suffice given that you can’t protest a stereotype that is enfused within the very fibers of America's identity. Thus we have the second factor in our equation:
More Pro-Action, Less Reaction
From this long legacy of stereotypes has emerged a sort of “Innovation Feud”, spreading throughout the coalfields of central Appalachia – one signified by what some are calling Applied Sustainability. Beginning with Sustainable Williamson and Sustainable Pike County’s 2013 “Healthy Feud” that had well over one thousand participants, a new kind of feud is emerging. This pro-active approach is simple:
Support Local Entrepreneurs
Flying under the banner of integrated energy, several central Appalachian counties are developing Integrated Energy Parks that will host an assortment of both renewable and non-renewable energy resources. One of the most exciting is the potential role hemp will play during this region’s transition. In a whitepaper entitled “Hemp: An Energy Crop to Transform Kentucky and West Virginia,” the local innovators clearly define the validity of their pursuits. The white paper states:
“Biomass crops have been prioritized by the United States Departments of Energy (DOE) and Agriculture (USDA) for development across the nation due to their great potential for increasing the share of domestic renewable energy… A multitude of recent publications in science and engineering journals have reported the successful conversion of hemp to transportation fuels, chemicals, biodegradable polymers, and a broad range of advanced materials. Exciting new developments include the use of exfoliated hemp to produce high capacitance graphene nanosheets for use in large-scale production of energy storage devices.”