Understanding “place”

Fighting back from Trump Country: Religion and Environmentalism in Appalachia

From Joe Witt: At first glance, the southern Appalachian areas of West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee might appear to be prototypical “Trump country.” Rural, religiously conservative, predominantly white, and economically depressed, the region seems like fertile ground for Trump’s so-called populist revolt.  Indeed, Trump won the Appalachian states of West Virginia and Kentucky with 68% and 63% of the vote, respectively, largely on a promise to “legalize coal.”  Taking his cues from local politicians, Trump deployed a familiar narrative:  the ongoing decline in the coal industry was not due to international market forces, competition from cheaper forms of energy such as natural gas, or a general reduction of reserves following a century of intensive mining. Instead, the “war on coal” was caused by excessive environmental regulation foisted upon an unwilling people by distant and aloof political elites.  In Appalachia, where many claim that “coal is king,” such narratives have become commonplace and many still see a revival of the coal industry through the removal of environmental protections as Appalachia’s only hope for revival.

Despite this high level of support for coal in the region, though, there remains a strong, local resistance movement to the industry. It may be tempting to see Trump’s victory in Appalachia as reflecting a broader disconnect between rural, working class whites and a broader nation that misunderstands their needs and concerns. While certainly worthy of further investigation, such accounts might also uncritically support a conservative narrative equating the working class with anti-regulation, anti-environment and xenophobic policies, masking the times that the poor and working class have forged complex alliances with other stakeholders to fight for environmental justice, worker’s rights, and against corporate power.  Appalachia may indeed be “coal country” for some, but it has also been the site of do-it-yourself style community organizing and long-lived resistance to economic and environmental exploitation. The radical spirit of organizers and educators like Mother Jones, Myles Horton, and Don West lives on in the work of Judy Bonds, Maria Gunnoe, Larry Gibson, and numerous others who continue to fight for environmental and social justice.  Against a seemingly overwhelming emphasis on coal as the key for Appalachia’s future, these activists and numerous other community members work toward more equitable, just, and environmentally-sound futures for the region.

This spirit of resistance is particularly evident in the 21st century movement against mountaintop removal surface mining.  Appalachians have opposed the social, economic, and environmental damages of surface mining for decades; but in the early 2000s, this long-lived resistance entered into a new phase, particularly with the instigation of the Mountain Justice Summer direct action campaign.  The anti-mountaintop removal movement brought together many diverse stakeholders—retired miners, clergy, educators, youth, elders, scientists, and activists—who, through their tensions, negotiations, and collaborations helped to bring mountaintop removal to international attention, revive civil disobedience and direct action tactics in a post-9/11 political environment, and forge a strong, creative, community-based movement for justice and economic revitalization.

Before starting as an Assistant Professor of Environmental Humanities at the Middlebury School of the Environment, I was fortunate to be able to engage in this movement, both as a participant and a scholar. As I observed the movement grow and change over about a decade, I discovered that these activist efforts were frequently grounded in specific religious and ethical commitments to the place and people of Appalachia.  Evangelical Christians, Catholic social justice activists, American Indian religious practitioners, and numerous other advocates of nature-revering spiritualities worked together to develop and advocate for a collective vision of the region, rejecting utilitarian economic arguments supporting coal mining in favor of the affective spiritual and ethical values of place.  In their critiques of the coal industry, Appalachian activists deployed what Indian environmental historian Ramachandra Guha called a “vocabulary of protest.”  They not only challenged a specific mining practice, but also the ethical systems in which that practice was based, offering new visions of a post-coal Appalachia that moved beyond capitalist exploitation toward more localized, just economies and ecological sustainability.

While the struggle against coal and its damages in Appalachia is ongoing, the case of the 21st century anti-mountaintop removal movement provides important lessons about effective community-based collaboration to address pollution, injustice, and climate change.  Despite internal tensions and conflicts, the story of the movement demonstrates the power that local communities can harness against seemingly indestructible corporate forces. In an age of unprecedented threats to the environment, to the poor, marginalized, and disenfranchised, and to democracy itself, stories like these of resistance, dissent, and resilience in light of oppression, exploitation, and totalitarianism have become all-the-more important.

More information about these issues can be found in Religion and Resistance in Appalachia (University Press of Kentucky, 2016). See also: http://www.kentuckypress.com/live/title_detail.php?titleid=3878#.WIuJQ9IrKUk.

 

 

Seeking Beauty, and Expressing Struggle

Today’s post comes from Joan Grossman, filmmaker and producer, who most of you know as one of the key faculty members of the Middlebury School of the Environment:

As a documentary filmmaker, traveling for work is often the most authentic way to experience a place, if not the most pleasurable. Sometimes, as filmmakers we may be seeking beauty, but often we’re looking for something else that expresses the strange, unexpected struggles that underly our survival on this planet. This last year I traveled across the continent, from New York to Alaska, on a series of trips, as the American producer on an Austrian film about a Russian woman in New York, trying to walk home, heading for the Bering Strait.*  The film is an unusual hybrid of unscripted fiction and documentary, and was inspired by a true story from the 1920s. Our version is contemporary and takes much poetic license. Along with being a story about a lone woman on an epic, existential journey, it is also a story that slices through North America at this particular juncture in time. We were not making an “environmental” film per se, but we were working in some extraordinary places that also happen to be environmental flashpoints. 

A facility owned by Syncrude Canada north of Fort MacMurray, Alberta, where tar sands – also known as oil sands – are refined into synthetic crude oil. The emissions are so severe they can create localized weather systems. Photo: Joan Grossman

One of the most striking places we filmed at was the encampment at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota, where Native Americans and their allies are resisting the Dakota Access Pipeline, slated to carry oil across the Missouri River just north of the reservation.The river is the main source of drinking water for the reservation and millions more downstream. It had been deemed too risky for the pipeline to cross the river at the state capital, Bismarck, 40 miles north, where the population is largely white.

The encampment had established a site where ceremony, music and organizing were taking place all day and into the night, along with an ad hoc infrastructure to care for and feed hundreds – soon to be thousands – of people every day. We were at Standing Rock in August, just as it was becoming a big international story. Among other things, we filmed statements by tribal leaders as they arrived in a steady stream of support, bringing together the largest number of tribes ever. For Native American cultures, respect for the natural environment is a guiding principle, and that was a powerful message to hear over and over again. I became acutely aware of how Standing Rock was tying together the crucial issues of our times – racial injustice, climate change, and the influence of corporate interests on our politics and economy.

Native American reservations are some of the poorest communities in the United States. Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, which encompasses parts of the Badlands, where we also filmed, has a per capita income under $4,000 per year, and 60 percent of the people do not have electricity and running water. Life expectancy is the second lowest in the Western hemisphere, after Haiti. While these statistics are bleak, the gathering at Standing Rock has energized an indigenous environmental justice movement that is gaining global support, although they clearly have a big hurdle ahead with the Trump administration determined to go forward with the pipeline.

Later, in Canada, we went to Fort MacMurray in Northern Alberta, to film at the tar sands, or oil sands, as they are referred to locally. Last year, Fort MacMurray was engulfed in a devastating wildfire that was fueled by a hotter, drier climate. The fires spread dangerously close to the oil sands operations and shut everything down. As we approached Fort MacMurray we drove through miles of burnt trees that stretched as far as the eye could see. The oil sands region in Alberta has one of the largest oil deposits in the world. It is also one of the dirtiest energy sites anywhere. The extraction of oil from the thick mixture of bitumen-covered sand requires enormous inputs of natural gas and chemicals. The controversial Keystone XL Pipeline was built to carry the synthetic crude that is produced in the oil sands, and while the pipeline was halted by an opposition movement, it is now also getting revived under the Trump administration. The area is one of the most dystopian places I have ever seen. Driving north of Fort MacMurray toward the mining operations, we were hit by a pungent, acrid smell among massive installations that produce a level of emissions so high they can create their own weather system. We experienced a strange artificial snowfall there.

We ended the production in Anchorage, Alaska, where we intended to film wintery scenes. It was November, when snow and ice can be expected. But snowfall has diminished considerably in recent years. With climate change, Alaska and the Arctic are warming at a faster rate than other parts of the world. The first few days we were there it was warm and sunny. The sunshine turned to drenching rains, and we filmed our character walking through heavy, foggy rainfall, which could have been almost anywhere.

This last year was an interesting time to be crossing the country, particularly as the only American among a European film crew, partly seeing it through their eyes. The election was on everyone’s mind and we had many conversations with people along the way, whose politics we disagreed with, but with whom I sometimes found a surprising amount of common ground. Chances are I wouldn’t have had these kinds of encounters if I the work hadn’t taken me to places I might otherwise never had visited – such as former coal towns in Pennsylvania, or the prairies of rural Nebraska. In any case, I was reminded of how big the country is, and how little we talk to each other outside of our like-minded bubbles.

The project still has a long editing process ahead with almost 200 hours of material. It’s an enigmatic story; no one knows for sure if the original character made it back to Russia in the 1920s. In the film, too, there are more questions than answers. Stay tuned.

* The film, Lillian, is directed by Andreas Horvath, and will be completed sometime in 2018.

Reflections on Place

Students in this year’s Understanding Place course will be exploring a shared place — the Otter Creek watershed — and a place of their own through several lenses in order to build a toolkit that will allow them to better understand any place. That toolkit will, in turn, allow students to teach others about the importance of understanding place while working towards positive social and environmental change. Below under the “Comments” section of this post you will find ongoing reflections about the place that each student has chosen, written in light of their readings, discussions, and activities from each week.

Understanding Place reflection #4

Over the last two weeks, we’ve explored place in light of temporal time scales and land use, for example through GIS exercises and readings from Foley et al., Matson et al., and Wendell Berry’s ‘Let the Farm Judge’. For this week’s reflection (due Wednesday at noon) please choose a place and describe its dominant historical and current land use(s). Based on local and global land-use trends, what do you think the future of land use in that place might be over the next 100 years (e.g., suburban development, agriculture, urbanization, industry, conservation, etc.)? What do you suggest might be the most suitable future land use(s) in that place in light of ecology, society, and economy?

Understanding Place reflection #3

For the last three weeks we have been building up our ‘toolkit’ for understanding place, with a special focus on agriculture. Please share how you envision your contribution to the final group project – the recipe book. Please include specific details including the kind of contribution you’d like to create or share, what disciplinary or life-experience background(s) you could contribute through your work, and what ‘tools’ for understanding place might be expressed through your contribution. Finally, please briefly note how your proposed contribution applies to our shared place at the SoE or to a place that is special to you, and also how it can be applied to any place.

Your answers to this reflection are not set in stone, and you are free to change your contributions to the final project as we progress through the second half of the semester. This is simply a forum for you to brainstorm, be creative, and share your ideas with your peers.

Provide your reflections as a comment to this post, and remember that your comments are public.

Understanding Place reflection #2

Many of our discussions and experiences this week revolved around justice and action. Use a concrete example to explain how a better understanding of place can enhance social and environmental justice.

Provide your reflections as a comment to this post, and remember that your comments are public.

Understanding Place reflection #1

Welcome, all students, to the 2015 SoE!  We shared a great hike up Snake Mountain and a beautiful, moving opening ceremony last weekend, and we are all very excited about the next six weeks. Now it’s time to dive into our work!

We have been exploring definitions, perceptions, and perspectives of ‘place’ this week in the Understanding Place course. Please describe two concepts or experiences you have discovered this week, and how they have contributed to your understanding of place. Also, share one still unanswered question or concern that this week’s classes and/or readings have raised for you.

Provide your reflections as a comment to this post, and remember that your comments are public.

 

 

 

Faculty for 2015

I am extremely happy to introduce three of the faculty who will join the Middlebury School of the Environment this coming summer.  Each will participate in the core courses, either in the introductory track or the intermediate/advanced track, and each will offer an elective in their area of specialization.  I want to introduce each of them here briefly, and provide links to their full bios and course descriptions on the SoE web site.

Holly_PetersonDr. Holly Peterson joins the SoE as an Assistant Professor of Environmental Science.  She is on the faculty of Guilford College in North Carolina in the Department of Geology and Environmental Studies.  With a specialization in hydrogeology, she is particularly interested in water quality and encouraging people to view their lives and societies through the lens of the watershed in which they live.  At the SoE this summer, she will teach an elective on Environmental Pollution (which will involve a mix of field, lab, and computer-based work) as well as team-teach the core course on Understanding Place, our interdisciplinary course the brings together the ecological and cultural narratives that are needed to understand the environmental present and potential futures of any place.

Joe WittDr. Joseph Witt will be the new Assistant Professor of Environmental Humanities.  Joe comes to us from the faculty of the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Mississippi State University, where he offers a curriculum that focuses on religion and nature.  His research includes the study of the place of religions in the Appalachian anti-mountaintop removal movement of the early 21st century.  He will join Holly Peterson in teaching Understanding Place and will offer his own elective on Religion, Nature, and Justice.

Curt GervichDr. Curt Gervich, from the Center for Earth and Environmental Science at SUNY Plattsburgh, joins us as the new Assistant Professor in Environmental Social Science.  At SUNY Plattsburgh, Curt teaches courses in environmental leadership, law and policy, and sustainability, and he is trained as an environmental planner, with expertise in decision-making and leadership.  This summer, he will teach the Systems Thinking Practicum and an elective on Wicked Environmental Problems.

We’re not done yet, however.  We plan on adding one more person to the faculty whose specialization is in the realm of the environmental arts.  Stay tuned for updates on this position!

Gregory Rosenthal, instructor in environmental humanities

Gregory RosenthalI am pleased to announce that Gregory Rosenthal, Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at SUNY Stony Brook, will join the faculty in the School of the Environment, as an instructor in environmental humanities.  Gregory will teach a course entitled “Environmentalism and the Poor: Class-Conscious Histories of Globalization,” which he describes as follows:

Environmentalism used to be understood as the privilege of affluent “first worlders,” an exercise in protecting nature from those too uncivilized or too ignorant to care for it by themselves. But this is no longer the case. In the past several decades, environmentalists—and environmental historians who study the history of human-nature relationships—have begun to acknowledge and account for the diverse “environmentalisms” that are practiced by both “first worlders” and “third worlders,” by both rich and poor, by both workers and capitalists, between the global north and the global south as well as within small-town communities, villages, and cities across the world. That class is one of the key determinants in how different people experience and care for the environment is gaining acceptance among social scientists and is inspiring exciting new research in the field of environmental history. This course will explore the relationships among environmentalism, class, and power in human history, as well as the consequences of these relationships for poor and working class peoples. A class-conscious history of globalization—in which “globalization” is understood as the rise of a globallyinterwoven capitalist economy over the past two centuries—reveals the various ways in which “environmentalism” has served the powerful while impacting the less powerful. At the same time, we will examine the resistance strategies of working class peoples the world over, to see how environments can be reclaimed by and for the poor. We will work collectively in this class towards developing a “poor people’s environmentalism”: a blueprint for thinking about global nature and the responsibilities of the powerful and privileged in alleviating poverty and supporting poor people’s rights to, and in, the environment.

Gregory will also co-teach the course on “Interdisciplinary Understanding of Place: Lake Champlain,” bringing to this class his unique perspective on how historical perspectives on culture diversity and identity help illuminate the narratives that frame a comprehensive understanding of a landscape and its possible environmental futures.

We are  excited to have Gregory join us for the inaugural summer for the School of the Environment.  He specializes in global environmental history with a focus on migrant labor, indigenous peoples, and human-environment relations in historical perspective. At SUNY Stony Brook his Ph.D. research examines the history of Native Hawaiian migrant labor in the nineteenth-century global economy. He has published in Environmental History and World History Bulletin and received grants and fellowships from the American Historical Association, the Huntington Library, and the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley. In college, Gregory studied traditional Chinese music and indigenous ethnomusicology (and even attended Middlebury’s Chinese Language School). He holds a Masters degree in Public History from SUNY Albany and formerly served as Education Coordinator at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site in upstate New York. He also previously worked as a Park Ranger in New York City, and when not at Middlebury, Gregory continues to lead historic walking tours of Manhattan’s streets while also enjoying hiking, birding, swimming, and clamming in the city’s urban forests and coastal waters.

Gregory joins Steve Trombulak and Cat Ashcraft as a member of the full-time faculty in the School of the Environment, and will participate throughout the six-week session in creating the full immersion program we have planned.

Welcome!!

Social identity and the future of Montana

Today’s New York Times reports on an effort currently underway by a non-profit organization to create a 3-million acre reserve in the grasslands of Montana.  The American Prairie Reserve is buying ranches that are for sale and slowly stitching together a landscape in which bison can roam freely and in which ecological conditions akin to those present 200 years ago can flourish.

This project is admirable in its scope and goals.  Bison, as the largest native herbivore in North America since the time of the post-Pleistocene mass extinction, were powerful ecological engineers, and their loss — brought about primarily by overhunting — has had widespread consequences on the biological integrity of this continent’s prairies.  Coupled with subsequent land-use changes that have largely involved ranching, with its associated fencing and cattle, the loss of bison herds is one of the biggest wildlife transformations anywhere in North America.

Which makes the work of the American Prairie Reserve one of the biggest wildlife conservation stories today.

What I find interesting about this story, however, is not what they are trying to achieve.  Rather it is the social environment within which they are trying to achieve it.  This story does not involve government intervention, eminent domain, or an Eastern Establishment driving up property values.  Fair-market value is paid to willing sellers who are approached after they put their ranches up for sale.

Yet as reported by the New York Times, this conservation effort faces opposition from some ranchers in the area because … it does not conform to their vision of how the land ought to be used: cattle ranching.

This reminds me of similar conflicts that emerged in New England in the 1990s over logging and timber lands.  All such stories about the “legitimate” uses for large landscapes seems to involve similar questions.

Are there limits to private property rights that would allow neighbors to say to someone, “You cannot sell your land to this other person because they aren’t going to use it the way I think they should”?  It is easy to understand why one would not want to allow a new neighbor to build something that was destructive or dangerous on their land, but should rancher be able to say that a conservation group should not own land because they are practicing conservation?  Or a snowmobiler be able to say that a new landowner cannot post their land against snowmobiling?

On what basis can those who believe in a particular cultural narrative of place claim that their narrative is the most important?  It’s understandable that ranchers who want to continue ranching should expect to be able to continue ranching on their land.  But what gives ranching primacy over other cultural narratives, such as those held by Native Americans who lived there before the ranchers?

And what constitutes the “place” being considered?  An individual ranch?  A single valley? A 20-million acre prairie?  As spatial scale increases, so too does the opportunity for and challenges of diverse cultural narratives to come together —  woven together either collaboratively or in conflict.

This really isn’t just a story about Montana or ranching or bison.  It’s a story about landscape-scale conservation planning everywhere and the role of social identity in shaping the cultural narrative that is used to describe a place.  How we learn — or don’t learn — to unpackage those issues will determine how successful conservation will be in the 21st century and beyond.

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