Anthropology and Environment Society
Oral Presentation Session
In the heart of central Appalachia—an economically-depressed and environmentally-damaged region long defined by a singular extractive industry—king coal has been dethroned and regional stakeholders are working to imagine sustainable alternatives. Alongside green energy and tourism, sustainable agriculture has recently emerged as a key priority for policy makers, non-profit advocacy groups, development agencies, and concerned citizens alike. But that so-called sustainable future, who defines it, and who it stands to benefit, remains uncertain and hotly contested. While highly capitalized development projects seek to reclaim abandoned, degraded ridgetops through state-of-the-art techno-scientific greenhouses, more modest agrarian initiatives are rethinking food production in post-capitalist modes. Reporting on ongoing ethnographic research with farmers, farming organizations, and alternative development initiatives in Appalachian coal country, this paper explores these emerging ideological and infrastructural landscapes, querying the possibilities they portend. I ask, how are human/environmental relations reified or reconfigured? How are particular ecological and economic futures made to flourish as others are foreclosed? Responding to the call to notice the multiple forms of life born of capitalist ruins, this paper argues for engaged ethnographic attention to experiences of both crisis and care, where disturbance (ecological, economic, ethical) clears ground for both new frontiers for capital and commodification and novel forms of cooperation and more-than-human mutualism. I emphasize the need to take seriously the way things fall apart as well as how they come back together again, exploring the forms of rebirth that arise from ruination, and the socio-ecological relations they reinforce, reform, or rupture.