“Though the Mountains Be Shaken”: Toward a Countercultural and Liberative Ecclesial Ethic for Appalachia (5)

“Though the Mountains Be Shaken”: Toward a Countercultural and Liberative Ecclesial Ethic for Appalachia (5) September 1, 2007

Part Five: Appalachia today in the midst of new forms of “imperial capitalism”


The social sciences remain a key resource for understanding the socio-economic and political reality of Appalachia. In particular, the field of Appalachian Studies must be utilized in any contemporary theology for Appalachia in order to get a clearer picture of the region and to deconstruct the stereotypes and generalizations that have contributed to one-sided histories that often create the conditions of exploitation.[23] More will be said about the role of regional stereotypes in perpetuating economic exploitation at the end of of this subsection. First, a few words on the evolution of the institutionalized injustice of capitalism as it effects Appalachia.

The economic processes that were detected in the Appalachian pastorals have continued in stages and have produced a condition that we now commonly identify as corporate economic globalization. Much has been written about the process of globalization in the last decade or so, both for and against.24 As Canadian ethicist Marilyn Legge describes it, the process of globalization is driven by the ideology of neoliberalism which is centered around the desire for “unrestricted markets and the unfettered movement of capital, goods, and services.”[25] This ideology preaches the existence of an “invisible hand” that will guide the system toward the common good as individuals and corporate entities pursue their own interests, and thus gives the impression of “absolute freedom.” In reality, the system is guided not by the supposed “freedom” of various interacting individuals and corporations, but by powerful institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization (WTO).26 Two practices that have increasingly taken hold through this process, and which are of vital importance to its vitality, are deregulation of markets and privatization. Corporate practices then, as the pastoral letters have strongly pointed out, are in the name of the “maximization of profit,” and the needs of people and of communities are largely neglected. At its worst moments, globalization in fact willfully destroys particular communities in the name of profit and expansion.[27] The impact of globalization on the communities of Appalachia are many and complex, and we can only describe a few recent examples here. A fuller account of the Church’s mission in Appalachia can and should expand these examples and examine them in greater detail in order to expose other ways in which institutionalized injustice and violence threaten the human family in this vulnerable region.

It is a well-known effect of globalization that corporations regularly move their factories across the globe in order to seek out labor at a lower cost and with less restrictive regulations. Naomi Klein, among others, has written extensively on the “sweat-shop” phenomenon in which multinational corporations exploit the “cheap labor” of the lower classes of the so-called Third World.[28] The easy categories of “First World” and “Third,” however, are actually more complex, and Appalachia continues to be exploited by multinational corporations in much the same way as “Third World” nations. Eve Weinbaum’s study To Move a Mountain: Fighting the Global Economy in Appalachia, provides a devastating look at the effects of globalization on three Appalachian Tennessee communities that suffered from the closure of large corporate manufacturing plants.[29] As Weinbaum demonstrates in the study, the movement of plants that is so common in the small towns of the United States, especially in regions like Appalachia, is driven by the desire for lower wages and lower labor standards, all facilitated by elected officials who see themselves not as representatives of the people but as “salespersons” whose task is to “sell” Appalachia to outside companies by advertising the region’s low wages, “docile” work force, low unionization rates, etc. This “political” process often takes place in conjunction with “economic planning” organizations which have themselves become privatized. In essence, elected officials work with corporate leaders in decision-making processes that usually take place out of the public eye, systematically excluding the very people that the decisions are supposed to serve. Taxpayers frequently foot the bill for property and sometimes even wages through subsidy programs designed to attract business deals. A chapter documenting interviews with Appalachian government officials reveals that a large majority of them are “much more concerned about the needs of businesses within their community than about the needs of citizens.”[30] In the face of plant closings, for example, the city officials Weinbaum interviewed seemed oblivious to the idea that the city or state government might be able to help workers obtain lost pay that was owed to them. Some officials went so far as to blame the workers themselves for the plant closings, saying that “people are not as willing to work as hard as they used to.”[31] In Appalachia, politics and economic planning, which is intended to be accountable to people and in service to their needs, has itself become privatized and serves corporations, not the common good of the people. This sad reality is well symbolized in the erection of the “West Virginia: Open for Business” signs described at the start of this essay.

The processes of globalization have continued to take their toll on the ecological system of Appalachia as well. The ongoing moral crime of mountaintop removal mining is, fortunately, becoming more well known outside of Appalachia. While blowing mountains up in order to extract the coal within them is certainly a cost-effective and efficient way to go about mining, requiring far fewer miners to do the job, the environmental, social, and health costs have been deadly, as the mining technique, in addition to polluting the air and contaminating water supplies, contributes to land instability, causing mudslides and other destruction of homes and property.[32] Less well known is the more recent surge of interest in “wind farms,” giant windmills that are being planted by the dozens along tall mountain ranges in central and southern West Virginia and other locations throughout the United States and internationally. Touted as a way to generate “clean and local” energy, the turbines have a negative environmental impact, destroying natural habitats, harming birds and bats, and bringing down property values. Much, if not all, of the energy produced by these wind farms is directed out of state to metropolitan areas, such as the Washington, D.C. metro area, and is not even used locally. The energy generated by the Mountaineer Wind Energy Center in Tucker County, West Virginia, for example, is sold to a Chicago-based Exelon Power which services the energy needs of areas such as D.C., Illinois, and Michigan.[33] The turbines power such D.C.-based organizations such as U.S. Army facilities, Catholic University of America, the National Geographic Society,[34] and the mid-Atlantic Whole Foods Market locations.[35] While some insist that West Virginia has “always been” a state that produces energy for the rest of the U.S. and that West Virginia indeed needs to “cash in” and reap the benefits of this new energy source,[36] the voices of those most closely impacted by this industry and others like them are rarely considered, nor is the fact that the ones who benefit from the “opportunities” given by the industries are the owners of the corporations involved, not “West Virginans” as a whole.[37] While alternative energy sources are, of course, vital for the ecological survival of the planet, it is important to weigh the negative impact of some forms that are being developed and how they impact real communities like rural Appalachians.

A third example of the devastating impact of globalization is when this process is seen in connection with recent intensification of the militarization in the United States and the current “War on Terror.” While previous versions of the globalization narrative tended to insist on (and rely upon) the supposed retreating role of the power of the nation-state vis-á-vis that of multinational corporations, the current explosion of militarism shows this to be a myth. Nation-states, at least the powerful ones like the United States, are intimately involved in expanding and maintaining the reaches of savage capitalism. While the globalization myth once used the “soft power” of optimistic narratives of the inevitable embrace of capitalism throughout the world, capitalist globalization is now forced to rely on the “hard power” of military might in order to maintain its imperial hold on the peoples of the world.[38] One can be sure this has a devastating impact in Appalachia on many levels. According to a 2002 report, for example, the make-up of new recruits and new officers come predominantly from the South.[39] While we cannot examine this at length here, a helpful project would be an in depth study of military recruitment patterns in Appalachia, the presence of military-related industries (e.g. weapons, vehicles, and uniform manufacturing), and the region’s poverty. In Appalachia, a system is in place that exploits the people and environment of a region for economic gain while at the same time using the bodies of its young people to fight imperial wars to keep such a system in place.40]

The recent reliance on the “hard power” of U.S. militarism by no means suggests that the “soft power” of narrative no longer functions in today’s globalized economy. Indeed, the soft power of narrative, including the invention of marginalized groups through colonizing stereotypes, remains an important aspect of imperial globalization. This Land is Home to Me noted the role of the culture industries in inspiring consumerism and a feeling of powerlessnessness in Appalachia.[41] The field of Appalachian studies gives particular focus to the role of the culture industries, as well as traditional Appalachian histories, in perpetuating stereotypes about the region that contribute to its exploitation. The volume Backtalk from Appalachia: Confronting Stereotypes, for example, was conceived as a response to Robert Schenkkan’s 1992 Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Kentucky Cycle which Appalachian scholars insist portrays a generalized and false picture of Appalachia. In one scathing critique contained in the volume, Rodger Cunningham criticizes Schenkkan’s well-meaning intention to narrate the story of Appalachia as a “metaphor” for America, showing that his version of the Appalachian story glosses over the power relations that exist between Appalachia and the dominant culture of the United States. Drawing on the pioneer of postcolonialism Edward Said, Cunningham says Schenkkan “does not understand that Appalachia’s connection with America is not just metaphorical, or even exemplary, but causal,”[42] and elsewhere, “Appalachia is not a metaphor for America; Appalachia is America. Its relation to America is not one of metaphor to ‘reality,’ but of part to whole. However, it has long been treated as a land ‘apart’ by those who fail to see oppression as ‘a part’ of the U.S. and global systems.”[43] Part of this process of oppression is that members of the dominant culture end up speaking for the oppressed group, fitting them into and giving them their place in the dominant narrative, perpetuating the cycle of domination and exclusion. A large part of Appalachian studies, then, involves the encouragement of Appalachians to “talk back” to the dominant culture, allowing the diversity and complexity of the region to come to greater light, and tearing down stereotypes that contribute to the perception of powerlessness in the region.

Next: Part Six – Appalachia today in the midst of new forms of “imperial capitalism” – Judging
Previously: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four


[23] For a basic introduction to this concern of Appalachian studies, see Dwight B. Billings, “Introduction,”
in Backtalk from Appalachia: Confronting Stereotypes, ed. Dwight B. Billings, Gurney Norman, and Katherine Ledford (Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 1999), 3–20.

[24] The amount of literature on economic globalization is huge. A few titles that are especially good are Ulrich Duchrow and Franz J. Hinkelammert, Property for People, not for Profit: Alternatives to the Global Tyranny of Capital (London: Zed Books, 2004); Jerry Mander and Edward Goldsmith, eds., The Case Against the Global Economy: And for a Turn Toward the Local (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1996); Naomi Klein, No Logo, First revised ed. (New York: Picador USA, 2002); Naomi Klein, Fences and Windows: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Globalization Debate, ed. Debra Ann Levy (New York: Picador USA, 2002); Notes from Nowhere, ed., We Are Everywhere: The Irresistible Rise of Global Anticapitalism (London: Verso Books, 2003).
[25] Marilyn J. Legge, “Building Inclusive Communities of Life,” in Intersecting Voices: Critical Theologies in a Land of Diversity, ed. Don Schweitzer and Derek Simon (Toronto: Novalis, 2004), 292.
[26] Ibid.
[27] Ibid., 293–5.
[28] Klein, No Logo.
[29] Eve S. Weinbaum, To Move a Mountain: Fighting the Global Economy in Appalachia (New York: The New Press, 2004).
[30] Ibid., 53.
[31] Ibid., 54.
[32] “An Eastern Kentucky University study found that children in Letcher County, Kentucky, suffer extraordinarily high rates of nausea, diarrhea, vomiting and shortness of breath – symptoms associated with blue baby syndrome – tracing the causes to nearby streams containing sedimentation and dissolved minerals drained from area mine sites. Most tragically, three-year-old Jeremy Davidson of Inman, Virginia, was killed in bed when a bulldozer operating without a permit above his house dislodged a thousand-pound boulder from a mountaintop removal site that rolled two hundred feet down the mountain, crashing through the house wall to crush him” [John S. Rausch, “The True Cost of Mountaintop Removal” (2006), Available from http://www.ncrlc.com/corner-postwebpages/True-Cost-Mt-Removal.html]. See also http://www.appvoices.org/index.php?/site/mtr_overview/ and http://ilovemountains.org/.
[33] http://www.exeloncorp.com/ourcompanies/powergen/fossil/renewables/
[34] http://www.prnewswire.com/cgi-bin/stories.pl?ACCT=104&STORY=/www/story/09-30-
[35] http://www.communityenergy.biz/pr/cei_pr_wholefoods.html
[36] West Virginia University College of Engineering and Mineral Resources professor Donald Lyons wrote in an op-ed piece to the Charleston Gazette: “West Virginians need to overcome the not-in-my-back-yard resistance and cash in on the advantages of wind-based electricity generation. West Virginia has always been an energy-producing state.” Available at http://www.electricityforum.com/news/mar05/windpowerWVa.html.
[37] For more on the unconsidered costs of wind farms, see the study “Wind Energy Economics in West Virginia” (http://www.windaction.org/documents/2490), the website of Citizens for Responsible Wind Power (http://www.responsiblewind.org/), and the West Virginia Highland Conservancy’s webpage on wind power (http://www.wvhighlands.org/Pages/WinPow.html).
[38] Manfred B. Steger, “From Market Globalism to Imperial Globalism: Ideology and American Power After 9/11,” Globalizations 2, no. 1 (May 2005): 31–46.
[39] David R. Segal and Mady Wechsler Segal, “America’s Military Population,” Population Bulletin 59, no. 4 (2004): 10.
[40] Considering the close connection between military recruitment and poverty, it may come as no surprise that one of the United States’ most active counter-recruiting movements is based in the Appalachian city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. See the Pittsburgh Organizing Group’s website on counter-recruitment at http://www.organizepittsburgh.org/cr/.
[41] See part one of the document.
[42] Rodger Cunningham, “The View from the Castle: Reflections on the Kentucky Cycle Phenomenon,” in Backtalk from Appalachia: Confronting Stereotypes, ed. Dwight B. Billings, Gurney Norman, and Katherine Ledford (Louisville, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1999), 307.
[43] Ibid., 301.

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  • Henry Karlson


    I am really enjoying this series. While I do not know how it will end, I do hope there will be some discussion in it (or elsewhere) showing the way Appalachia has been, and continues to be, abused, does not end in Appalachia, and we should expect more of the same throughout the US in the future. If one region can be so easily abused, without any reaction, it is easy to see how this can be and will be done in others.

  • Thanks Henry! Yes, there are other places in the U.S. that are abused as well, although I think not as intensely. It would be interesting to hear if any of our readers from other regions identify with anything said here about Appalachia.

    There is a bit in the last part of the series (part 7) about how, despite everything, we must not romanticize Appalachia or see things in a simplistic black-and-white, “Appalachia vs. the world” mentality, but rather need to see Appalachia for the complex reality that it is. As it is within the United States, but also oppressed by the United States, it is both oppressor and oppressed. Also, Appalachia must not merely turn inward in a sort of regionalism that is not connected to its place in the global family, but should see its situation in solidarity with other marginalized peoples throughout the world.

  • That said, I don’t focus too much on that, simply because of the focus of the paper and the fact that it was getting so long!

  • Henry Karlson

    That is understandable — but it is also something which you might want to address in some future post/paper — once this series is done.

    While I think there are other areas which currently face similar situations as in the Appalachian region, I also think as things develop, we will see more and more of this evil finding its place in the world (unless, of course, people work to put a stop to it before it is too late).