A legacy of extraction: Ethics in the energy landscape of Appalachia

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When European Americans first set foot in Appalachia, they discovered a land rich in natural resources. They also observed the region's American Indian occupants taking full advantage of this great natural abundance. One resource they depended on was the gooey tar that seeped through cracks in the earth in what is today northwestern Pennsylvania. Over many centuries, Indian groups from Midwestern settlements stopped regularly in this section of Appalachia to collect the tar-like oil for use as a skincoloring agent. They built cribbed pits that allowed oil to trickle out slowly and accumulate over time. When they returned months later by boat, they used blankets and containers to extract the oil. These Paleoindians collected only enough to satisfy their needs. Their pattern of use-their ethic-was one of inconspicuous consumption. The humans who arrived later would not be so patient. Nor would their demands be satisfied so easily. At first, the arrival of Euro-Americans did little to diminish the supply of tar and oil. Although these early settlers were well aware that such deposits existed, they were far more interested in the land's agricultural potential. Not surprisingly, they judged the oily soils to be of poor quality for agriculture.1 Similarly, they paid little attention to the other fuel and nonfuel minerals found throughout the region. More often than not, the Appalachian Mountains were viewed in a negative light-as an impediment to movement and settlement. Indeed, the area of scattered settlement along the mountain range emerged as one of the first bona fide American frontiers by the late 1700s. Industrialization changed everything. By the second half of the nineteenth century, coal, and later petroleum, had become America's fuels of choice- minerals that could be extracted from the earth and burned to generate power and profits. No longer treated as obstacles, the Appalachian mountain chain was now viewed as a great vault for carbon. Acquiring these fuel resources in sufficient quantities took time and required a complete reorganization of human activities and living patterns. This shift toward industrialization represents one of the great technological undertakings of human history. Although remarkable innovations converted inanimate energy into products of all types, at the most basic level industrialization was constructed on a foundation of shifting priorities and ethics. In addition to the remarkable social and commercial accomplishments of this era, the transformation of the Appalachians into the nation's greatest energy landscape also came with significant residual costs attached. Appalachia's energy landscape is one of the clearest expressions of a specific American environmental ethic: extraction. Geographer Martin Pasqualetti has written generally about energy landscapes as an artifact of past cultural ethics and decision making. The importance of energy landscapes does not stop there. They help us create and organize a continuum of past decisions that might influence future alternatives. "Energy landscapes," he writes, "will continue to be compelling and in places dominating components of the earth's surface, and our reactions to them will continue coloring and steering our energy decisions, the direction and support of our technological research, the degree of land disruption we accept, and to some degree the nature of how we live our lives. The visibility of these landscapes, their scale and spread, and the frustration and intimidation we can feel in their presence has had a growing influence on our future energy decisions." As such, the Appalachians are closely tied to a broad swath of American energy history. They also hint at its energy future. Pasqualetti argues that the policy choices we make as a nation are often partly a "response to the landscape changes we see."2 Even so, a key feature of energy landscapes is separation. Whether a product of zoning, residential preference, or the supply of raw material, most often landscapes of energy production are not seen by most consumers. Mining operations are often carefully separated from population centers by design and by chance. To residents of the Appalachians, though, layers of American energy history are all too observable. By organizing this continuum of energy harvest in Appalachia, this essay seeks to close the gap between consumers of energy and this remarkable place that has provided Americans with power for generations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationMountains of Injustice
Subtitle of host publicationSocial and Environmental Justice in Appalachia
PublisherOhio University Press
Number of pages18
ISBN (Print)9780821419809
StatePublished - 2011

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Social Sciences


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