By now everyone knows that in the face of global climate change, the United States must do at least two big things. We have to stop burning gasoline for our personal transportation, and we have to stop burning coal to make our electricity. A change in the way Americans move from place to place will affect almost all of us. But leaving coal behind may not, unless we live in Central Appalachia.
In the place where West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee converge, coal has been king since the late 1800s. And an entire way of life is built upon a love-hate relationship with the black, smoky stuff. Coal has brought Appalachian people the only meager glimpses of prosperity they’ve seen. But coal mining has also taken many lives—through accidents and through the slow death of black lung. Now the coal industry is taking away the landscape that formed the Appalachian people and their culture. Increasingly, coal operators simply blow the tops off the mountains to scoop out the coal, leaving lifeless plateaus behind and burying more than 4,000 miles of streams under the rubble and waste.
Country singer Kathy Mattea, a West Virginian, expresses much of this story on her most recent album, Coal, a collection of classic mining songs. You can read about the rest in a new book, Something’s Rising: Appalachians Fighting Mountaintop Removal, from the University Press of Kentucky, edited by novelist Silas House and journalist Jason Howard.