Imagined Rurality in Coal Country’s ‘Economic Transition’ and Emergent Appalachian Futurism

Authors: Gabriel Schwartzman*, University of Minnesota
Topics: Cultural and Political Ecology, Rural Geography, Development
Keywords: rurality, rural development, coal, futurism
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/5/2019
Start / End Time: 9:55 AM / 11:35 AM
Room: Congressional A, Omni, West
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


This paper investigates rural economic development projects in Appalachia’s so called ‘economic transition,’ and the production of new ruralities in the Appalachian Mountains. In recent years, government agencies and a consortium of private foundations have together invested tens of millions of dollars in the name of economic transition – rural economic development projects designed to revitalize economies in Appalachian coal country coal as the local coal industry declines. Funders’ stated goals are to diversify the Appalachian economy, and therefore, employ various ideas about possible futures for the Appalachian region after coal. This process of imagination involves the deployment of certain notions of what development, poverty and prosperity mean. In turn, development dollars begin to produce new ruralities – ways of rural life – in the mountains, from investments in small-scale agriculture and tourism to prison construction. This paper investigates the multiple imaginations of rural life that guide funding agency decisions in investment regimes, examining one case study of a government funded project and one philanthropy funded project. As rural development projects begin to enact certain imagined ruralities, communities voice concerns about rural gentrification and questions about community inclusion in decision-making. Examining local responses to funded projects, this research engages diverse epistemologies gained through place-based experiences of the coal industry to better understand what ‘justice’ means in a ‘just’ transition for Appalachia (Derickson & MacKinnon 2015). The paper concludes examining recent ‘Appalachian Futurism’ scholarship and activism (Smith 2016), placing agency imaginations in conversation with emergent community-based imaginations for rural development politics.

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