Shannon Elizabeth Bell has spent the better part of a decade in a serious sociological study of Central Appalachian coal communities. Her first monograph, Our Roots Run Deep as Ironweed (2013), provided a groundbreaking introduction to women’s collective action in eastern coal country. The scholarly intervention of that book clarified the well-acknowledged gendered dynamics of the environmental justice movement. Appalachian women built infrastructures of resistance to mountaintop removal by politicizing motherhood and creating broader “protector” identities to safeguard their communities against mercurial mining practices. In Fighting King Coal, Bell inverses this proposition: rather than ask why women protest, she asks why so many choose not to. Why, in the heart of America’s most famous sacrifice zone, do most people choose “non-action”? Bell is influenced by John Gaventa, whose classic study of power relationships in Appalachian Valley, Power and Powerlessness (1980), popularized the notion of “quiescence.” Bell, too, is interested in the obstacles to political organizing. Rather than trace only successful movements, she seeks contingency. Bell first lays out the main barriers to resistance: these Appalachian communities are isolated, the local men are wary about movements dominated by women, the coal business is embedded deep within people’s economic and cultural identities, and environmental destruction goes on out of sight and out of mind of most residents. These topics each receive a chapter-length treatment, sometimes with the help of a coauthor. They remind us why “mobilization, is, in fact, a very infrequent occurrence among individuals experiencing injustice” (p. 244). The rest of the book attempts to observe, in real time, other variables that motivate the “becoming” or “not becoming” of activists. Bell draws on her early professional training in community organizing and social work. Over eight months, she conducted a “PhotoVoice” project with fifty-four people in southern West Virginia, most of whom had no prior involvement in environmental activism. “PhotoVoice” is a popular arts-based program in community development circles. The project gathers locals to discuss the issues facing their communities, and it encourages them to use photography to capture these concerns. Bell’s participants, for instance, used photography to document the impacts of coal mining: flooding, pollution, toxic runoff, dumping grounds, razed mountains, mine sites, reclamation, and sources of community pride and shame. Bell says the “PhotoVoice” project created new converts to environmental action, but most others failed to grasp the “extent and severity” (pp. 180, 184). In the process, Bell discovered two more reasons environmental justice campaigns struggle to take hold in the region: local elites “stifle” and “censure” agitators; and an influx of “outsiders” (college students, big environmental groups, and celebrities) make sympathetic locals feel disconnected from their own campaigns. Most of Bell’s ideas about gender, corporate hegemony, elite power structures, and “insiders” and “outsiders” are familiar to historians of environmental movements. The real strength of Bell’s work lies in its methodological creativity. But Bell (or her publisher) did not foreground this enough. The PhotoVoice images receive the scant quarter-page black-and-white treatment of an academic monograph. But a photobook would have better served the significant contribution of these photographs and the local Appalachian residents who took them. Finally, Bell gives short shrift to change over time. She makes only passing references to the work of Appalachian historians including Ronald Eller, Crandall Shifflett, Henry D. Shapiro, John Williams Alexander, and Chad Montrie. Perhaps that is not such much a fault as it is a disciplinary difference. After all, Bell’s work is best considered alongside anthropologists and sociologists like Bryan T. McNeil, Stephen Fisher, David Naguib Pellow, and Rebecca Scott. But a greater sense of history could have helped ground this research in “place.” And although it is hard to critique a sociologist for sociology-ese (“cognitive liberation,” “the cohort effect,” “micromobilization context,” “Community A”), this kind of prose does make Bell sound clinical and detracts from her effort to create more intimate portraits. That said, the book is well recommended for historians of environmental justice, Appalachia, women’s activism, and social movement theory. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Society for Environmental History and the Forest History Society. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Environmental History – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 1, 2018
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