Where does real change begin? Let’s say, for a moment, that it begins in the Appalachian coalfields, a place that, in 2010, has already lost nearly everything. I set my story here for two reasons, and neither have anything to do with despair. First, I find it easier to give a vision focus, and easier still if the focus is a landscape I have come to know and love. Second, there is something remarkably hopeful about the Appalachian Mountains. Walk along the moonscape of a once-forested ridgeline, and you will notice the butterfly weed rooted firmly in the gravel, blooming purple amidst the boulders. These mountains, though permanently altered, are resilient, and the people are no different. This is a place where it is easier to believe that transformative change—the kind that can move the world toward revolutionary thought, innovation, and action—could happen sooner than we dare to hope.
Now let’s step forward in time, and look back at how it all began. By many accounts, Appalachia was bleak in 2010: battered, used, and nearly abandoned by the coal industry. Children were born destined for the crippling mines, and mountains had been stripped dry. In this place, men and women bought graves before their 50th birthdays and imparted their wisdom over kitchen tables as if the end had already come. It wasn’t the past they longed for—life had always been hard—but the feeling of youth. If they had a vision at that time, it was quite clear: the pains of middle age would subside, storefronts would reopen, mining would stay underground, jobs would become plentiful, and kids would move back home.
In my vision, real change begins with people. Imagine, first, the miners. It didn’t take long for them to realize that times were changing. Machines had replaced men, safety took a backseat to production, and the coal came out faster each day. No one, not even an underground miner, could bear to see his well turn black and the land above his house disappear. They began to organize, some in secret, some risking their jobs. They wanted safety and an end to mountaintop removal, they said, afraid to admit the truth—that Appalachia needed an entirely new system. But the story of their struggle soon spread south to the Gulf Coast, west to Black Mesa, north through the drilling fields into the Powder River Basin, and east again through the poor suburbs of Chicago and the Pennsylvania coalfields, activating the millions trodden by the oil, gas, and coal industries and arriving at long last in Washington DC. It dawned on the nation’s leaders: an energy system that killed American workers and families was costly and wrong. So the president outlawed mountaintop removal. It was the easiest thing to do when that many people appeared at his gate, clambering for hope and change. But the coalfield people would not let him stop there, and that’s when their real work began.
The task was not simple. They had to prove that they did not need coal—that, in fact, they would prosper without it. With coal severance dollars and reparations paid to them by the strip mining companies, the people built health clinics to provide free services to the poor, sick, and disabled, and training centers for laid-off miners and jobless youth. They learned to retrofit and build, write grants, program computers, restore and remediate polluted habitat, monitor water quality, and assemble components to create advanced, green technologies. Doctors, entrepreneurs, artists, engineers, preachers, biologists, musicians, and teachers bought cheap, vacant houses and committed to living in the mountains for as long as the healing took. In school, students learned about their ancestors’ triumphs and mistakes and vowed that if they ever regained the land, they wouldn’t allow it to be taken again. They took field trips to places like Detroit and New Orleans, where they saw community-owned gardens and businesses. Back home, their parents bought goats and sheep to make cheese and wool. And in the towns, main streets lit up with supply stores, movie theaters, local groceries, and southern-style restaurants cooking up seasonal fare.
When the world’s governments agreed to cap carbon, the Appalachian coalfields were ready. There was plenty of work to be done; it would take decades, and perhaps even centuries, to clean the mines, remove chemicals and heavy metals from the water, and nurture native growth across the stripped mountain ridges. But the railroad tracks that had been laid long ago for the coal industry could be repurposed to carry seeds and soil in place of dynamite, while transporting people, too. With quick access to materials, miners erected turbines along the windiest ridges and solar panels on flattened mountains. Nationwide investments in research and development prompted engineers to get creative—coal wasn’t clean, nor was it available. They found other ways to capture the sun and wind, using technologies dreamt up years ago—now that they had the funds to bring them to fruition. They scrapped the internal combustion engine in favor of a powerful electric battery. Blooms of clean energy dotted the country from west to east, connected like puzzle pieces into an efficient energy grid. The United States became an international model of holistic problem solving. And places like Appalachia were the incubators for new ideas. The spirit of entrepreneurship even inspired locals to launch their own ventures, drawing on mountain tradition to generate community-owned businesses.
The people of Appalachia knew they were lucky. Having been part of the transformation, they reaped many of its benefits: economic prosperity, access to health care, good food, youthfulness, and a familial camaraderie they hadn’t felt since the union days. But though the new energy system was more just, there were many others who still suffered. When sea levels rose and deserts expanded, inhabitants scrambled to find food and shelter. Appalachians had always been generous people, and they hadn’t forgotten their painful past. In fact, many communities around the country remembered how it felt to suffer. And so they opened their hollows, cities, and plains to climate refugees and set them to work building compact housing clusters and lent them fertile soil on which to grow their food.
It was not all easy; in fact, transformation at this scale was quite challenging. But that’s why it began in Appalachia—the mountain people were resilient. Miners understood that there is some pain that never quite goes away. And with others at their side, they made it through.