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Reclaiming the Commons in Appalachia

Humans are social beings. We organize ourselves into groups, build relationships, enjoy creative labor and seek fellowship. From childhood to adulthood, who we are greatly depends on our relationships with those closest to us. We are also heavily influenced by the social, cultural and institutional circumstances of our lives. Institutions, then, have major implications for our rights, welfare, labor, aspirations and associations. This warrants pause and careful reflection. Are institutions with such authority legitimate? The libertarian position is that illegitimate authority should be dismantled.

The January 9 industrial disaster that struck West Virginia should raise such reflection in the mountains.

The extractive resource industry has a firm hold on the wild, wonderful, but wounded Appalachians. The use of eminent domain and compulsory pooling has robbed communities of their cultural and natural heritage. Capital is the authority of the Appalachian coalfields, and has created systemic poverty and mono economies. Instead of prosperity in the commons, the mechanism of authority has spawned tragedy.

Property is theft in Appalachia. The current system is concerned with the well-being of the politically connected corporati instead of the common good – Appalachian communities. This system exists because legal privilege is granted to industry. The development of this socio-economic order is political, as opposed to free and participatory. The current authority in the coalfields, the corporate state, is illegitimate. It is far past time we transition to society free of it.

Appalachia is a region plauged with ecological destruction, where labor is on the decline and persistent class struggle exists. Appalachia is also a place of community, a place where the commons work against these problems. Given the chance a mutual political economy would thrive in Appalachia.

Appalachian life is enriched by common land. Communal areas to this day are still shared for livestock, hunting, root digging, recreation and more. The growth of industry in the region, however, and its subsequent property monopoly has made these traditions difficult to practice. Even family cemeteries are now industrial property — folks need permission to pay their respects to the dead. Common property ownership is now manifesting itself in the form of community land trusts and conservation easements. Common natural resources — water, air, land, and biodiversity — are under direct threat from industry in Appalachia. Such vital natural resources are a public good. They should be neither rivalrous nor excludable. In Appalachia, however, clean air and water are subject to exploitation. It is a privilege to have access to these resources. The coal town of Bud West, Virginia, for example, has not had clean water in over five months.

Reclaiming the commons in Appalachia will allow new markets to develop. Numerous institutions and networks will emerge. In the commons, social power will build anew within the shell of the old. This cannot happen under centralized authority. States and big business are guided by self-interest. The commons are guided by co-operation and mutualism — the natural, biological tendencies of human beings.

Luckily, the transition to a brighter future has already begun.

Small scale, decentralized markets are rising in the Appalachian coalfields. In West Virginia, coal miners who lost their jobs to the mechanization of the industry have started developing environmental markets. Worker coalitions are helping communities save money via efficiency programs. Social movements are working to protect mountain ecology and alleviate poverty. Appalachia is speaking truth to power. Economic transition, solidarity economies, restoration ecology and even more regeneration is coming to the gentle mountains. This regeneration will be fully actualized when property and power are once again where they belong – with the people.

Grant Mincy is from the temperate forests of East Tennessee. 

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Grant A. Mincy is a senior fellow at the Center for a Stateless Society (C4SS.org) where he holds the Elinor Ostrom Chair in Environmental Studies and Commons Governance. He also blogs at appalachianson.wordpress.com. In addition, Mincy is an associate editor of the Molinari Review and an Energy & Environment Advisory Council Member for the Our America Initiative. He earned his Masters degree in Earth and Planetary Science from the University of Tennessee in the summer of 2012. He lives in Knoxville, Tennessee where he teaches both Biology and Geology at area colleges.

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