March 2021

Review: Remaking Appalachia: Ecosocialism, Ecofeminism, and Law

Not only is this text a necessity for environmental law and community lawyering, but it would also be a wonderful addition to introductory courses in Appalachian studies, gender studies, and environmental history.

by Z. Zane McNeill

Remaking Appalachia: Ecosocialism, Ecofeminism, and Law falls right in line with other social justice oriented WVU Press titles such as The Opioid Epidemic and US Culture (2020), Storytelling in Queer Appalachia (2020), and Appalachian Reckoning (2019) in that it comes from an activist-scholar outsider position, challenging normative narratives of and hegemonic powers in the region. However, Nicholas Stump’s text is even more radical than these titles and argues for a complete reformation of environmental law and economics in the region. His proposed solution? Move from liberal/neoliberal capitalism to a solidarity economy and community lawyering movement predicated on ecosocialist and ecofeminist theories. Remaking Appalachia not only reimagines an Appalachian futurity built with the Commons in mind, but it also offers a toolkit for building more just societies, food systems, and law practices outside of the region that are grounded in community-building and empowerment, sustainability, and equity.

Stump begins by exploring Appalachia as a historic “sacrifice zone,” in which the fossil fuel hegemony and other extractive industries have exploited the region and its people in its quest for capital.[1] He contends that capitalism’s “productionist orientation…[has led to] the region’s complex past and contemporary forms of subordination,” both culturally and materially.[2] In this introduction, he lays out his main argument—that environmental law has fundamentally failed this region through its disjointed nature, reliance on non-democratic administrative agencies, and legislative “outs.”[3] Instead of working towards piecemeal changes and incremental change, Stump contends that only through “radical structural change” and “systemic reformations” can there be a true paradigm shift that can redress the harms done by neoliberal capitalism.[4]

Stump comes to this field, which has been dominated by sociologists and social historians, from an environmental law background thus building his argument on the foundation of common law. Stump introduces the basics and history of American environmental law, specifically tort-based law, such as nuisance and negligence, which he argues have “failed to protect the regional citizenry from industrial capitalism-based harms.”[5] In addition, he argues that classical liberalism itself has failed Appalachia, and that development law, property law, and contract law has only “enhanced corporate power” and “facilitated the fossil fuel hegemony.”[6] Stump contends that industry interests have co-opted and perverted channels that should have been able to mitigate environmental degradation in the region.[7] He takes a deep dive into the legislative and case law in the region, exploring the histories of institutional capture alongside case studies that illustrate the failure of government agencies in enforcing environmental statutes and regulations.[8] He ends the chapter with his main takeaway: “Environmental law, then, as embedded within hegemonic liberalism, has constituted a critically flawed paradigm.”[9] These normative legal frameworks have only aided in the structural subordination of the region and cannot be used to redress this harm from within a neoliberal capitalist system.[10]

Cover via WVU Press.

Stump contends that environmental law is just another god which has failed us by working within the capitalist “paradigm that promotes environmental despoliation.”[11] The Big Greens, “eventually co-opted legislative stakeholder discussions and accepted regulation over abolition,” which only further embedded the hold of extractive industries in the region.[12] Despite the failure of these environmental groups choosing regulation over abolition, there was and continues to be a strong history of environmental justice-oriented organizing and activism in the region that works towards transformative change outside of the liberal capitalist paradigm.[13]

His fifth chapter, “Modern Appalachia: Environmental Law’s Failure and the Broader Regional Landscape” is the triumph of this manuscript. This chapter explores the tenets of environmental and distributive justice by analyzing environmental legal efforts and case law, such as Bragg V. Robertson, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth Inc. v. Rivenburgh, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition v. Aracoma Coal Co., Kentuckians for the Commonwealth v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, as well as citizen tort common law actions. This chapter also tackles the discourse of ‘Trumpalachia’ and explores cases that offer alternate visions of the region, such as the 2018 West Virginia teacher strike, social mobilization and grassroots organizing by groups such as the Highlander Research and Education Center, Appalachian Mountain Advocates, and the Southern Environmental Law Center, and direct action initiatives, such as tree-sitting by Appalachians Against Pipelines.[14]

Stump offers more than criticisms of environmental law and extractive industries and presents ways to redress harm and reimagine environmental and economic structures in Appalachia. He posits that the answer to environmental degradation can be found in theories of the solidarity economy and de-growth ecosocialist approaches.[15] He explores themes from ecofeminism, such as autonomy and self-provisioning, community-wide decision-making, subsistence approaches, and participatory democracy as well as ecosocialist concepts like collective ownership models and multi-scale democratic economic planning.[16] Informed by these frameworks, Stump argues that while legal reform reinforces the current neoliberal paradigm, there are legal stepping stone measures, such as environmental human rights, public trust doctrines, and community lawyering that can be used to move towards environmental and economic reformations of the region.[17]

Stump explores what a solidarity economic and subsistence-based systemic reform could look like in the region in his final chapter. Based on a history of yeomanry in the region, as well as exploring case studies of community-owned clean energy, worker and renewable-based cooperatives, and community food systems that expand the economical commons, this chapter offers a toolkit for activists to pursue democratic, reciprocal, sustainable, and equitable political economies in Appalachia.[18] In addition, he provides concrete ways in which community lawyers can expand environmental human rights and the public trust doctrine in Appalachia, as well as work towards an ecological re-commoning and revitalized Green New Deal in the region.[19]

One of the strengths of this text is its breadth of coverage—not only is this text a necessity for environmental law and community lawyering, but it would also be a wonderful addition to introductory courses in Appalachian studies, gender studies, and environmental history. In addition to its value to academia, active lawyers in the field will find the chapter on “Systemic Economic and Socio-Legal Change” helpful to their legal arguments and Appalachian activists will find the chapter “Remaking Appalachia” fruitful to their social justice work. In summary, I implore activists, scholars, students, and lawyers to add Remaking Appalachia to their summer reading list and promise that it won’t disappoint.

Z. Zane McNeill is an activist-scholar, co-editor of Queer and Trans Voices: Achieving Liberation Through Consistent Anti-Oppression, and the founder of Roots DEI Consulting and Policy.





Further Reading

[1] Stump, Nicholas F. Remaking Appalachia: Ecosocialism, Ecofeminism, and Law. Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University Press, 2021, 1-2.

[2] Ibid, 2-3.

[3] Ibid, 3-4.

[4]Ibid, 4-5.

[5] Ibid,, 41.

[6] Ibid, 61-62.

[7] Ibid, 92.

[8] Ibid, 97.

[9] Ibid, 112.

[10] Ibid, 63.

[11] Ibid, 53.

[12] Ibid, 89.

[13]Ibid, 91.

[14] Ibid, 146- 157.

[15]Ibid, 162.

[16] Ibid, 171-173.

[17] Ibid 175- 192.

[18] Ibid, 201-216.

[19] Ibid, 217-234.

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