Image: Exhibition postcard
As much of the world transitions away from coal energy, communities across the globe grapple with the industry’s retirement and legacy. In the United States, this problem is most acute in the Appalachian region, a place that once at the center of coal production in the Western Hemisphere and has since faced a precipitous and systematic economic and social decline that has corresponded with the decline in coal extraction and use.
The region is at once a whirlwind of industrial triumph and environmental degradation, political and economic influence and also subordination; it is a complex region that has been socially re-constructed, culturally maligned, stereotyped and mythologized. Residents there are much older than the rest of the country, and experience disproportionately high rates of disability, illness, poverty, infant mortality, low life expectancy and addiction.
The trans-disciplinary Ohio Coal Transitions Project seeks to combine social science with theatrical performance, fine arts photography, and archival library science to the tell the story of three Ohio case study communities in the midst of their transition away from coal. Over 50 key informant interviews with coal industry workers, elected officials, community leaders and residents centers the stories of those impacted in the Ohio River Valley experiencing past, present, and future coal facility closures.
Our current and future outputs range from scholarly articles to applied community toolkits and transition guides, to a curated archival and fine arts photography exhibition that was first exhibited on the Ohio State University campus in Columbus, OH in Autumn of 2022 and will then travel to the three case study communities, and a community-theatre-produced theatrical production that uses the interview transcripts as the basis of a two-hour play centered on the experiences of power plant workers coming to terms with the closure and demolition of one of the United States’ largest coal-fired power plants.
These outputs apply a combined critical disability justice and environmental trauma-informed approach to understand these transformations and detangle how the social construction of Appalachia complicates the ongoing coal transition and influences how local residents process these changes. This perspective of critical trauma asks us to look beyond “a cure” for these places, to center the experiences and perspectives of the people impacted, to reflect upon and accept these radical transformations for what they are and to imagine inventive solutions that transform despair into causative and creative power. This framing – along with community driven outputs grounded in the arts – helps to confront normative assumptions of worth and productivity and move to assert agency and autonomy in a region that has been so deeply paternalized and constrained by narratives previously unable to accept the end of life for an industry and way of life.