We are living in a moment of nearly constant, cascading ecological crises. In the United States alone, we have witnessed record-breaking heat waves in the Pacific Northwest, increased forest fires in California, worsening hurricanes in the Gulf Coast, and massive flooding in the Midwest and on the East Coast—all in the summer of 2021. The need for transformative ecological interventions is increasingly apparent. A lack of robust political will and intrinsically flawed legal regimes, however, have left communities and entire nations vulnerable. Political inaction and the paralysis of traditional legal structures reinforce the need for grassroots, community-anchored efforts to champion truly transformative ecological change. In his new book, Remaking Appalachia: Ecosocialism, Ecofeminism, and Law, Nicholas F. Stump explores how citizens, communities, and lawyers can move beyond the failing regulatory framework of traditional environmental law. Stump instead argues that a more radical approach—one based on ecosocialist and ecofeminist principles—can help engender bottom-up forms of critical justice and strong ecological sustainability.
The following is the transcript of a conversation between Stump and interviewer Priya Baskaran of the American University Washington College of Law. Lynne Stahl of West Virginia University Libraries serves as the moderator. The conversation tracks the major themes explored in Remaking Appalachia. These themes include the failure of environmental law and the broader liberal paradigm it is embedded within in Appalachia and beyond—and the corresponding need for true transformative change beyond the liberal capitalist order, as necessarily coordinated from local to global scales. In drawing on Baskaran’s scholarship and community lawyering experience in southern West Virginia, the interview also covers themes of how radical Appalachian lawyers can support such transformative change moving forward.
The author has included a brief primer on key terms used throughout the interview with accompanying suggestions for further reading. Note also that while the interview necessarily focuses on current and future-projected forms of radical social change in Appalachia—such as ecosocialist- and ecofeminist-steeped recommoning in the coalfields as a means to take back the land—related efforts are ongoing throughout the United States and beyond, as particularly led by Indigenous communities, communities of color, women activists, and other groups and coalitions pursuing transformative change.
Primer on Select Key Words
Ecosocialism: Ecosocialism combines principles of transformative leftist social change with radical ecological thought. Ecosocialism generally advocates for collective ownership modes of the means of production, production for use value (or things we actually need in our communities) over production for exchange value in the market, democratic economic planning from local to global scales, and strong ecological sustainability as implicating post-growth precepts.
Ecofeminism: Ecofeminism argues that under liberal capitalism, environmental despoliation is intrinsically interlinked with other forms of subordination along such lines as gender, class, race, LGBTQ status, Indigenous status, neocolonialism and neoimperialism, and the Global South and North divide. A materialist ecosocialist ecofeminism specifically advocates for more revolutionary change over reform alone. Such an approach focuses on how each locality and region are uniquely situated and thus require niche approaches as necessarily coordinated with broader work. Lastly, in contrast to liberal individualism, ecofeminism foregrounds the ethic of care. The ethic of care centers relationships and interconnectivity and highlights the material reality of mutual dependencies among both ourselves and the wider living environment.
Degrowth: Degrowth advocates for transcending liberal capitalism’s ecologically unsustainable perpetual growth paradigm, instead arguing for democratically planned reductions in resource and energy use in the Global North. Degrowth simultaneously argues for a radical and equitable re-allocation of societal resources in order to increase the material quality of life for those suffering under late-stage capitalism. Degrowth also shares important intersections with ecosocialist and ecofeminist thought.
Critical Legal Theory: Critical legal theory posits that the law is not normatively neutral, and that the law moreover insidiously supports dominant societal interests at the expense of marginalized groups. Prominent schools and foundational literature include Critical Legal Studies (CLS), Critical Race Theory, legal feminism, postmodern legal thought, and Marxist approaches to law. Of concern here, a core element of the Marxist critique of law involves notions of the base and superstructure: namely, that the economic base constitutes the true foundation of a society (in our case, liberal capitalism) while the political and legal superstructure are broadly supportive of that base.
Recommoning: Ecological recommoning entails extracting land from private and other forms of exclusionary ownership and creating instead a commons whereby the people exercise common ownership and collective forms of use rights over the land and resources as embodying a strong stewardship ethic. The ecosocialist influence often highlights the importance of nurturing both diverse commons and public ownership modes in society at large and emphasizes that democratic planning is a vital element of successful commons governance.
Natural Resource Curse: The natural resource curse model examines the supposed paradox of regions (often in the Global South) rich in natural resources that nevertheless often fail to materially benefit from those resources due to the interventions and hegemonic control of large, outside capital interests. The Appalachian region is often characterized as a classic example of the natural resource curse, as operationalized in a peripheral region of the Global North. Appalachia is rich in mineral wealth and natural resources (such as coal, oil and gas, and timber) and yet for over a century has been affirmatively subordinated along economic, social, and environmental lines by the fossil fuel industry and captured ruling elites.
Priya Baskaran: Nick, this is a mixed audience, so I think it’s important before we really dive into the meat of the book to provide some kind of basic foundational knowledge. So, let’s talk about Appalachia. What in your opinion is Appalachia?
Nicholas F. Stump: There’s just not one definition of the region. I think activists and scholars have long rightly contested such a universalizing definition of Appalachia. However, I think you’re right: this is something of a mixed audience, which is great, but I do think an introductory definition could be beneficial for some folks. So, the Appalachian Regional Commission, or ARC, has a mainstream and very influential definition of the region, and per this ARC map, Appalachia stretches across thirteen states from the top of Mississippi up to New York, and ARC has further divided Appalachia up into five subregions. Of these subregions, I mostly focus on Central Appalachia and on North Central Appalachia in the book. I think we have a link to that influential ARC map that we can drop into chat, or it is in chat.
Baskaran: I want to pull on that a little bit. Why does this book focus on Appalachia?
Stump: Appalachia, as I argue in the book, is important for understanding the broader failures of environmental law. As I argue, Appalachia has uniquely been devastated by the fossil fuel industry really for much more than a century, and it continues to be so today both through coal industry and the natural gas industry and the related petrochemical sector. And also, on a more personal level, I am from West Virginia. I was raised in Buckhannon, which is in the north central part of the state, and I have worked at the WVU College of Law for the past decade almost. So, I do feel very rooted and very much a part of the of the region.
Baskaran: So is this book like a personal passion project? Why did you write this book?
Stump: I wrote the book because I did think that there was room in the literature for the sort of perspective that I bring, which is really a radical, legal left ecological position. I do think it’s probably fair to say that most U.S. legal environmental scholarship is often more liberal or progressive, and it’s not more radical, right? It’s not situated on the legal ecological left. So that’s sort of the perspective that I hope was fresh, needed, and that I brought.
Baskaran: I keep hearing the word legal, so is the book only for lawyers? Who is the audience?
Stump: I would say that I hope that the book would appeal to an interdisciplinary audience. So certainly environmental legal scholars, folks on the broad legal left both in the United States and beyond, certainly Appalachian and rural studies folks, and grassroots organizers and activists in a general sense. But, that being said, as one special audience, I do think that the book likely has real value for law students, lawyers, and activists who are particularly interested in environmental issues and deeper social change. And that’s just because the book talks about lawyering and grassroots movements in a sort of unique way that is, you know, often not discussed in traditional U.S. law schools or in traditional environmental practice. Namely, this is again a radical-oriented, grassroots, bottom-up approach to lawyering, which is a bit out of the mainstream.
Baskaran: What would you say are your main takeaways for this audience, for your readers?
Stump: I would say the major takeaway, the sort of thesis statement, as it were, is that environmental law and the broader liberal paradigm that it is embedded within has failed Appalachia. And so we, in the end, don’t need more environmental law reform alone. We instead need true transformative change, or systemic reformations, as I call them in the book, beyond our current paradigm, which is the paradigm of liberal capitalism. More specifically, beyond the paradigm of white patriarchal capitalism.
Baskaran: I want to push you on that a little bit. Can you talk a little bit more about how environmental law has failed Appalachia? Maybe a little bit more background information about the law and its shortcomings?
Stump: Yes absolutely, and in the book, there are sort of two levels of analysis. One is the technical or operational analysis as to how environmental law specifically has failed, and the second is sort of a broader systems analysis that, again, goes more towards liberal capitalism.
Baskaran: Okay, right, but before we get there let’s cover the environmental law part first.
Stump: Environmental law is a unique legal regime compared to many others. It constitutes a constellation of statutes that were very rapidly passed after the so-called “environmental revolution”—I’d probably say the “environmental awakening,” myself—of the 1960s. And these environmental statutes include, among many others, the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and important for Appalachia, the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, or SMCRA. So again, it’s a sort of constellation of these different statutes, and again, the core of these statutes was passed very rapidly at the end of the 1960s and really throughout the 1970s, and they have been added to and refined in the decades since.
Baskaran: So that’s the universe of the laws. Can you talk a little bit about the technical failures of these laws or environmental law generally?
Stump: There are a number of interrelated technical or operational flaws with environmental law. One of those is that it was enacted in an ad hoc or fragmented manner to begin with in the 1960s and 1970s and thereafter, so environmental law tends not to work harmoniously. It’s not, you know, a mutually supportive set of statutes very often. So again, it’s a fragmented legal regime. They often say the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing. Also, in creating environmental law, the federal legislature delegated immense authority to what I think—and to what many folks think—are fundamentally nondemocratic agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, or the EPA, and these agencies were very quickly “captured” by industry. And, regulatory “capture” occurs when industries co-opt and control those environmental agencies that were supposedly regulating them. So, you know, regulatory capture is a very sort of perverse phenomenon. Environmental law also is infamously hypertechnical. It’s very dense and complex, which has locked out the broad citizenry from engaging with it in a meaningful sense—despite some mechanisms that are at least there, in theory, like notice and comment rulemaking. But on the other hand, this complexity has not at all harmed industry, right, as industry does have, you know, very deep technical expertise that it deploys through lobbying and so forth, and of course, industry has the capital required to sort of comprehensively co-opt various forms of lawmaking.
Baskaran: I want to pause here, and I would like you to go a little bit deeper into this concept of industry co-option. Can you give me more of a kind of concrete example?
Stump: As sort of a foundational example, in fact, at the very beginning of environmental law’s enactment, again back in the 1960s and the 1970s, Professor Mary Wood and others have explored how industry and complicit lawmakers secured legislative “outs” through which they could continue to pollute. So that happened at the very beginning, namely through permitting regimes, such as those permitting regimes that were embedded in the Clean Water Act, right, which ended up being important for Appalachia. And through these permit-to-pollute legal regimes embedded into environmental law that industry secured, I think ultimately environmental law has not served to halt environmental destruction, as what it actually does is it organizes it. You got your permit to despoil the environment, and so then it’s perfectly legal, right? So again, I think this is sort of a foundational example of how at the very beginning industry co-opted environmental law, in that case legislative lawmaking, and then it’s continued to control the different lawmaking mechanisms involving different branches of government.
Baskaran: And, it’s very fascinating, you hear that all the time, you know, sort of that concept of pollution permits from environmental activists, so that’s really helpful. Can we narrow that a little bit further and talk about maybe how environmental law has failed Appalachia specifically since that’s sort of one of the focal points of the book? Maybe you can focus on the mountaintop removal example?
Stump: Yes, absolutely. First and foremost, from a law and political economy perspective, capitalist growth has historically been fossil fuel driven, right?
Baskaran: Makes sense. Right, you can’t grow or run factories without fuel.
Stump: Yes, and so Appalachia, with its vast deposits of coal and oil and gas, has been absolutely central in the United States to this historical process. Folks often say that it’s been pillaged as a “national sacrifice zone” or an “energy sacrifice zone” because both the land and the people have been exploited in order to keep energy prices low for the nation, again, to drive economic growth and ultimately, from the critical perspective, to facilitate capital accumulation among elite energy interests. Mountaintop removal mining, which has occurred mostly in the Central Appalachian part of the region, is likely among the best examples in recent historical times of this phenomenon, as mountaintop removal mining has been an intensive mining practice for much of the last three decades—although it has steeply declined now. As the name suggests, mountaintop removal essentially just involves chopping off the top of mountains through explosives and use of heavy machinery to get at the coal seams beneath. But, it’s a remarkably destructive practice. To date, it has destroyed over 500 mountains in Appalachia, and much more than two thousand miles of ecologically crucial headwater streams. Folks have compared it more to volcanic eruptions in the literature than to traditional mining practices or deforestation. And of course, mountaintop removal mining has had profound social and public health impacts on the Appalachian citizenry, and economic impacts also have been explored, for instance, via the natural resource curse model.
Baskaran: For anyone who’s unfamiliar with mountaintop removal and can see Beth Toren [an audience member], her [virtual] background [image] is actually a mountaintop removal site, so you can see how huge and decimated that really is. Let’s go back to this whole concept of environmental law. I mean you talked about all of these different statutes—you called them a constellation. Doesn’t SMCRA specifically address mountaintop removal?
Stump: Yes, and that’s such a good question. So, mountaintop removal mining was not banned by federal environmental law as it should have been. In fact, Appalachian activists and organizations worked very hard to try and ban surface mining altogether in the 1960s and 1970s, but they were, you know, tragically unsuccessful with those efforts, and instead SMCRA, or the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, was passed, which is a very watered-down act. SMCRA did not, again, ban surface mining at large, and among other things, it in the end permitted mountaintop removal mining. So ultimately, mountaintop removal mining is governed by a permit-to-pollute legal regime, of the very sort we were discussing earlier, namely by permits that have been issued under the Clean Water Act. And mountaintop removal mining operations also are governed by a very complex set of other cooperative federalism-type environmental laws including SMCRA, and the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. So basically, in sum, that mountaintop removal mining occurred in the first place—that it has even happened and wasn’t banned by federal environmental law as Appalachians wanted it to be—is a profound failure in and of itself. It’s an exemplar of all that’s wrong with environmental law.
Baskaran: Again, I’m hearing that the statute doesn’t provide broad enough protections and then sort of kicks the can down the road to these like permitting agencies, right, which again is just this nondemocratic agency issuing permits that are actually harmful?
Stump: Yes right, and then there’s a second-level failure in Appalachia as well. That’s why Appalachia again is such a good case model for the failure of environmental law in the broader U.S. Mountaintop removal mining is unique in that the environmental laws that we have on the books that, again, as I argue, were deeply flawed to begin with, and as many other folks have argued too—I’m again thinking of Professor Mary Wood—so, these environmental laws which were deeply flawed to begin with were not then enforced by the federal and state agencies at issue. These core agencies include the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and state agencies to which authority has been delegated, including the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection.
Baskaran: I have to stop you right there. As a lawyer, I’m hearing enforcement issues, right, which means that your agency can be sued if it’s not doing its job? So, isn’t that the solution?
Stump: Yes. Also, such a good question, but what’s happened over the course of decades is that when Appalachian environmental organizations in tandem with legal organizations brought suit in federal Appalachian courts to force agencies to enforce environmental law, very often over the decades, key federal Appalachian appellate courts ruled in favor of industry in what’s now an infamous string of litigation losses for Appalachian environmental plaintiffs. The environmental plaintiffs certainly didn’t lose every time, but there was, you know, for decades, a string of litigation losses that were devastating and absurd on their face—as the law clearly supported the environmental plaintiffs against the industry.
Baskaran: How did that happen?
Stump: Again, such a fantastic question, and that kind of allows us, I think, to return back to the central critical legal theory arguments—or the type of critical theory that I draw on, which is more in the ecological Marxian tradition. So again, recall that capitalist growth has historically been fossil fuel driven, as broadly supported by the state in the United States—so it’s not just these captured environmental agencies such as the EPA and so forth that have supported this historical process. But, it’s also been the state and federal courts in Appalachia that have very often, not always, but very often worked together historically to support this exploitative fossil fuel paradigm that again has devastated the land and people in our region.
Baskaran: Wow, so I’m really understanding this captured agency, captured courts, captured, you know, governance in general. I’m getting a sense of why Appalachia has really been called this energy sacrifice zone.
Stump: Yes, right, exactly. Essentially, the nation, for a century and a half, has needed our natural resources in order to drive economic growth, supposedly to the benefit of all. And so, the courts alone can’t and won’t stop this process, right? This historical process has now had incredible momentum and involves quite a bit of extensive fixed capital in fossil fuel industry infrastructure and so forth. And so, you know, these environmental citizen suits alone can’t change the—can’t change the liberal capitalist paradigm, right? And again, I should emphasize that there’s been much great legal work done. From time to time, there has been environmental legal victories. But the fact of the matter is, the fossil fuel industry persists. Mountaintop removal mining lingers, despite the fact that it has rapidly declined in the last decade. There’s a great article, last week, I think in Salon, about how new mountaintop removal mining permits continue to be issued in Appalachia. And, of course, the natural gas industry and the related petrochemical industry that’s experiencing a quote-unquote petrochemical renaissance is, despite the hiccup during the pandemic, generally on the rise.
Baskaran: Broken statutes, co-opted courts and agencies, it really feels like this kind of David and Goliath problem. Does this kind of bring us to the systemic aspect of your book?
Stump: That’s right. I mean, I do think that the system, as it were, is, you know, purposely being kept broken, or purposely being kept flawed in order to protect the financial interests of these energy companies and their beneficiaries. And again, this really is a central insight of critical legal theory, or again the type of critical legal theory that I draw on—which is really in the ecological Marxian tradition, right, it’s not all critical legal theory that goes there. But again, most basically, we can’t redress these core flaws alone through more environmental law reform from within the system, as the system itself is designed to benefit the status quo. So again, as I argue, I do think that we ultimately need a strategy leading us towards transformative change, or as I discuss in the book, systemic reformations.
Baskaran: Let’s talk about some of these systemic reformations. Especially in context of what you’re bringing up: the critical environmental legal commentators’ perspective.
Stump: Yes, so we, as in many critical environmental legal commentators—or again, folks who are situated on the ecological legal left—we do tend to call environmental law “liberal environmental law” because it is merely embedded within and ultimately supportive of liberal capitalism, which is again a central critical argument. So, in contrast, through this critical legal perspective that’s again, more in the ecological Marxian tradition, I argue that liberal capitalism is not just unjust, as it exploits labor and so forth, but that it ultimately is ecologically unsustainable.
Baskaran: I want to push you on that a little bit. Why is it unsustainable?
Stump: Most basically, the capitalist mode of production is marked by the drive for ceaseless capital accumulation through oppressing both labor—but also nature—and also the drive to commodify everything, right, or to turn everything into commodities for the market. And capitalism also functionally requires perpetual economic growth in order for it to keep going. Without perpetual economic growth, it’s broadly agreed that capitalism would collapse. So, where’s the problem? This drive is, I think, inconsistent with our bounded world of finite resources. What we are now seeing with what we tend to call late stage capitalism is not just the destruction of niche sacrifice zone regions such as Appalachia—and of course, I should add, the continued decimation of the Global South, in particular, through neocolonialism and neoimperialism and so forth. But ultimately, the world at large is now generally threatened as aspects of the global ecological crisis, such as climate change, can impact us all universally.
Baskaran: Okay, so, if you’ll permit me a small pun, kind of going back to your, you know, “why Appalachia?” this is sort of Appalachia being the canary in the coal mine, right? Some of the challenges that we could all globally be facing. So now that we’ve hit this wall, so to speak, within, you know, this constellation of statutes within the traditional legal framework, what do you propose as your alternatives to environmental law in the book?
Stump: So specifically, as the title of the book suggests, I do draw on, for my solutions, the schools of ecosocialism, ecofeminism, and the closely related school of degrowth as well, and in the book, this transformative ecological change is broken up into two main dimensions. The first dimension is sociolegal transformative change. And so, I propose bottom-up, mass-mobilization-steeped alternatives to modern hypertechnical environmental law, such as the Clean Water Act—and I discuss these sociolegal transformations as being systemic steppingstone measures, rather than as accepting the existing system. In other words, they can serve as steppingstones towards a more transformative and ecologically sustainable future. So that’s one major dimension of the book, the sociolegal transformations. The second are the radical economic transformations. Again, as directly drawing on ecosocialism, a materialist ecosocialist ecofeminism, and degrowth as well—and not to get too far in the weeds here—I discuss post-capitalist solidarity economy modes in the region, and I discuss nurturing these particularly in the context of, of course, Appalachia, but also beyond.
Baskaran: Let’s start with the first one. Can you tell me more about the sociolegal approach?
Stump: Yes. So, on the sociolegal front in the book, again, as compared to modern hypertechnical law that has served to lock out the citizenry in favor of elite governance, I argue for a bottom-up, mass-mobilization-steeped approach to certain ecological doctrines that actors such as radical cause lawyers and radical community lawyers—to return to lawyering—could help drive in in Appalachia.
Baskaran: That sounds like a 10,000-foot view. Can you give me a more concrete example?
Stump: In the book I explore a few systemic steppingstones, or these radical sociolegal measures. I think probably the most interesting and promising is a radically reconceived approach to what’s called the public trust doctrine. The traditional liberal public trust doctrine dictates that the state holds certain limited natural resources in trust for the public at large with the public at large serving as the trust beneficiaries. But again, it’s a liberal type of doctrine, and again, the resources that have been covered by the doctrine have historically been very limited, such as waterways. Now what I propose in the book is a critical approach, that as I discuss breaks and remakes the public trust doctrine along radical lines. I argue that, essentially, a bottom-up, mass-mobilization-steeped public trust doctrine could, in a nutshell, help the people “take back the land” from absentee owners and so forth, and then the land could thereafter be self-governed by the citizenry as a form of ecological commons.
Baskaran: Returning to Appalachia, what’s an example of this sort of approach in Appalachia?
Stump: As a concrete example that I discuss in the book, Appalachia, as many folks here I’m sure know, infamously has a mass absentee corporate land ownership and also an abandoned mining land problem, as has been studied for decades now, such as in, you know, Who Owns Appalachia? I think we have a link to either that initial study or some follow-up studies that we can drop into chat. This type of absentee-owned land or abandoned land or other types of related land could be redistributed back to the Appalachian people via a mass-mobilization-steeped radical approach—specifically, radical grassroots-driven state action that again could be dependent upon a radically reenvisioned approach to the public trust doctrine. It’s not the classic or liberal public trust doctrine, you’re again breaking and remaking it to serve as a systemic steppingstone measure, again to get us to more of a transformative future. Breaking and remaking doctrines is often discussed in the literature as form of radical reframing of social action frames. So it’s sort of an accepted way to work with preexisting doctrines and to shape them towards more transformative ends.
Baskaran: All right, so I get that. That’s the sociolegal change, so let’s talk about the other elements, which is the radical economic change. What does this look like?
Stump: Ultimately, the sociolegal transformations are designed to help support the radical economic change, they do work together, as I argue in the book—as most critical commentators would probably argue. But in looking at just the radical economic change explorations I discuss—and this certainly covers a lot of ground in the book—but in a general sense, the sorts of things that I discuss involve, first and foremost, ending perpetual economic growth and moving away from the paradigm of commodification of everything or, again, just turning things into commodities for the market. This critical approach instead entails production, not for the market, but for what’s often called, in critical language, use value, or production based on things that we actually need in our communities that we democratically determine that we need, right? Things such as, for instance, food, medicine, housing, and infrastructure. And again, what are we moving away from? Well, we’re moving away from production for what’s termed, generally, exchange value in the market.
Baskaran: So that’s exchange value in the market. It’s like the frivolous, you know, Kim Kardashian line of lip gloss.
Stump: Yes, exactly. Great example. In an ecosocialist future, I imagine that we would democratically determine that that’s not a great production line to continue.
Baskaran: How does ecosocialism, then, fit into all of this?
Stump: Yes, so ecosocialism. I should say these are varied schools. I’m only drawing on certain strains of both ecosocialism and ecofeminism and the degrowth school as well. But the strains of ecosocialism I discuss in the book involve collective ownership modes of the means of production, not private ownership, and collective ownership can be public and cooperative and so forth. And also multiscale democratic economic planning—and this, many critical legal left ecological commentators would agree, is required to most immediately eliminate fossil fuels. We need the state to seize and then eliminate the fossil fuel sector and to transition to a wholly clean postgrowth energy system. And I, and again, many critical ecological commentators, think that this could only be accomplished on the sort of climate change timescale that we have via a very swift transition to democratic economic planning modes. That’s ecosocialism. Just a bit on ecofeminism, if we have time? So, ecofeminism, again, is a very varied school, but the sorts of strains that I draw on in the book involve centering care work, or centering what’s called reproductive labor, like child care, within such transformations and also, of course, transforming gender regimes, right, to account for more just approaches to reproductive labor. Ecofeminism also certainly involves accounting for compound forms of oppression, along lines of gender, race, Indigenous issues, the Global North and Global South divide, right—as also at the same time entwined with ecological issues, as ecofeminism is a holistic approach. That is, a materialist ecosocialist ecofeminism dictates that all of these issues are in some way produced by white patriarchal capitalism—they’re just operationalized differently across the world by various exploitative actors. And of course, you know, the sorts of strains of ecofeminism I draw on in the book involve core scholar-activist approaches to furthering ecofeminist principles, which involve learning from and letting lead actual preexisting grassroots movements. And then just supporting these movements through the sort of praxis that I discuss in the book—and these movements historically, and today, predominantly have been led by poor and working class women, women of color, and Indigenous women globally, right? Again, that’s another core insight of ecofeminism that I draw on in the book.
Baskaran: Nick, there have been a lot of really great questions in the chat, and I want to make sure we leave time for them. I want to end with just one last question. Sort of succinctly, if you can just give us a snapshot into, you know, what the implementation of your recommendations would look like in Appalachia.
Stump: As I discuss in the book, it could be radical cause lawyers or more radical oriented community lawyers or similar types of lawyering that could help drive and support creation of things like radical multistakeholder cooperatives, such as the formation of community-owned clean energy systems and also community-owned food systems, which is essentially a form of bottom-up change in Appalachia. I can add, Priya, if you don’t mind me saying so, it’s particularly wonderful that you’re here with us today, because while at WVU, Priya did engage in community lawyering work in southern West Virginia and Central Appalachia that included forming co-ops, which is fantastic. But, at the same time, in the book, I also discuss how such bottom-up change can—and really must—be pursued synergistically with other transformative change modes that are more associated with top-down change modes—or, really you could argue it’s different scales of change, right? Local, regional, national, and international work that all is pursued in an ultimately planned manner—such as working for a radical ecosocialist steeped Green New Deal in Appalachia but also beyond. And again, it’s wonderful we have Priya with us because she has a forthcoming law review article that has a great section on such an Appalachian Green New Deal. And I think we also have the link to that, which we can drop in the chat. I followed that article from the beginning, it’s amazing, so I encourage folks to check it out. But lastly, just two things. One, I definitely need to note that such systemic sociolegal change as dovetailing with potential radical economic change is simply not possible at the local or regional levels alone. There is no, you know—there is no postcapitalist Appalachia without a postcapitalist U.S. as entwined with broader international postcapitalist work. Again, specifically accounting for the Global North caused devastation and subjugation of the Global South, right? So, such change has to be coordinated globally, as I discuss in the book. And second, as a final point, I should add that, in the book, again, when I’m talking about radical cause lawyers or community lawyers helping to achieve such change, it is supporting grassroots movements that are already on the ground, right? The praxis is an inherently supportive form of praxis—to let the grassroots movements and the local communities lead and self-govern themselves. It’s just how lawyers can help, based on the specific types of legal and sociolegal tools that we have—and as I’m sure Priya can tell you, that’s the core idea of community lawyering, is that you serve and support the community that self-determines itself.
Baskaran: Well, thank you so much for that Nick. The book is great. I’ve read it, and I hope everyone here will read it, and we just have so many fantastic questions in the chat. I’m going to turn it over to Lynne and Sally to kind of manage the queue.
Lynne Stahl: Awesome. Thank you both so much. It was really great to hear you in conversation about this and yes, our virtual forms of applause are now happening. So yes, lots of really great questions in the chat, and you can continue to put those in there and hopefully we’ll get to as many as possible. So first, Nick, is a question about the reception of your book within Appalachia. This person asks: Appalachian communities are perhaps stereotyped as being conservative and wary of leftist views, even though this doesn’t hold true historically. Do you think many members of Appalachian communities will be wary or even dismissive of your approach?
Stump: I think that’s a really good question, and that’s something I’ve talked a lot about with folks over the years as I’ve put the book together and now that it’s out. I think that’s a terrific point. Certainly, Appalachia is not a homogenous place in terms of political views, but it’s not associated with widespread leftist views necessarily, right? I think it’s fair to say that there’s not a critical mass of folks who are already interested in the broad region in such systemic change. So that’s really something that I tackle in the book—that is, what if we think that this sort of change might be, you know, not just desirable but necessary, given the fact that the global ecological crisis is a civilizational issue? Experts are worried that the ecological crisis could result in breakdown of law and society, essentially. So, if it’s something that we think we need, how can we go about discussing such change in the region? I think there’s not just one answer to that question, but I do think a materialist approach is very helpful. So, before you even think about base building, or expanding your base of folks who are interested in more leftist change, you have to know your community. It’s best if you’re from there, right? So when I talk about radical cause lawyering or community lawyering in Appalachia, I mean folks who are from those towns and from those localities, right, who are doing that sort of work. Then it’s just all about how, perhaps, you frame the issues. Based on a materialist approach, it’s all about how you actually know a community—what you know it might most need. In many instances, rather than focusing on negative points, right, such as the harmful legacies of the fossil fuel industry or even the ills of capitalism, perhaps, given a specific community, it might be more helpful to frame the positive aspects that an ecosocialist or ecofeminist future could require—perhaps without, you know, necessarily using the words ecosocialism or ecofeminism. Such as providing basic infrastructure, right? As we all know, there’s a lack of clean water and sanitation services in southern West Virginia. So, if you talk about the sort of change that could provide folks with the clean water that they’re lacking and the sanitation infrastructure that they’re lacking—if you can start there with the positive things that such a transformative future could bring—perhaps we could then base build, perhaps we could reach more folks, through that type of language. And again, I have to emphasize radical community lawyering involving lawyers from those places who know those places.
Stahl: Great, thank you. The next question is sort of two combined questions about corruption. So over and above the issue of regulatory capture, does your book address whether corruption in Appalachia is a problem as well? And then a follow-up from someone else that I’ve sort of paraphrased here: What are we defining as corruption? Are big bosses using legal loopholes and workarounds corrupt even when they’re acting lawfully and what does it mean when we democratically elect someone as governor whose sort of embroilment, including things like unpaid taxes, is well documented?
Stump: I do touch on issues of outright corruption, both historical and contemporary, in the book, but not as much as many other commentators. I’m thinking of my colleague, Professor Jamie Van Nostrand who has a book coming out on failures of governing elites, I think with Cambridge before too long. So, a lot of other folks touch on that more. I tend to work more at the systems level and about how corruption is just one element of the failure of these sociolegal and economic systems. It’s not a deep dive in the book. It’s more tangential.
Stahl: Great, thank you. Next, and you’ve touched on the first part of this a little bit: Does the book discuss just energy transition as a part of ecosocialist or ecocommunist practice and do you believe that it’s possible for Appalachian actors to push for this themselves through working class environmentalism or labor coalition building without centering actors outside the region?
Stump: Yes, the book does touch on that. That’s such a fantastic question, and I cite to Professor Annie Eisenberg’s work on just transitions in rural America. I encourage folks to go look up her work. I do discuss clean energy transformations and how the framing involved with a just transition towards, you know, truly clean energy systems might work. But it is more of a 10,000-foot view. I’m talking about these transitions broadly in terms of ecosocialism and ecofeminism, as forms of collective ownership modes, right—so it’s the actual community at issue that would own much of this clean energy infrastructure. And also that, when you’re talking about the intersection of bottom-up and top-down change, you know, obviously we need this bottom-up approach to a transition to a clean energy future, right—it does need to be the local communities at issue that are owning much of the infrastructure and leading the charge on such transitions for themselves. But on the other hand, climate change is real. As we all know, we have a very rapid timescale that we need to completely transition to clean energy sources—excluding natural gas: by clean energy, I mean renewable energy and energy efficiency modes. And that can only be accomplished through national and international work that I believe has to involve democratic economic planning, which again is central to the ecosocialism and ecofeminism that I draw on. So, there’s a tension there—it’s obviously not a tension that I myself can resolve—that I explore in the book. That is, that we need the bottom-up social change and collective ownership approach, but at the same time, we’ve also got to have the national and international pivot to democratic economic planning and much broader collective ownership modes and so forth when it comes to this sort of thing, as again, the ecological crisis is a civilizational issue.
Stahl: Great, and the next question is about, sort of intertwined social forces and activist movements. And so, this person asks: Are there advocacy alliances possible between activists in Appalachia and BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, People of Color] communities who decry fossil fuel racism as in the Red Black and Green New Deal? How does racism function as a divisive force in environmental movements?
Stump: Yes, I think that’s a great question. Priya, you might have more to say, because your latest article is sort of on that specifically, but if not, I can give it a shot too.
Baskaran: I’m happy to weigh in on this. There are a couple of things that I want to touch on. The first is that there has been a lot of solidarity, at least on the grassroots level, between communities that are impacted in perceived white spaces, you know, and communities largely of color in urban spaces. So, my article talks about two communities that are greatly impacted by this within Appalachia, within West Virginia specifically, which is demographically the whitest state within Appalachia—but the first communities to be impacted by infrastructure racism are actually communities in McDowell County [West Virginia] that were historically African American. And we see the same structural forces, legally, that created these sort of, like deprivation zones, you know, divestment zones in both places. And, another really fantastic book that the press has come out with, I’m Afraid of that Water, talks about chemical contamination with the Freedom Industries spill, contaminating Charleston and the communities that were impacted in Charleston, which again, has a large historically Black community that was heavily impacted. Service industry workers were heavily impacted, and it was happening sort of very closely to Flint sort of breaking in the public news and there was a lot of solidarity movements and efforts happening behind that. Catherine Flowers has also written a fantastic book about wastewater infrastructure and the connections between what’s happening in Alabama’s Black Belt and what’s happening in like rural Illinois, right. Which again, is like largely white. I think you know that these things also happen in, for instance, [Latinx] communities in California, so it’s sort of like a coalition of the oppressed and with it an opportunity to engage in movement lawyering. And that’s who engages in activism, that’s who engages in, you know, movement lawyering and grassroots representation, are people who are excluded. So, I do think that as more and more people become excluded, which is inevitable with climate change, that we are going to see an opportunity to galvanize that movement.
Stahl: Great, thank you both for that one. Next question, do West Virginia resource barons retain the political power that they had in the Blankenship-Benjamin era?
Stump: So, it is often discussed that, despite the fact that the coal industry has declined precipitously in the last decade, coal, nevertheless, retains a pretty strong political and cultural influence, just because of historical momentum and so forth. So I do think that, generally speaking, the coal industry is able to, sort of, punch above its current economic weight class in terms of political operations, again because of that historical momentum. Of course, natural gas is something different—but it’s certainly on the rise and is, moving forward, going to be one of the major environmental concerns in the region. And certainly that industry also has strong political and lobbying capabilities, right? I think it’s fair to say that that’s all been well-chronicled in the literature.
Baskaran: Yes, so to piggyback off of that also, I mean, Nick uses coal as an example in the book because there’s such a—it’s such a longstanding industry in the region, and there’s like a wealth of resources, you know, but again, like the Freedom Industry Spill happened in like January 2014, you know, and the ability to punch above its weight class in terms of who was involved in Governor Tomblin’s group to make the law happen, about what the safety precautions were. Environmental activists were explicitly excluded, but industry lobbyists were part of that plan. And then when the legislature turned, or changed over, they completely gutted what was then called the “people’s bill” that provided all these protections. I mean, this is 2014, you know, so this is all still recent and relevant and important to these communities, and that’s the largest city in the state, you know. So, I think it really speaks to the volume of the problem.
Stahl: That’s a good example. Next question. What role do you see municipalities playing in reclaiming the ecological commons? Do you think there’s a path for libertarian municipalism to radically change energy systems, or is this a process that would necessarily need to occur outside of any structure of governments?
Stump: It’s not something that I have a ton of expertise on, or touch on in the book, other than at more of a theoretical or exploratory level. But as I generally argue in the book, I do think that local approaches, which could include municipal government approaches, certainly do have an important place in any movement towards transformative change. But again, anytime you’re working with a preexisting system, right, and when you’re talking about reforms from within that system—you just have to keep an eye on transformative change. Not just on what one specific municipal reform within that system can do, but rather keep your eye on systemic steppingstone measures that help us move beyond the system. I think that applies locally to municipal governance as it applies regionally. So again, to the extent that I talk about it, it’s that sort of thing in the book, as it’s somewhat outside my wheelhouse.
Baskaran: Yes, but I will say that it has tangible, practical value. I mean, one of the most beautiful things about West Virginia is the sort of, kind of Mountaineer spirit, right, of like, they’re . . . I used to have all of these students who would say: I’m very politically conservative, but I truly believe in government-provided wastewater infrastructure and community-owned broadband, right, which just sort of speaks to this feeling of communitarianism that does exist, this desire, after being a sacrifice zone for so long, and being excluded for so long, to be able to have some sort of control and this, again, goes back to what Nick was saying about the absentee land ownership. I mean, there are communities that don’t have wastewater or can’t put in broadband infrastructure, not only just because of the cost, but because they don’t own the flat land around them in order to be able to do that. That it would be a very motivated municipality in order to actually, you know, engage in this work, and of course, I have to say my former colleagues at the land use and sustainable development law clinic are doing some of the most like cutting edge and amazing work to support these municipalities and doing, kind of this like, you know, a version of this recommoning type work that Nick brings up in his book.
Stahl: Thank you, and then the next question is, sort of, circling back to things you’ve touched on, Nick, but who exactly is at the bottom of bottom-up change?
Stump: Yes, that’s a really interesting question. So again, I tend to use a materialist approach that’s in the Marxian tradition, and through that approach, you have to take the specific communities, localities, and regions as they actually are. Right, so, the folks who actually live there, what the specific political economy is like there—and when you’re talking about bottom-up, or what I tend to call more of bottom-up type change, it would be, again, the folks who are in specific areas and what they might need to actually achieve something like a radical multistakeholder food cooperative. I think the definition of bottom-up can differ from place to place, who those folks might be, the different sorts of social, political, and economic regimes that have been there, right, so you always have to account for that. But in my mind, the general difference between bottom-up and top-down is that with bottom-up you are going to the communities and working collaboratively and supportively with the specific folks at issue on something more at that scale—or trying to coordinate what they’re specifically doing with something at a larger scale, at a different geographic level. Regional change, for example, involves a much larger population, right? ARC’s definition of Appalachia is pretty large—parts of thirteen states.
Stahl: Great. Okay, so we’ve got three minutes left and three questions left.
Stump: Awesome, I’ll go quick.
Stahl: So first, can you speak a bit about your personal work to connect these theories to praxis? Specifically, what are you doing to meet community leaders and work with them on projects that are important to them?
Stump: I think of this in terms of two different silos. One is the sort of professional, legal expertise and work that I do, and that is a form of praxis where I write on a critical legal approach to legal research and analysis, which is how you find the law and how you think about the law. And I teach and I write about that in a grassroots sort of manner—how you can involve the general citizenry more in the traditional legal research and analysis process through certain mechanisms. So, I work with law clinics and law students and so forth who are interested in public interest work, and that’s my sort of professional praxis, right—again, a critical legal research approach that supports or can support public interest lawyering. The second silo is the more personal work that I do completely separate from my official work—it involves personal activism, and I can talk more about that in a different forum, but since this is a WVU event, it’s the WVU-type professional praxis work that involves applications of some of this stuff that I can focus on here.
Stahl: Thank you, okay. Is West Virginia reinventing its demise environmentally with the new ecotourism movement that’s taking hold?
Stump: Great question. Yes, I think that’s well put. Especially with the designation of the new national park and so forth. Definitely is a problematic type of development, and it’s certainly not sufficient in and of itself, right, to get either the state or the region going in a more transformative and ecologically sustainable position.
Stahl: All right, and then I think one more has popped up. Let’s go with this. This is kind of a big question: What do you make of the large energy corporations that are recently pushing for a carbon tax or investments in carbon capture and sequestration technologies?
Stump: Not great! A form of green capitalism, or ecological modernization, where industry is essentially trying to co-opt efforts towards real transformative change to an ecologically sustainable future by incorporating, in very bad faith I think, such policies—such as supposed clean energy transitions—into the capitalist mode of production. A clean energy transition within liberal capitalism is insufficient, it’s not enough to avert climate change and the other aspects of the global ecological crisis, like the loss of biodiversity globally, and on global pollution issues and so forth. Green capitalism simply won’t work. We need true, transformative change—as I think that question suggested—towards something, perhaps, like an ecosocialist and ecofeminist future.
Stahl: Great, thank you so much, and I will turn it back over to Sally for a little bit of wrap-up. I think Beth just put the link to the press website where you can buy the book into the chat, so that’s there as well. Thank you all so much.
. The below conversation is excerpted from the book launch of Remaking Appalachia, published by WVU Press. The event was hosted by WVU Libraries on May 20, 2021 as part of the Art in the Libraries series, with co-sponsors WVU Humanities Center, Appalachian Justice Initiative at the WVU College of Law, and AALL Research Crits Caucus. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. The book’s author, Nicholas Stump, provided input to the editorial process of this transcript, and has approved of the final transcript.
. For further reading, see Kohei Saito, Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism: Capital, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy (2017) and Michael Löwy, Ecosocialism: A Radical Alternative to Capitalist Catastrophe (2015).
. For further reading, see Ariel Salleh, Ecofeminism as Politics: Nature, Marx and the Postmodern (2017) and Karen J. Warren, Ecofeminism: Women, Culture, Nature (1997).
. For further reading, see Giorgos Kallis, Susan Paulson, Giacomo D’Alisa & Federico Demaria, The Case for Degrowth (2020) and Christine Bauhardt, Solutions to the Crisis? The Green New Deal, Degrowth, and the Solidarity Economy: Alternatives to the Capitalist Growth Economy From an Ecofeminist Economics Perspective, 102 Ecological Econ. 60 (2014).
. For further reading, see Michael E. Tigar & Madeleine R. Levy, Law and the Rise of Capitalism (2000); Mari J. Matsuda, Looking to the Bottom: Critical Legal Studies and Reparations, 22 Harv. C.R.-C.L. L. Rev. 323 (1987); and Michael M’Gonigle & Louise Takeda, The Liberal Limits of Environmental Law: A Green Legal Critique, 30 Pace Env’t L. Rev. 1005 (2013).
. For further reading, see Herbert Reid & Betsy Taylor, Recovering the Commons: Democracy, Place, and Global Justice (2010); The Red Nation, The Red Deal: Indigenous Action to Save our Earth (2021); Tero Toivanen, Commons Against Capitalism, in The Politics of Ecosocialism: Transforming Welfare 116 (Kajsa Borgnäs, Teppo Eskelinen, Johanna Perkiö & Rikard Warlenius eds., 2015).
. For further reading, see Joyce M. Barry, Standing Our Ground: Women, Environmental Justice, and the Fight to End Mountaintop Removal (2012); William H. Turner, The Harlan Renaissance: Stories of Black Life in Appalachian Coal Towns (2021); Stratford Douglas & Anne Walker, Coal Mining and the Resource Curse in the Eastern United States, 57 J. of Reg’l Sci. 568 (2017).