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Coal Feeds My Family: Subsistence, Energy, and Industry in Central Appalachia

M. Joseph Aloi


Across Central Appalachia, you can see the message scrawled across bumper stickers, protest signs, and billboards: “Coal Feeds My Family”. The metaphor of coal feeding families is one that stresses the economic importance of this extractive industry to the economy of the industrialized rural mountain South. This essay examines the change in land-human relationships through the lens of food. A contrast is drawn between homesteading’s cultivation of life and coal’s energy economy of the dead. The energy economy of the preindustrial Appalachian farm is shown to be a slight alteration from the energy cycles of the Appalachian forest. The industrial energy economy of coal, on the other hand, severed Appalachian people from their traditional agricultural energy economy, from the results of their production, from the sources of their consumption, and from the very thing, the sun, which made the preindustrial economy possible. The coal energy economy was not only made possible through various technological innovations in production and consumption, but also by certain social relations and political structures. These relations and structures remain relatively intact, in spite of the rapid disintegration of the coal economy, and their inertia explains the popularity of the slogan “Coal Feeds My Family”.


coal; energy; Appalachia; food; farming; transition; industrialization; technology; ethics; non-human relations

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.7358/rela-2018-002-aloi

Copyright (c) 2018 M. Joseph Aloi – Editorial format and Graphical layout: copyright (©) LED Edizioni Universitarie

Relations. Beyond Anthropocentrism
Registered by Tribunale di Milano (04/05/2012 n. 211)
Online ISSN 2280-9643 - Print ISSN 2283-3196

Executive Editor: Francesco Allegri
Associate Editor: Matteo Andreozzi 
Review Editors: Sofia Bonicalzi - Eleonora Adorni
Editorial Board:
Ralph R. Acampora - Carol J. Adams - Vilma Baricalla - Luisella Battaglia - Rod Bennison - Matthew R. Calarco - Piergiorgio Donatelli - William Grove-Fanning - Serenella Iovino - Luigi Lombardi Vallauri - Christoph Lumer - Joel MacClellan - Dario Martinelli - Roberto Marchesini - Alma Massaro - Barbara Muraca - Serpil Oppermann - Simone Pollo - Paola Sobbrio - Kim Stallwood - Sabrina Tonutti - Jessica Ullrich - Federico Zuolo