Editor’s Note: The following is a guest blog post from a guest blogger. The views and opinions expressed in this guest blog do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Renew Appalachia or of the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development (MACED).
I’ve sensed a perception among individuals from the wider United States that Appalachia is a place where change comes slowly. The notion may hold a kernel of truth. From growing up in the hills of eastern Tennessee and Kentucky, I recall tracing my family lineage back to the early 19th century, surprised to learn how close I resided to distant, long-deceased relatives. I’ve learned that the local manner of speech bears the most resemblance to Colonial American English of any modern American dialect. Many of my neighbors still enjoy employment in the industries that their grandparents worked. We as a people have taken pride in our heritage and land, living as best as we could without travelling too far away.
Malaise has come to Appalachia. Global economic competition, environmental degradation from intense mining, and rising awareness of the consequences of burning fossil fuels have left much of our region unmoored, at risk of sinking into oblivion. Central to this crisis is the decline of the coal industry, which was once the economic engine for the entire region; without our black gold, we have few options remaining to us. Circumstances have become so dire that some have lost hope in our ability to recover. These people are naysayers. Appalachia has the capacity to become a prosperous home, self-sustaining and mindful of the globe it shares with billions of other people.
Change, however, does not come without leadership. In order to transition the economy of our region, significant actors must choose to take steps toward the future from within, wielding their influence to bring others into the movement. Furthermore, a transition to a just and sustainable economy will require cultivation of local brains and talent. One leader who may be able to provide these needs might be Kentucky’s flagship university.
It’s no secret that the University of Kentucky is beloved by residents of the Commonwealth. Kentuckians all grow up idolizing the Wildcats, and as we grow older many of us see UK as a place where we can gain the skills necessary to live a good life. I followed this path myself, travelling to the university from Boyd County in the fall of 2013. I’ve conceived a love of this place, of its people, of its culture. I wish for the continuing success of my school, and within that vision is a space for UK to take the lead toward a sustainable future. UK has made some progress in this direction already; in my hometown, for example, the Boyd County Farmer’s Market has begun to bring fresh produce to an area long described as a food desert. This market is the child of the Boyd County Cooperative Extension, an organization directly linked to the school. Other connections between Appalachia and the university number high.
A farmer’s market is but a start. The University of Kentucky should grow ambitious. This is what I and my organization, UK Greenthumb, have been campaigning to see happen. The oldest student-run environmental group in the state of Kentucky, Greenthumb has made a goal of convincing the UK administration to sign the Second Nature climate commitments and develop a climate action plan. We want our university to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, taking particular emphasis on mobilizing local resources for the task.
This is not an easy task to request of the school, but it is clear that a climate action plan is a necessity for sustainability. Necessities, as they say, mother invention, creativity, solutions. We do not doubt the ability of the university to meet the challenges of a climate action plan, and it is our belief that the pursuit of carbon neutrality will catalyze innovation and change across Kentucky and Appalachia. Institutions of as much power, prestige, and influence as UK can alter the character of all those who walk with it. Upgrades to infrastructure, investment in renewable energy jobs, and a boon for local farmers are all opportunities that can be opened by promising to reduce the school’s ecological impact. Already we have seen other actors in the region make decisive moves: Eastern Kentucky University, for example, has signed onto Second Nature. They have proven their commitment to building tomorrow’s leaders and tomorrow’s economy, so why can’t UK do the same?
In our campaign, Greenthumb has seen success. We have received the endorsement of the Student Government Association and have opened a direct dialogue with UK President Eli Capilouto. Hesitance on the part of the administration to make a final commitment still yet stands in our way.
An escalation of our action is coming. We would ask for help from sympathetic readers. The job is simple: concerned UK alumni, prospective students and their parents, university faculty and staff, individuals who do business with the school, and anyone else with an interest in the future of the University of Kentucky should call President Capilouto’s office on March 2nd and ask the university to create a climate action plan. Our voices as students have a sympathetic ear in the president’s office, but voices from beyond campus would amplify our message. The voice of Appalachia is stronger than anyone could imagine.
Some say that Appalachia cannot change, so stuck are we remembering the golden days gone by. Some think that we are destined for squalor, for fading away into memory. We who reside in Appalachia understand that while we may treasure our past we are not restrained by it. I have seen time and again my friends and neighbors learn to thrive in this economic climate, and I know that spirit exists in this entire community. If the need is to adapt to an evolving world, Appalachia will take up the task.
A sample call script is below: