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These young people are pioneering Appalachia’s post-coal economy

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Catherine Moore

In the Hunger Games novels, heroine Katniss Everdeen comes from a coal mining region known as District 12. Her people are poor and looked down upon, but they’re also resourceful and know how to work together. In the end, it’s those skills that allow Katniss and her friend Peeta to win the games against better-trained rivals from the wealthy capital.

The books are fiction, but many readers believe District 12 is set in a futuristic version of Appalachia’s real-life coal country. And, these days, the real Appalachia needs all the resourcefulness and cooperation it can get.

Appalachia tries to make a life after coal
Appalachia tries to make a life after coal

The coal industry, which in many counties has dominated the economy for more than a century, is not providing the jobs it used to. Coal reserves are dwindling, mechanization has made it easier to pay fewer workers to extract more coal, and there’s new competition from cheap natural gas. In Boone County, W. Va., for example, about 40 percent of coal jobs have disappeared since the end of 2011, according to research firm SNL Financial. And the same trend is going on across the region.

You could say Appalachia needs an army of real-life Katnisses -- and, luckily, it’s found them. The Highlander Center, a training center for social movements with deep roots in the South, just launched its "Appalachian Transition Fellowship" -- a program to mentor and support 14 young Appalachians as they work on economic development projects throughout the region. Their goal is to accelerate the creation of a diverse economy by working on projects that create jobs and livelihoods in the wake of coal's decline.

Through this fellowship, Highlander’s fellows will spend a full year working on economic transition projects in Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, Ohio, and North Carolina.

I recently had a chance to meet the Appalachian Transition Fellows as they took a kick-off tour through the region. We talked about how they got interested in economic transition and what their fellowships will look like. Here’s what a few of them had to say.

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Appalachia tries to make a life after coal

Mural in Benham.
Catherine Moore / Appalachian Transition Fellows

Benham, Ky., in the heart of Harlan County, is a quiet place with a proud sign that has been amended over time to read, "Benham, the little town that International Harvester, coal miners and their families built."

International Harvester, a farm-equipment conglomerate created by industrial speculator J.P. Morgan, bought up Benham’s land and mineral rights soon after the turn of the century in order to supply Wisconsin steelworks with Appalachia's high-quality coal.

These young people are pioneering Appalachia’s post-coal economy
These young people are pioneering Appalachia’s post-coal economy

All at once, a trappers' and hunters' hamlet became a churning coal-camp town. International Harvester designed the streets, built the houses, attracted the workers, and ran the coal north by rail. Miners were paid good wages when there was work (especially later, when workers were unionized), but most of the workers' cash went straight back to International Harvester -- which owned the two-story department store, the cinema, the hospital, the power company, and every significant business in town.

Half a century later, new machines took miners' jobs and new technology enabled customers to burn cheaper coal. IH started laying off miners and selling its properties, taking its profits with it -- as it had the coal.

Between 1960 and 2012, Harlan County shrank from more than 51,000 residents to fewer than 30,000. Benham's population (now under 500) set about building a new economy.

Today, the former company store houses a mining museum where visitors can crawl about in a mock mineshaft and study detailed dioramas of life during the boom years. The old public school has transformed into a colorful Country Inn, and there's a campaign to switch the town power supply (which the town still controls) from coal to renewables.

Unfortunately for Benham, it's just one of dozens of former coal camps in the area with more coal "heritage" these days than coal. If its population keeps dwindling there won't be a town here for very long. The town of Lynch, created by another J.P. Morgan-created monopoly (U.S. Steel) sits right next door -- with a real mineshaft museum. Similar towns with similar museums exist to the east, in Virginia, and north and south, in Tennessee and West Virginia. The odds of Benham seeing another boom seem stacked against it as steeply as the lush mountains tower over both sides of Main Street.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Gimme 8 percent of your lunch! You’re not going to eat it anyway

When presented with a plate of delicious food, do you eat all of it? Every last bit? Is the plate pristine at the end of your eating session? Yes? Well, OK, you are a liar.

A recent study in the International Journal of Obesity found that, on average, we eat 92 percent of the food on a plate. Good news (or bad, depending on how you look at it): If the food is unhealthy, that figure goes down to 81 percent.

What does 92 percent of a meal look like? The friendly staff at Grist have compiled a very helpful guide using your -- yes, YOUR -- diet as an example!

Read more: Food, Living

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You’d scream, too, if you were this close to a collapsing iceberg

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Climate change is melting ice at both ends of the planet -- just ask the researchers who published two papers in May saying that a major expanses of Antarctic ice are now undergoing a "continuous and rapid retreat" and may have "passed the point of no return."

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Exctinction VI: This time it's personal

Dead elephants, plagues, and rats: Why the sixth extinction is bad for you and everyone you know

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Shutterstock

Hey, remember the dinosaurs? Yeah, neither. All it took was one massive asteroid, and all the dinos were wiped off the face of the planet. Well, there’s a new asteroid in town: us.

New research published in the journal Science lays out the scope of the destruction we've wrought -- and suggests that it's going to come back to bite us. Not only will the so-called sixth extinction make that wildlife safari you’ve always wanted to take a lot less interesting, it could increase disease and make it even harder to feed our own ever-growing population. Happy weekend!

Similar to previous extinction events, the large, cute animals (like elephants and polar bears) are disappearing the fastest: since 1500, more than 320 land-based vertebrates have gone extinct. Which isn't just bad news for wildlife junkies; their loss translates into a shift in the whole ecosystem. Scientists found that areas in which the big guys disappeared quickly became infested with rodents – who bring all of their disease-carrying parasites with them.

“Where human density is high, you get high rates of defaunation, high incidence of rodents, and thus high levels of pathogens, which increases the risks of disease transmission,” lead author Rodolfo Dirzo says. “Who would have thought that just defaunation would have all these dramatic consequences? But it can be a viscious cycle.”

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food

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Suburban Warfare

Out-of-touch dads still want gas-guzzling SUVs, apparently

Father's Day is just around the corner!
Scott Robbin

Watching the cultural backlash against all the mongo SUVs that ran us off roads, CO2'd our cities, and ruined Hype Williams videos for something like two decades remains one of the unexpected pleasures of the recession. Soccer moms now want Priuses instead of Escalades; carmakers embraced fuel efficiency as a selling point; the Tesla S seems poised to own poster space on the bedrooms of car-obsessed teenagers. But like brachiosaurs in Jurassic Park, Suburbans aren't dead yet. Today, the New York Times reports that SUV sales have very nearly singlehandedly kept GM afloat with almost $1 billion in profits this year, and the company commands 70 percent of …

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Be a patriot, eat less beef

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Shutterstock

As Josh Harkinson noted this week, cows are the United States' single biggest source of methane -- a potent gas that has 105 times the heat-trapping ability of carbon dioxide. That's one major reason why beef's greenhouse gas footprint is far higher than that of most other sources of protein, according to an EWG study. (Though it's consumed at a fraction of the rate of beef or chicken, lamb is by far the most carbon intensive of the major meats, according to EWG, since the animal's smaller body produces meat less efficiently but still produces a lot of methane.)

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And EWG's estimate of beef's impact may actually be on the conservative side: A study released this week found the greenhouse gases associated with beef to be even higher.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food

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Letter from Detroit: And now for a completely different kind of Canadian pipeline

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Ricardo Bernardo

I was loading boxes of water onto a truck in Detroit yesterday when I heard the news: A convoy from the Council of Canadians was coming over the Ambassador Bridge from Windsor, bearing gifts of water. "Really, Canada?" I thought. "We're practically in each other's backyards. Basically, the only thing separating us from you is water."

That's not the kind of water you can drink, though. And also: Protest is storytelling, just like the rest of politics. I had been interviewing some people downtown about Detroit's water crisis, and they were all going to see the water arrive, because why not? When we were done with the last water delivery, we walked down to the Spirit of Detroit sculpture, where the convoy would be arriving.

Campus Martius Park was packed with people celebrating Detroit's birthday, which I had not even thought of the city as having. I passed a huge banner, unfurled across the modernist facade of one of the tall buildings on Michigan Avenue. Decorated with neon confetti and party hats, it looked like the kind of banner you might buy for a little kid's birthday party, but on a colossal scale.

"Happy 313th birthday, Detroit!" it read. "You don't look a day over 300!"

Read more: Cities, Politics

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Want to support clean energy? Fight for voting rights

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Nikki Burch

As Jelani Cobb wrote recently in The New Yorker: “The past year has offered an odd object lesson in historical redundancy. The 50th anniversaries of major points in the civil-rights movement tick by at the same time that Supreme Court decisions and political maneuvering in state legislatures offer reminders of what, exactly, the movement fought against.”

The most recognizable example of what Cobb is referring to is the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby v. Holder decision, which severely weakened the heralded Voting Rights Act just weeks before we recognized the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington that made the civil rights law possible. Earlier this month, we recognized the 50th of the Civil Rights Act, and next year will mark the half-century mark of the Voting Rights Act itself. And yet equal protection for people of color seems to be moving backwards.

Why should this matter to the average white (green) American? Well, for many reasons. But one of them is this: In our ever-browning America, empowering black and brown voters is absolutely necessary to make the transition to clean energy.

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Back-to-the-land meets back-to-the-future

Amory Lovins’ high-tech home skimps on energy but not on comfort

Amory Lovins' Banana Farm
© Judy Hill Lovins

For most of its history, environmentalism has been associated with a back-to-the-land lifestyle: being one with nature, living in the woods, wearing sandals, maybe driving a Volkswagen. Over the last decade, a counter-narrative has taken over. Cities are in. As climate change has become the dominant environmental issue, a low-carbon lifestyle has become the priority. Denser living is heralded for its energy efficiency, as are walking, biking and taking transit instead of driving.

All other things being equal, walkable urbanism beats sprawl. But one house in Old Snowmass, Colo., demonstrates that, with the right design, rural living can be about as low-carbon as possible. And it turns out those hippies were on to something: the secrets to low-impact rural housing lie in embracing nature instead of combatting it. Plus it helps to have some bleeding-edge technology.

Amory Lovins, the owner of the house, is exactly the guy you'd expect to live here. A bespectacled physicist and world-renowned energy-efficiency expert, he cofounded the Rocky Mountain Institute in 1982 with his then-wife L. Hunter Lovins. They chose this location, nestled up in the mountains 14 miles from Aspen, for RMI's first headquarters, which they built as a model of energy efficiency. The original structure was completed in 1984. Today, RMI has expanded into other buildings, but Lovins still lives in the original house, which got a high-tech makeover in 2009.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living