The Power of Voice

Bell book cover

Let’s be honest: when it comes to publishing, most academic specialties, sociology included, tend towards being dry. Papers, reports, charts, graphs, data, innumerable footnotes, and complicated academic vocabularies dominate. Granted, there are those people who cross over into mainstream popular trade publishing in the self-help section of Barnes & Noble, books that traditional sociologists may or may not take seriously. But there are times when someone manages to find that balance between serious, ethnographic work, and stories that communicate person-to-person.

At the ASA’s in August of 2014, I attended a presentation by Shannon Bell, a sociologist with the University of Kentucky. She was speaking on the topic of environmental sociology, in particular, how climate change has affected populations not only living in places where the end results of changing environmental conditions are evident, but also at the source point, in energy-sacrificial places where the endless quest for coal and oil has destroyed the landscape. Her examples were drawn from years of research in Appalachia, where mountaintop removal coal-mining has denuded the land.

I came home and read Shannon’s book, Our Roots Run Deep As Ironweed: Appalachian Women and the Fight for Environmental Justice (University of Illinois Press, 2013). I started reading it for the sociological and environmental aspects, but as I read these stories, written in their own voices, from the women who are at ground zero of an environmental catastrophe that threatens their homes and families, it was those voices that gave me shivers. Here were women who never intended to become activists, and in many ways, were as a result under threat by coal companies and those who earned their livings from them, simply because they spoke out. Very simply, what I felt from this book is the power of people to move outside of themselves, make difficult choices, all to make things better for their families, neighbors, and ultimately the world. I felt awed by their power and determination, and maybe a little ashamed, wondering if I could do the same thing if my beautiful New Hampshire woods and mountains were similarly threatened.  I hope I could. I hope I could draw from the strength demonstrated by the women in these pages, to take my own stand and find my own courage.

I highly recommend reading Shannon’s book. Not only will you gain an insider’s view of an environmental catastrophe, but more importantly, you may find unexpected inspiration, or even challenge.

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