An Excerpt from Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia

Fordham University
Published January 22, 2018

In the following introduction and an excerpt from his book Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia (New York: Hill and Wang, 2017), Steven Stoll offers a "thought experiment"—the Commons Communities Act—to provoke public policy discussion with the aim of redressing the consequences of generations of corporate land grabbing in the southern mountains.

Excerpted from RAMP HOLLOW: The Ordeal of Appalachia by Steven Stoll, published by Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2017 by Steven Stoll. All rights reserved.

Steven Stoll
Fordham University


At present, the people of Appalachia continue to endure the contraction and retreat of extractive industry with little more than big-box retail for employment. They work for local hospitals and county governments at a time when both depend on a withering tax base. Many residents hunt, fish, and garden to make up the shortfall in their household incomes. The Appalachian Regional Commission has not come up with a solution; neither has the leadership of the United States. It seems unlikely, though I would not say impossible, that corporations will show up in southern West Virginia or eastern Kentucky and open factories and offices. I wrote the Commons Communities Act after months of thinking about how the people of the southern mountains might find work with dignity, working for themselves and their families without owing their existences to corporations. I thought that government could help to solve this problem and do what it should do: stand between citizens and the power of capital.


It is difficult to find anything Appalachians have gained by voting for Republicans. Yet a majority in every county in West Virginia voted for Donald Trump in 2016. His promise to revitalize the coal industry lacks a footing in reality. Sensing this, one voter gave him a desperate endorsement, saying, "He's the only shot we got." If Trump studies West Virginia's congressional delegation, he might conclude that he doesn't need to do very much. But the people can do better than that. They can make their representatives justify the trust placed in them. They can demand more of their government. They can assert a right to land and livelihood and reparations from the corporations that used and abused them for so long. Maybe that can be the basis for a positive political identity.1

I favor democratic socialism and a reinvention of the nation-state as a conduit for meeting human needs rather than for accumulating capital. I also favor a realm of democratic autonomy, and that might have more political traction. If Congress and the president can cooperate, such a realm can exist as a function of the United States itself. But it can also exist outside of centralized government, sponsored by West Virginia or Kentucky or Tennessee. Or people can do it themselves, by squatting on abandoned land and defending their right to the commons.2

Mountaintop coal mine, Charleston, West Virginia, October 16, 2008. Photograph by Flickr user ddimick. Creative Commons license CC BY-NC 2.0. Cropped from original.
Mountaintop coal mine, Charleston, West Virginia, October 16, 2008. Photograph by Flickr user ddimick. Creative Commons license CC BY-NC 2.0. Cropped from original.

There is talk and some action regarding returning land. Various organizations have held public meetings to elicit policies directly from citizens. Even Congress is thinking along these lines. In 2016, Representative Harold Rogers, a Kentucky Republican, introduced the Reclaim Act. The law would empower the Department of the Interior to distribute funds to states and Indian nations aimed at developing land in communities "adversely affected by coal mining." I would push this thinking toward creating a reconstituted commons. What if people who wished to do so lived by hunting and gardening as part of a social project that encouraged political participation? What if citizens possessed use-rights over a sustaining landscape?

Historians don't often write legislation. My attempt is consistent with the argument of this book. Consider it more a thought experiment than a ready-made policy. Any actual solution would require the knowledge of people who live in the mountains and the sponsorship of organizations and activists working on these questions. The following owes something to the New Deal economist Milburn Wilson, the geographer J. Russell Smith, the historian Lewis Cecil Gray, the Kentucky farmer and writer Wendell Berry, and also to Mahatma Gandhi, Lewis Mumford, and E. F. Schumacher.3 I call it . . .


Whereas coal mining is diminishing in the southern mountains, leaving thousands unemployed, and whereas coal contributes to climate change and the disruption of human societies all over the world; whereas a rural policy should incorporate ecological principles with food production on a small scale, and whereas the United States once included millions of households engaged in production for subsistence and exchange; whereas when people take care of landscapes, landscapes take care of them,

SECTION 1. The United States shall create a series of commons communities, each designed to include a specified number of households within a larger landscape that will be managed by them, the residents. This landscape will provide the ecological base for hunting and gathering, cattle grazing, timber harvesting, vegetable gardening, and farming. The ecological base will be owned as a conservation easement or land trust under the authority of the states and/or counties where each community resides.

SECTION 2. Commons communities would be organized according to the design principles developed by the economist Elinor Ostrom, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 2009 for her work on the economic governance of common resources. Each community shall include well-defined boundaries and members. Each will devise rules for appropriation suitable to the environment, along with sanctions and penalties for those who violate the rules and take too much or otherwise abuse the resource. Each must establish a means of conflict resolution and governance. In the event that residents need to sue the community or other residents, they would use the county, state, or federal courts.4

SECTION 3. Commons communities will not be limited to Appalachia but could be established anywhere a sufficient ecological base exists, including the outskirts of cities and suburbs. This law must not be construed to favor one location or ethnic group.

SECTION 4. Social services and education will be paid for by an income tax on the top one percent of household incomes in the United States and an Industrial Abandonment Tax, attached to any corporation that closed its operations in any city or region of the United States within the last twenty years of the date of this Act and moved elsewhere, leaving behind toxic waste and poverty.

SECTION 5. Resident households with incomes under $50,000 a year will pay no federal income tax. Residents will own their own homes, paying for them with low-interest mortgages and a $1.00 down payment.

SECTION 6. No nonresident, trust, or corporation is permitted to purchase property in a commons community.

SECTION 7. The organization of commons communities will proceed through the Department of Agriculture. The Department will initiate the identification of suitable lands for condemnation by eminent domain or land already owned by counties, states, or the United States. The Department will determine how much land is needed to sustain a given number of residents.

SECTION 8. Allied Programs.

SUB-SECTION A. Income tax incentives will encourage teachers and medical doctors to live in commons communities and work in the schools and nearby hospitals.

SUB-SECTION B. College-age members of any commons household may apply for free tuition at their state university. Tuition shall be paid for by the Industrial Abandonment Tax.

SUB-SECTION C. Commons communities will receive special programs intended to link them to the Internet. Cooperation between communities will incorporate schools, artists and writers in residence, and scientists engaged in the study of the environment. This Act provides funds for the publication of a journal or magazine of commons life to be written and published by the residents of the various communities.

SUB-SECTION D. Another program will link gardeners with markets for their produce, including grocery stores and restaurants. Proceeds from this Market Garden Initiative will not be subject to state or federal income tax.

SUB-SECTION E. University experiment stations in every state where commons communities exist will send representatives to teach the latest methods of garden production, with the approval and consent of residents.

SECTION 9. If the members of a commons community no longer wish to be associated with the federal government, they may become independent at any time with a majority vote consisting of two-thirds of adult residents, at which time all federal programs associated with this Act will cease. Ownership of the commons would not change and residents would keep their homes.

The act might look like Arthurdale and the Division of Subsistence Homesteads all over again. But it has no factory, no originating debt, and no presumption that people must subsist entirely from gardens. It emphasizes scientific conservation, cultural expression, entrepreneurship, and democracy. It would not prevent any resident from earning money in any job or profession. Some within Appalachia might object to the participation of the federal government. But government can do things that communities cannot by themselves, like purchase land, relieve taxes on citizens and levy them on corporations, advance citizen participation, and pay for college. Government can help the residents of commons communities remain connected to the wider world of economic opportunity and political participation. But the act allows for its own dissolution. Residents would have the authority to end the government's participation and keep their gains.5

View of Arthurdale project, Reedsville, West Virginia, 1935. Photograph by Walker Evans. Courtesy of the New York Public Library Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division, and land cultivation, Arthurdale project, Reedsville, West Virginia, 1935. Photograph by Walker Evans. Courtesy of the New York Public Library Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division,

Top, View of Arthurdale project, Reedsville, West Virginia, 1935. Photograph by Walker Evans. Courtesy of the New York Public Library Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division, Bottom, Homes and land cultivation, Arthurdale project, Reedsville, West Virginia, 1935. Photograph by Walker Evans. Courtesy of the New York Public Library Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division,

The act seeks to preserve and encourage a makeshift economy that has been practiced for two centuries among mountain farmers, as well as among people in other parts of the United States. Readers in New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles might not appreciate the extent to which rural Americans depend on forests and other environments for food and cash. In the 1980s, Timothy Lee Barnwell photographed and interviewed Appalachians who practiced agrarian economy. Charlie Thomas of Bush Creek, North Carolina, said, "Even when I was growing up we raised almost everything we ate. You'd buy a little coffee if you wanted it, but we never drank it, and buy or trade for what sugar you needed, and we used honey for that. We've always kept bees for our own honey." A series of interviews conducted in southern West Virginia during the 1990s is now part of the Library of Congress. "People around here . . . on Coal River, just about every one of them does the same thing," explained Dave Bailey. "They pick the grains, they pick the black berries, they fish, they hunt . . . they get the molly moochers [the morchella or morel mushroom] . . . They do that, their kids is going to do it, their grandkids is going to do it, and that's the way it is on Coal River." Others interviewed detailed their extensive knowledge of trees and plants. None of these West Virginians need the Commons Communities Act to continue living as they always have, from whatever forested commons they can still find. The act is meant to promote this social ecology. By combining land and livelihood—by fostering possession against a history of dispossession—it would reconnect communities and landscapes in a structure for sustaining both.6

The political economy of the act combines private and communal property. Residents may buy and sell their homes, pass them to the next generation, and do anything else with them permitted by local law. They would act differently in their role as managers of common woods and waters. Economists have rarely understood the logic of collective use. The most common argument says that every user has an incentive to cut every last tree, shoot every last large-bodied mammal, and let his cattle graze every last acre of wild meadow, leaving nothing for anyone else. The forest is reduced to stumps; the high meadow is overrun with thistle. This is the misleading parable of the "Tragedy of the Commons," most famously described by the biologist Garrett Hardin in 1968.7

Aerial view of Coal River Valley, following Route 3, West Virginia, October 26, 1955. Photograph by Lyntha Scott Eiler. Courtesy of the Library of Congress American Folklife Center,
Aerial view of Coal River Valley, following Route 3, West Virginia, October 26, 1955. Photograph by Lyntha Scott Eiler. Courtesy of the Library of Congress American Folklife Center,

Hardin based his model on a self-serving conception of human nature. His essay has nothing to do with how actual people govern actual shared resources, cases that Hardin seems to have known little about. His first mistake was to think that a commons is a free-for-all. No such set of resources is open to everyone, but only to members, defined in various ways. Consider the forests of New England in the nineteenth century. Colonial towns owned them and controlled access, allowing some to cut trees and others to hunt and fish with permission. Lobster fishermen in Maine operate according to their own rules and institutions, with little government involvement, resulting in one of the most successful fisheries in the world. But they decide who can and cannot benefit. Thus everyone who depends on common property has an incentive to maintain it. This is not to say that everyone is always satisfied. Community management requires governance to mediate disagreement and limit the consequences of conflict. The point is that it's simply not true that common property always degenerates into scarcity.8

But Hardin cannot be dismissed altogether. His fable reasonably describes resources that no group can manage, like the open ocean and the atmosphere. And not all collective uses of land have succeeded. (In fact, we know very little about how the functional forest commons fared in West Virginia, how well users governed themselves.) Without regulations and penalties, without clear borders and firm institutions, they can result in devastation. This is why Elinor Ostrom studied them—to figure out why some failed and others thrived.9

We all live in communities. In a sense, no one really lives in the United States but in neighborhoods, towns, and counties. Strengthening those bonds within environments that allow for economic autonomy seems like a way of creating space between people and the nation-state. It might also offer a way to endure during times of climate disruption, when the United States might not be capable of compensating for any number of possible disasters. The Commons Communities Act proposes land reform and collective governance. It proposes nothing new, but rather something very old, a sense of ownership without the enclosure and the abuse of power characteristic of private property.10

Cover of Daniel Immerwahr's Thinking Small: The United States and the Lure of Community Development (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015).
Cover of Daniel Immerwahr's Thinking Small: The United States and the Lure of Community Development (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015).

And yet, I have my own objections to the Commons Communities Act. Small-scale development programs appeared decades ago, with mixed results. The same reformers and intellectuals who rediscovered the small town and the Indian pueblo during the New Deal urged communitarian approaches all over the world. But these schemes harbored certain false assumptions, well described by the historian Daniel Immerwahr. Development agencies believed that the members of a village acted from shared principles and that local elites would fairly apportion money entrusted to them. But villages in the Philippines and India turned out to be more complicated—and divided—than the sanguine Americans had thought. Immerwahr suggests another problem. When a nation-state invests in a community, where does its influence end? What role would the United States play in a commons community?11

The act might also be criticized for shunting the problem of industrial abandonment onto the poor, just like the Division of Subsistence Homesteads. In this way, it seems like a neoliberal policy intended to reduce the cost of state services and lower taxes on the rich. And while under the act the corporations that caused so much human and ecological ruin would be required to pay for houses and schools, this doesn't change or challenge a political economy in which humans and environments serve as inputs in the circulation of capital. For corporations, compensating for social destruction is merely part of the cost of doing business. Eliminating these contradictions so that citizens benefit would require a government and a set of laws dedicated to human welfare.

The act includes scholarships so that the children of Appalachian households might attend college, but it does not come close to addressing the larger cultural problem of why high school kids in Appalachia often don't apply. In Hillbilly Elegy (2016), J. D. Vance eloquently explains why it's so difficult for Appalachians to find a way out of unemployment and improve the quality of their lives. Some see themselves as different from those outside their families or counties. People in other parts of the country view them harshly, with many of the same racialized stereotypes present a century ago. All of this makes geographic and social mobility difficult. Vance's own story suggests that a strong mentor with the capacity to see beyond limited local opportunities can overcome self-defeat. Vance's mentor was his grandmother. "She didn't just preach and cuss and demand. She showed me what was possible . . . and made sure I knew how to get there." Her home provided Vance stability and peace, "not just a short-term haven but also hope for a better life."

Vance got out. He graduated from Ohio State University, the Marines, and Yale Law School before joining a Silicon Valley investment firm. But his very success implies the depth of the problem he confronted. The most unsettling currents in Hillbilly Elegy lie in the necessity of leaving and in its emphasis on a strong and uncompromising grandmother. If meaningful work and a decent occupation only exist elsewhere, then most Appalachians will be abandoned. If escape depends on someone who rises above despair and abuse, then most will be stuck. The role of public policy and a political solution to poverty is to attempt to help everyone in the same situation rather than rely on extraordinary circumstance and plain luck to produce successful individuals. Vance's book is inspiring as a memoir, but it might be construed as saying that the tragedy of Appalachia is the sum of its individual failings or the insularity of its families.12 Domestic violence, drug abuse, and hopelessness on such a scale have social causes. They require solutions that do not place the burden on the sufferers themselves to transcend their circumstances.

About the Author

Steven Stoll is a professor of history at Fordham University and the author of The Great Delusion (Hill and Wang, 2008) and Larding the Lean Earth (Hill and Wang, 2002). His writing has appeared in Harper's Magazine, Lapham's Quarterly, and the New Haven Review.

  • 1. For an argument in favor of collective identities in the service of an ethical politics, see Critchley, Infinitely Demanding. I have especially learned from David Whisnant's "Developments in the Appalachian Identity Movement," which though published in 1980 still resonates. "At its worst . . . regional identification is an isolationist impulse." He deconstructs an essentialist mountain identity. And yet, "The political value of regional identity lies in its usefulness as a basis for broad solidarity and coalition." Whisnant, David. "Developments in the Appalachian Identity Movement: All is Process." Appalachian Journal 8, no. 1 (1980): 41–47.
  • 2. In the words of two historians, "Making visible activities that neoliberalism renders invisible expands the range of ideas for producing social livelihoods and economic development." Amanda Fickey and Michael Samers, "Developing Appalachia: The Impact of Limited Economic Imagination," in Studying Appalachian Studies: Making the Path by Walking, ed. Chad Berry, Phillip J. Obermiller, and Shaunna L. Scott (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015), 123.
  • 3. Appalachian Voices is one such organization. The Reclaim Act is H.R. 4456, 114th Congress. Introduced in the House in February 2016.
  • 4. Ostrom (1933–2012) shared the Nobel Prize with Oliver E. Williamson. The act would rely on Ostrom's Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990). For design principles, see pages 90–101.
  • 5. On corporate subsidies, Niraj Chokshi, "The United States of Subsidies," Washington Post, March 18, 2015,​=.314361798972.
  • 6. Tim Barnwell, The Face of Appalachia: Portraits from the Mountain Farm (New York: W. W. Norton, 2003), 121, 122, 126. The project is Tending the Commons: Folklife and Landscape in Southern West Virginia in cooperation with the Coal River Folklife Project and the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. Dave Bailey interviewed by Mary Hufford on April 12, 1996 (AFC 1999/008),; Virgil Jarrell interviewed by Mary Hufford on May 23, 1996 (AFC 1999/008),
  • 7. Garrett Hardin, "The Tragedy of the Commons," Science 162 (December 13, 1968): 1243–48.
  • 8. According to Richard Judd, "These local common resource regimes established two central principles for the emerging New England conservation tradition: communities bore collective responsibility for managing their resources in a productive fashion, and they were to allocate these resources equitably." Judd, Common Lands, Common People: The Origins of Conservation in Northern New England (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), 7–8, 41–45; James Acheson, Capturing the Commons: Devising Institutions to Manage the Maine Lobster Industry (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2003), 206; Allan Greer, "Commons and Enclosure in the Colonization of North America," American Historical Review 117, no. 2 (April 2012): 365–86.
  • 9. Kathryn Newfont, Blue Ridge Commons: Environmental Activism and Forest History in Western North Carolina (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012), 276.
  • 10. Ibid.
  • 11. Daniel Immerwahr, Thinking Small: The United States and the Lure of Community Development (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015).
  • 12. J. D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (New York: Harper Collins, 2016): 148–49, 206.
Cover Image Attribution: 
Coal pile at the Baldwin Plant, Anderson County, Tennessee, 2012. Photograph by Flickr user appvoices. Creative Commons License CC BY 2.0. Cropped, darkened, and flipped horizontally from original.

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