Find Your Sustain Ability: Jeff Biggers on Regenerative Cities and Sustainability in Appalachia

Appalachian's director of sustainability, Dr. Lee Ball, welcomes celebrated author, journalist, historian and playwright Jeff Biggers to the studio for a discussion of the history of sustainability in Appalachia, what a regenerative Boone, North Carolina, could look like and Biggers' multimedia theatrical piece "An Evening at the Ecopolis: Envisioning a Regenerative City."


  • Lee Ball: I’m here with Jeff Biggers the celebrated author, journalist, historian and playwright. He’s currently the leader of The Climate Narrative Project and he serves as Writer in Residence in the Office of Sustainability at the University of Iowa. Jeff is joining us on campus this week, meeting with faculty and students and performing his multimedia theatrical piece entitled, “An Evening at the Ecopolis: Envisioning a Regenerative City. So Jeff, thanks for being here. I’m really happy to talk about your work and am most interested in your story and your connection to Appalachia. You live in Iowa city, but you have some deep roots here in Appalachia. I would love for you to share with us a little about your story and how you came to do this work in the sustainability kind of space and specifically your connection to Appalachia.

    Jeff Biggers: Great. Thanks so much for having me. It’s great to be back in Boone and Appalachian State, which I know very well. My family has deep roots in Appalachia, going back to before the American Revolution as Baptist descenders who came down and took an active part in the American Revolution even part of the Regulated Movement, which was of course a rebellion prior to the American Revolution. It sent a lot of people into the mountains. Soon after the American Revolution, my folks continued to go with that Western Migration. Going into Kentucky and the Cumberlands and then just following the sort of trails of woodsmen looking for other areas. They ended up, believe it or not, in Sutherland Illinois. Often when we think of Illinois we think of Chicago- we think of corn, we don’t realize that it’s very long skinny state that three hundred and sixty miles from Chicago is where my family lived. The beautiful place where the Wisconsin Glaciers stopped and we have these amazing upheavals. So we have a very similar mountainous region that you might find in the Cumberlands or even in the Ozarks. It’s incredible biodiversity. So that’s where my family lived for two hundred plus years. As a kid we were uprooted. It’s a community of coal mining. My family came from coal miners in a very rough area in the back woods. So as a young kid we packed up the old ‘64 Chevy and my folks moved us out west, continuing this migration. But we never forgot our roots. That was something that I felt I needed to go back and really discover at one point. A turning point for me, I had two turning points. One was that as a student, I was the University of California in Berkeley in 1981 and I ended up dropping out of school for various reasons and hitchhiking across the country. I was still just a teenager, a nineteen-year old freshman at that point, and I for some reason wanted to go back to Appalachia. I didn’t know quite why. I was hiking along the trail, working in communities. At one point I was working on a farm and I was camping in the woods and I had to hitchhike back to where I was camping. I waited for a long time, I had been bit by a dog that day on the farm that day, so I was really kind of frustrated. Somebody picked me up and I got into the car. I will never forget, I said “did you know that it takes forever to get a ride with a hillbilly back here” and he stopped his car and he said “get out.” And I was like you know I need to get to my campsite, I’m tired, I’m a kid, I don’t...and then I kind of shouted “I’m a hillbilly these are my roots so I can use that word.” He said “get out, we don’t have hillbillies back here, we have mountaineers.” I was kind of perplexed by that and I thought this is interesting. So I said “what do you mean mountaineers?” And he said “Hey if you’re real interested, let me take you somewhere.” This is just on the other side of the gap, Cumberland Gap. It was that nexus where Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina and Kentucky all come together. I hopped into the car and we went and got my backpack. Then he drove me hours into West Virginia and he dropped me off at this farm, this folk school. That really began this kind of long journey home. I stayed at a folk school at a farm all summer working at an incredible place that really wanted to look at the progressive role of Appalachian history. If was founded by the same person who had founded Highlander Folk School in eastern Tennessee. He had gone on to do all sorts of things in his life. His name is Don West. He was a labor organizer, he was a poet and who had national fame. He was someone who had been an educator. He was sort of a godfather of Appalachian studies. He was this old cranky lanky man on a farm who woke me up at 4:30 that morning to go milk cows and begin with this discussion of “did you know”. It was “did you know about the history of Appalachia”. That really rooted me and brought me back. Really it’s been a thirty plus year journey since then to really go deep into understanding who I am, what is this region really about, and what can we learn about Appalachia being on the forefront of so many things in the United States. Don told me one thing, I’ll end with that, you can’t understand America until you understand Appalachia because it’s really been on the frontlines of so much change and shift. I’ll never forget hearing that from him on the farm stuck with and still sticks with me today.

    LB: Wow that’s beautiful. So could explain how you’ve experience similar learning communities and learning styles and some of your international travel.

    JB: Certainly. One thing that Don did on his farm, and this was thirty-five years ago, was that he began to see the role of self-sufficiency as something we had lost in Appalachia. Part of our struggle, both in the coal fields of where I’m from in Sutherland Illinois and what we have in West Virginia, central Appalachia and other parts down here in the Carolinas, is that we have lost sense of self-sufficiency within the mountains of how we can provide our own energy, our own food and our own sense of place. That powerful sense of self-sufficiency that we can regenerate our own communities is something I’ve seen that not only Don worked on, but many people here in Appalachia and, on a global level, many other different communities.

    In the 1990s I spent a year in India in a community very similar to here, it was way up in the Western Gap Mountains on the border of Tamamodo and Karela. There was a similar community. It was a mountain community that had gone through massive deforestation through logging and clear cutting. It had pretty much left the local community in ruin. There was a local boy who grew up there who had become a follower of Gandhi and then went off to a very unique university outside of Calcutta called Santiniketan that had a very much an environmental sustainability emphasis in the 1920s and the 1930s. He met up with some Americans who funded his trip to come the United States in the 1950s to see cooperative movements and other education experience all around sustainability. Of course we didn’t use that word back then, but the idea of self-sufficiency and self-reliance is really about revitalization of who we were. Then this young man went back to his community, but what was unique to me was while he was in the United States he spent a tremendous amount of time in Appalachia both with the Highlander Folk school, the Johnson Campbell Folk School of North Carolina and in this area particularly just to see how people were interacting with their region, with the nature, with their environment. How they really were building on endeavors to be self-reliant, and to be communities that identified with their nature, with their ecology. Therefore, that connection between Appalachia and India, to me, was fascinating. I’ve seen similar movements where people continue to believe that the land does determine our culture. Our ecology does has to be a part of any kind of design. Be it an urban design for a town/city or a rural area.

    LB: Jeff, could you explain the role of arts in this work. I understand communities that are very isolated they learn to be resilient because they kind of have to, but have you experienced even in those places art being a strong part of it?

    JB: Certainly. I love talking about Appalachia because I love talk about where the first Nobel for literature given to woman. Of course it was given to Pearl Buck. When she arrived in Stockholm they said we love all your stories about China, but we’re giving you this Nobel laureates for your beautiful memoir about being from West Virginia. The fact that this tremendous literary tradition is deeply rooted of Appalachia is telling stories. Be it through the first work of fiction and social realism. To someone like Rebecca Harden Davis who talked about the role of rural immigrants in Appalachia and published in the “Atlantic Monthly” in 1961. To the other end of the arts of this incredible rich heritage of music. I think we often forget about Appalachia being this crossroads of from the Europeans, African Americans and the Cherokee that is beautifully shown in the work of Nina Simone who grew up in the back woods of North Carolina, just outside of Asheville. Who is proud of the fact that the second song that Nina Simone recorded when she became this big star in Jersey, then eventually in New York City, was “Black is the True Color of My Loves Hair”--this beautiful old British Isle ballot that she had learned in the back woods that she had made her own. Talking about this role of arts has been powerful. Probably our strongest one is our role storytelling. That we have the wherewithal to sit around and envision another world, another reality. To take what’s happening today and put it into context for us. To fill in the gaps. To go beyond any sense of data and actually fill it up with people. To give it some meaning to who we are and really tell stories that change people’s lives. Stories that make us think in a different way. I think that that’s the role of arts that I have really come out of. Now at the University of Iowa, I have founded a project called The Climate Narrative Project. There I work with both undergraduate and graduate students to use the arts to tell a better sustainability story, particularly with an eye to climate change. We feel that there is this massive gap between science and in action. That gap, I feel, can ultimately can be bridged through our arts and storytelling traditions and our narratives. That we can learn to use film and theatre and radio podcasts, like this, or the visual arts and sculpture or dance or all the different types of narratives modes and begin to use those as means to tell a better story to do something both in sustainability and climate action.

    LB: You know we always struggle with converting knowledge into practice. I think that is one of our biggest hurdles in the work that we do. There is a lot knowledge, we don’t need to reinvent a lot of wheels, but the practice piece is really challenging. I see internationally, I see it locally. I think it’s beautiful that you mention the arts role of with that in kind of active practice. You know, putting boots on the ground that are needed to do this work. I wonder about people’s sense of hope and I wonder with you and your work, how do you inspire hope?

    JB: Sure! I think that’s the great thing about being an historian is that you realize that we’ve gone through these dark time again and again and again and again. We somehow manage to always pull through. And once again, let’s just use Appalachia since we’re here. In 1780 was an incredibly dark moment in the United States. We had our Declaration of Independence in July 4, 1776 and I think that a lot of people think we went out and celebrated, that we went to the mall and shopping and it was over with. They didn’t realize that the Revolution went on and it went wrong and we were losing. George Washington didn’t have an army and was an extremely incompetent military commander. He had mutinies, the funding wasn’t there and the south was split. At a certain point there was stalemate and there was this secret negotiation to perhaps giving the Americans the North and the Brits would take the South. On that the Brits came and eventually they shifted to what they called The Southern Strategy. They took Georgia and then they finally won Charleston, South Carolina. They were just rolling up the Carolinas and Cornwallis had warned that they were on their way to get Washington (DC). These were extremely dark moments. I think that we thought the great experiment that Tom Payne had given in the “Common Sense” was not going to come true. At a certain point the Mountaineers, here in precisely where we live, came together. They were actually inspired by a teacher and a man who had both been a minister and had run a log cabin college to begin to engage and march. They came across as the back water men and they came across the mountains. They agreed there would be no commander, but each person would be their own captain and the communities offered whatever they could in terms of materials and food and lead to make bullets. They came down from the mountain and eventually met up with one of Cornwallis’ platoons at the Battle of King’s Mountain. It’s on the border of South Carolina and North Carolina and they had a battle. In fact it the Patriots won and they beat the Loyalists. Something that’s very important about this battle is that we have this idea that somehow the British invaded us when the fact was there was only one Brit on that battle field that day and that was the commander. The rest were North Carolina Loyalists. It was a real civil war for us in the south. The good news is that the Patriots won and it galvanized the continental army. Suddenly we realize that we had a southern army. George Washington once mocked the south saying that they would turn high-tail at the first glimmer of the bayonet, but in fact the Mountaineers had come down extremely organized because they had been working for decades in a movement of independence in the Carolinas. They were able to kind of give hope to the rest of the United States that the revolution was worth it. Thomas Jefferson said that the Battle of King’s Mountain turned the tide of the American Revolution. Of course within that a we had the surrender of Cornwallis in Yorktown in Virginia and were able to then go on and experience the United States. This kind of turning point in our history, these hinge moments. I think that we need to go back to this again and again and see how in fact we can in can come together and we can work this out as different communities, especially when looking at the history of Appalachia. This is very similar to the anti-slavery movement, to the civil rights movement, to the labor movement, to today. I think our challenge, of course, is sustainability and climate change.

    LB: Jeff your performance tonight called Ecopolis is it a call to action?

    JB: It is a theatre piece with music that basically helps people envision what Boone would look like in the year 2030 as a regenerative city. I was the keynote speaker for a conference here six years ago and it was called “After Coal, we were comparing Appalachia to Whales. My dear friend Tom Hansel had done with Pat Beaver and all these wonderful people that I worked with for years through the Appalachian Studies Program. I left that conference six years ago kind of chagrin because when push comes to shove, I can’t really tell you what we can do with “After Coal”. I grew up in a coal mining community where 80 percent of the county was owned by absentee landlords that the highest unemployment and poverty rate. Our communities were completely left in ruin in terms of discharges. Our creeks were completely sterile now because of the strip mines. We literally had been left with just utter hopelessness. So what could we do after coal? I can really say after that conference here at Appalachian State I began this journey of wondering how do we begin to revitalize our communities. So is took back me to India after that village revitalization program. That fifty years later since he had visited Appalachia, he had recreated and regenerated one of the most beautiful indigenous forests that you have in the Western Gap Mountains. That he had created this completely self-sufficient community that created its own food, had its own cottage industries and really operated in the context of where they lived. I began to look at other models from around the world and I really stumbled onto this role of what they are calling regenerative cities. The idea that we need to begin to look at our cities in not a linear way. Like okay I need electricity, I am going to import it from the coal fire plant and then spew out my coal ash waste. Oh now I need food? I have to import it and bring it up the mountain and then spew out all of my stuff into the landfill with our garbage. When we begin to see our cities in a circular way with a circular metabolism. That we have to have a circular economy, nothing naive because obviously we live in a globalized economy, but that the very needs that we have we can begin to produce. Once again this is how it use to be in Appalachia one hundred years ago. I really began to think about how did it go wrong? We use to live on what we called a agropolis, an agro-town that provided for ourselves. Then after the war, what truly happened was we became a petropolis. Cities that were based on petroleum. Cities that widen our streets, created these long highways, we trucked things in, we began to change completely. That has been a fifty year aberration compared to the centuries of how we’ve actually maintained our communities in the past. So building on that the idea is that we need to create an ecopolis - polis meaning the city and eco meaning the environment. The idea that we go back to the agropolis, but through using modern technology in a way that we can create a city of the future. So we begin to look at all realms of how we interact. We go beyond sustainability because, as we all know, nothing is sustainable and we begin to look at things in a regenerative context. Be it our food system, our transportation, our urban design, our waste management, our water quality. These are things that matter in terms of us as a town and as a city. The final important thing about the regenerative city is how we have to go beyond “doing less bad”. I think this is where you and I have to really struggle with our college and sustainability department. Is that we have this kind of context that sustainability basically means doing less bad to endure what we are going through. We need to adapt to this kind of system. My question for a lot of students yesterday was what do you call adaptation when you are adapting to a failed system? A system that you know is going to collapse? And how do we go beyond doing is less bad to actually doing something that repairs the damage to the ecological system? That begins to enhance nature. That uses that word that a lot of us shy away from. To heal the damage that we have done to ecology. That’s what regeneration asks us: to restore our relationship with nature, to rewild our talents and cities, and begin to have a connection between the forest and the hinterlands or whatever ecological community you live in, a river town like I do, and begin to bring it back into the city. One of the most beautiful experiment is Adelaide, Australia, city of million people. They brought in this urban planner and ecologist named Herbert Gerdes as their thinker in residence. He convened all of these forums. They were a typical city that was facing drought, depended on coal fire plants, imported ninety percent of their food, had a massive problem with their landfill. Basically the idea was let’s revision and rethink how to do this. Today, ten years after that experiment, this is a place that gets sixty percent of their electricity now from renewable energy, eighty-two percent of their urban waste goes to circular compost outside the city. They have tens of thousands of acres that’s using that compost that is dedicated to vegetables and fruit trees. The city planted over three million trees as part of a soil carbon sequestration program and reconnected with who they were not only as desert dwellers, but also desert trees. They created actual district that were one hundred percent renewable and created a transportation, including the first solar bus in the world, which allowed people to walk bike or use public transits that would get them out of the car. They completely transformed their city using that circular way. That is something that really excited me. I thought, “now it’s time to bring back more regeneration back into the coal fields.”

    LB: Jeff as we imagine how to turn Boone, Appalachian State, the high country, into a more regenerative space…I was thinking about the design process, the design thinking process. It’s easy to sit around and design stuff on paper. It’s easy for us to talk about it in a sterile room. Can talk about the importance of just walking in our community and experiencing what needs to be done? And the opportunity for us to thrive and not just rely on this adaptive management technique that we tend to fall back on.

    JB: Yeah that’s great, actually one of the first lines of my monologues tonight is the “only way for us to understand our city is to walk our city”. We have to literally get out, and walk in our towns. I think you’re right. I think it begins with literally trying to understand our sense of place. It begins with understanding why do we call it King street, who is King? Why do we call it this Knob or that Knob in this town? Why did we name our town after Daniel Boone? Then we begin to, those kind of things may seem artificial and ridiculous, but there’s a sense of grounding us in who we are. Yesterday, I ask all the students, “where does your electricity come from? Where does your water come from? Where does your waste go to? Where is your landfill at? Where does your food come from?” Those questions, once again, begin to talk about our sense of place or our lack of sense of place. From there we begin to envision how we can transform. I think it is very important what you say because we just can’t be in these rooms with just a blueprints. As if I can take these blueprints Iowa, to North Carolina to California to India to Mexico. It doesn’t work that way. Every city has to take what it has and transform and evolve from your own legacy and your own reality of the ecology here and your own needs. The needs of Boone are entirely different from the needs of Iowa City and are entirely different than the needs of Adelaide, Australia. That sense of place needs to be a primer. Then the envisioning process through the community actually then begins to build on not just the experts of the field, but the common sense legacy of the people in the towns themselves, bringing together the entrepreneurs, the farmers, the ecologists, the people who have lived there forever. Who begin to understand this is why you live in this area. This is what you could do here. This is the watershed. This is where this could go. This is how and what use to grow here. This is what can’t grow here. You convene those through a series of forms and then you begin to chart out a vision of the future. I think that this is where the arts and storytelling become important, and something I‘m going to strive for tonight. It's through storytelling, through art, through music. It’s a way to get people to actually see what it could look like. I think our gap between so much science and action is that we have this obstacle, this element of being blocked that we really can’t envision life would be like if we weren’t depending on a coal fire plant or what would life be like if we didn’t have to depend on oil or petroleum based vehicles. I think we have to show people, not in a utopic way, but in a very real way of what Boone, or any town, would like twenty years from now. And if this is what we want, if this is the vision, then we simple have to find the road map to get there. Could be that it’s going to take us fifty years to have a regenerative city or could be that it takes us ten years to create a regenerative city, but you set those benchmarks. A very similar example for you folks would be the town of Oberlin, Ohio. There you have the great work of David Oar who is one of our environmental gurus and urban planners who created the Oberlin Project in the 1990s. The idea is Oberlin set these benchmarks such as in twenty years “We want to have fifty percent of our food produced locally, we want to have reduction of carbon emissions by x amount, we want to have a certain level of energy efficiency, we want to have a certain level of renewable energy, we want to have a transit system that gets at least forty percent of our people out of the cars and are walking or biking like Copenhagen.” So the Oberlin Project, which is a town of ten thousand people, began to envision the future, set their roadmap, create these benchmarks every five to ten years and worked their way through it. Once again this was something introduced through stories, through dialogue and through bringing people together. Which is really the old fashion way of doing things. As you say it is so much more productive and effective and authentic than experts sitting in a room with a blueprint thinking that they have all the solutions.

    LB: The Oberlin Project is near and dear to our heart. One of our alumni, Shawn Price, is the director of the project

    JB: Oh! I didn’t know that!

    LB: David Oar is a dear friend of ours and comes to our Appalachian Energy Summit every year.

    JB: Great!

    LB: We really respect his work and his vision and his passion. I’m interested about regenerative design. That term and those conversations started a while ago in the 70s or in the early 80s and we are seeing it again. Why do you think that now it’s come back?

    JB: You know when it first came out, I think a lot of it came out of Germany at one point. The Germans certainly in the 1990s had a major shift. The role of the Green Party, as small as it was, was able to introduce some of ideas. For example, having a feed tariff with your electricity which would allow you, it you put up a solar panel, to sell back the excess electricity to the power company. That begin to allow for something other electricity for example. Then started to support the growing for solar, wind and, for them, biomass. But I think for them the ideas never took root because of the tremendous force of the oil and gas and coal lobbies. That they were good ideas, but when push came to shove, especially within the energy field, they just kept getting squashed down. I think we all know that Jimmy Carter put solar panels on the White House in the 1970s. There was this incredible movement. One of our great philosophers Barry Commoner coming out of Washington University who wrote a very important book, The Closing Circle, that really informs a lot the regenerative movement in cities now. They are using his same context of what Commoner was talking about in the 1970s. I think the role of the lobbies, the role of politics and whatnot, I think so much of our work was waiting in Washington to take the first step and it just never filtered down into the communities. In the last few years though, I think we’re seeing a rebirth of the regenerative movement because I think that people realize that the action is going to come local now. I think that now more than ever, I wrote a piece for the New York Times recently saying that cities are going to lead the climate movement now. And that makes me excited and inspired. I feel like we are in a period of Doomsday scenarios. We are dealing with a federal administration that denies climate change. Who is sort of removing so many different environmental regulations and I think that there is this that we’re doomed. That there is not going to be a commitment to the Paris Climate Summit. I come at it in a completely different perspective. I don’t know if that’s because I am incorrigibly optimistic, but I feel like now the burden is on the local communities to take the lead and we are seeing that. We are seeing the role of New York, the role of Chicago, the role of San Francisco. Here you have a very conservative republican mayor in San Diego who has set up a very ambitious role of being 100 percent renewable by 2030. You have the cities saying hey this is our responsibility and we are going to take the lead. I think that we have to remember that seventy-five percent of our carbon footprint comes from the cities. Not so much the little towns like Boone, but bigger cities. But I think even towns like Boone can be in the forefront of this movement. It’s going to be the local entities that lead us in climate action and I think that what we are realizing is that through a regenerative approach, more a circular approach, that’s going to be the most effective, the most successful.

    LB: So Jeff, where is your edge, what are you excited about right now? Where do you see yourself right now kind of doing next?

    JB: Well as you can tell, I kind of have my hands in many different things, but I am really getting to this old cranky grey hair age that I want to work with young people to train a new generation of climate storytellers and climate leaders. When I went to the University of Iowa a few years ago, they asked me to do some creative writing and I said you know I could, but I’m just not interested. I really want to work on climate change though the perspective of being a writer and through the arts. So I really actually have invested a lot of time to create this climate narrative project. Where I have created fellowships, we work with both undergraduate and graduate students. We take people from all the different departments and we kind of snub creative writers, we feel like they have enough opportunities. We work with scientists, engineers, and people that work in agriculture, which is kind of big in Iowa. We work with educators, psychologists, sociologists, we work with people from every department to come together to sit across the table and to begin to talk about these various themes of sustainability and regeneration and climate change and how we can tell a better story. So they go through a very rigorous practice of public speaking. A very rigorous practice of learning how to make a film, how to do theatre. We bring in dance faculty to teach them how to dances. We bring in visual artist and show them how to make a radio podcast, you name it. We try to train them and give them tools to become more effective a climate activists, to be true storytellers and to become climate leaders. The idea is that this is not a one semester long project. What I’m hoping is that they take these tools and they go back to whatever department they are in and they begin to work with their colleagues, fellow students, faculty and staff to become even better communicators with these tools. I think ultimately that’s going to be our future. That’s something that I’m investing a lot of time in. I think a lot of it comes from spending almost two decades as a journalist and as a historian as an activist fighting the coal industry and realizing we didn’t get very far. We didn’t stop mountaintop removal. My community is in ruins. I have three cousins working underground now who face horrific working conditions. That three people still die every day from black lung disease, a disease that affected so many people in my family. The fact yesterday our President signed a bill rolling back the last of little rules over river protection. We are not going to be able to save my community and central Appalachia until we begin to come up with ways to transition, what we call just transition. A way to regenerate our communities without waiting on some kind of magical wand to happen. That’s the kind of thing that I’m really excited about.

    LB: Well, Jeff thank you so much for coming here and sharing your stories. And thank you so much for being alive here on this planet doing this work because we need more people like you.

    JB: Thanks so much for having me, really appreciate it.