The Surprising Ways Globalization Is Changing One Of the Most Remote Parts Of the U.S.


Discussing the Appalachian region of the eastern United States can often devolve into stereotypes, and that's a shame because it is a beautiful place filled with its own unique culture.

Yes, there are areas of severe economic hardship, but the entire region should not be dismissed for that reason. It is also an area that, as the world around it has gotten more and more connected, has not been skipped over by the touch of globalization. Bringing in influences from other areas can be a boon to places, but the erosion of the Appalachian region's traditional cultural identity is doing more harm than good.

For those unfamiliar with the term, globalization is basically the mixing of economies and cultures from around the world. It is a concept that, as technology brings countries together in faster ways, will become ever more important to be informed about and I encourage you to learn as much as possible.

With regards to Appalachia, the economic effects of globalization have been leaking into the area for some time. The primary export of the Appalachian region has long been coal. Life in this area of country often revolves around the coal industry and the people of the region are fiercely proud of their coal heritage.

The sale of coal dug from deep under the Appalachian mountains allows trade of items from places all around the global market to flow into this impoverished region. However, being a primarily coal-based economy leaves the region very susceptible to the whims of the energy business. This has led to a significant portion of the population living below the poverty line.

As the world population leans more and more toward sustainable energy sources, jobs are rapidly leaving the Appalachian region. In 2011, the most recent year with complete data available, the unemployment rate for most counties in Appalachia ranged from 8.7% to 19.8%. The national unemployment rate for that year was just 8.9%.

While globalization is increasingly effecting the economy of Appalachia it is eclipsed by the impact it has had on the cultural heritage of the region. According to Dr. Chad Berry of Berea College, a liberal arts college on the edge of Appalachia in Kentucky, the cultural demographics of the area were specifically designed to insulate the people of the region so they would not progress. Whether that was to keep the area's cultural integrity or to keep the mountain people backwards and economically dependent is up for debate. Either way, Appalachian culture remained stagnant until the long-arm of globalization made its presence known.

Tourism to the Great Smokey Mountain National park, for example, brings in people from around the world. In 2011, more than 9 million people visited the park and they pumped $818 million into the local economies. These people bring not only their money, but also their culture with them when they visit. Visitors passing through other parts of Appalachia on their way to the national park often stop and purchase folksy trinkets along the way. This may be the only interaction they have with true Appalachian culture but such transactions can't help but have an influence on all parties involved.

Walmart, one of the largest companies in world, has entrenched itself into the Appalachian region. As an international corporation that maintains prices manageable for lower-income families to endure, Walmart is the gateway through which most Appalachian families experience products not locally made. Of course, the inevitable Walmart effect has had a significant impact on small businesses throughout the region, but local stores continue to fight back against the global monster and try to maintain their own identity and place in their communities. Walmart does acknowledge its important role in Appalachia and has donated money toward preserving and improving the region.

Globalization has had a devastating impact on long-standing cultures across the globe. Indigenous peoples have had their traditions upended and their traditional livelihoods increasingly eradicated. With the limited technological resources and economic fall-backs at the disposal of residents of Appalachia, such a dramatic effect could very well be sneaking into the area without the rest of the country taking notice. Already bits of the area's cultural identity are being chipped away. Aspects of the distinct Appalachian dialect have been fading away for some time.

Mary Anglin, an associate professor from the University of Kentucky has examined the impact globalization has had on Appalachia and specifically on the roles of women in the region. She discusses that much of the economic development of the region was lost in the recent recession. Only 35 of the 420 counties in Appalachia had positive job growth from 2007 to 2010. This downturn, she argues, serves to further the image of Appalachian culture projected to the world. A podcast of Anglin presenting her findings is available on the University of Kentucky Appalachian Center website.

Globalization is a fact of life in our modern culture. We are becoming more and more an integrated people. Nowhere is exempt from the impact of this cultural and economic melding, including Appalachia. But it must be remembered that as globalization brings with it opportunities it also erodes some of our individual cultures. By recognizing this consequence we can put forth effort to document and preserve these ways of life before some of the bricks that helped build our cultural identity are lost forever. Working to prevent the loss of these cultural gems should be our primary goal if we want our children to know where they came from.