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Jonathon Free, Administrative Manager

Jonathon Free

Please note: Jonathon has left the "History" group at Duke University; some info here might not be up to date.

Contact Info:
Office Location:  
Office Phone:  +1 919 681 5024
Email Address: send me a message
Web Page:  http://sites.duke.edu/jonathonfree/


MAUniversity of Louisville2008

Labor and Working Class History
Politics, Public Life and Governance
Economic and Business Cultures
Law and Governance
Research Interests: Labor & Working-Class History, Environmental History, History of Capitalism, History of Science & Technology, Regulation

My dissertation traces the evolution of the U.S. coal industry in Appalachia during the 1970s to explain how coal communities became so divided over whether coal’s economic benefits outweighed its environmental costs. Coal mining has always been dangerous, but the geography of that risk changed over the course of the 1970s. Safety legislation in 1969 ultimately reduced the number of deaths due to underground mine explosions, but a growing reliance on surface mining increased mining’s impact on the environment. Through this shift, business leaders ushered in a new phase of the coal industry, one that was safer for miners but more dangerous to nearby communities, ecosystems, and—with the later popularity of mountaintop removal mining—to the mountains themselves. Ironically, while the dangers of underground mining engendered solidarity among miners, making them stalwarts of the U.S. labor movement, these later risks have been more divisive. While environmental activists bemoan the greater ecological impact of coalmining, some coalfield residents still see the industry as their best hope for decent employment and lambast the Environmental Protection Agency and Obama administration for waging a “war on coal.” My work makes three major contributions to the study of the Appalachian South and the post-1945 U.S. First, I illuminate a period in Appalachian history that is vital to understanding the region’s current situation. In particular, I argue that dwindling coal employment in Appalachia during the late twentieth century was an unintended consequence of federal policy. Stricter safety measures encouraged mine operators to invest in surface mining operations, which were not only less dangerous but also required fewer workers. Furthermore, federal investment in the research and development of coalmining technology helped coal companies open massive surface mines in western states like Wyoming that shifting the epicenter of U.S. coal production away from Appalachia. Secondly, I engage with environmental historians interested in the working-class environmentalism by explaining the process by which some Appalachians became convinced that coalmining was too dangerous while others decided that it was too important to loose. I argue that the coal industry used advertising and public relations campaigns to craft a compelling argument for surface mining as a means of economic development. Industry claims that land that had been stripped could be used for commercial development or recreational purposes in order to diversify the Appalachian economy resonated with many residents, making debates over economic and environmental issues even more contentious. Finally, my research contributes to the growing body of scholarship on the origins of the fractiousness that has characterized American politics since the 1970s. Whereas some historians have focused on changes in popular culture and ideology, I show how material changes in the work of natural resource extraction also contributed to this development.

Recent Publications

  1. Balleisen, EJ; Bennear, LS; Cheang, D; Free, J; Hayes, M; Pechar, E; Preston, AC, Institutional Mechanisms for Investigating the Regulatory Implications of a Major Crisis: The Commission of Inquiry and the Safety Board, in Policy Shock: Recalibrating Risk and Regulation after Oil Spills, Nuclear Accidents, and Financial Crises, edited by Balleisen, EJ; Bennear, LS; Krawiec, KD; Wiener, JB (November, 2017), pp. 485-539, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 1107140218 [doi]

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