Alumni (National Fellow)

Jonathon Free

National Fellow
Ph.D. Duke University (2016)
Dream Mentor:
Richard White
Stanford University
Fields of Interest:
American Political Development
Environmental Policy
History of Capitalism


Jonathon Free is a historian of the modern U.S. with an emphasis on energy, political economy, and the environment. He completed his Ph.D. at Duke University, where his dissertation examined the history of the U.S. coal industry during the 1970s. In addition to teaching a course on the history of energy, Jonathan supports Duke’s Energy Initiative research development, including the administration of the Energy Research Seed Fund, regular seminars, and it’s annual Energy Research Collaboration Workshops. His personal research has received support from the Forest History Society, The Miller Center for Public Affairs at the University of Virginia, and the Center for the History of Business, Technology, and Society at the Hagley Library and Museum. Jon was the recipient of the 2016 Miller Center Hagley Library Fellowship in Business and Politics.

Thesis Description:

Redistributing Risk: The Political Ecology of Coal in Late-Twentieth Century Appalachia
Free’s dissertation, “Redistributing Risk: The Political Ecology of Coal in Late-Twentieth Century Appalachia,” traces the U.S. coal industry’s increased reliance on surface mining in the late twentieth century. During the late 1960’s and 1970’s, Congress passed new mine safety regulations that significantly lowered the number of deaths from explosions, roof-falls, and other underground disasters. Coal companies responded to safety legislation by expanding surface mining operations, which were less accident-prone but more environmentally destructive than underground mines.

This redistribution of the risks of mining had profound implications for the political culture of coal mining communities. In Appalachian states like Kentucky and West Virginia, where coal companies traditionally played a major role in the local economy, the mining jobs that remained became more precious, as did the few mountains left untouched by surface mining operations. Meanwhile, the risks of surface mining became more acceptable to many coalfield residents as the industry depicted it as a way to provide the energy that the nation needed while also improving both the aesthetic quality and economic attractiveness of the land. As a result, the debate over surface mining became a point of fracture in increasingly divided communities.

While scholars of environmental policy, American business, or working-class communities have tended to analyze the history of each subfield separately, this project draws on the history of capitalism, critical geography, and interdisciplinary studies of regulation to argue that the shared history of policymakers, business people, and workers did not unfold in insolated silos.

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