Climate Gentrification Threats in Tennessee

Priced out of my hometown New York City during the pandemic, I arrived in Tennessee for an artist residency on a donkey farm 3 years ago looking for a solution to what I’d hoped was a short-term issue of homelessness. After unexpectedly falling in love at 40 with a self-described “hillbilly” local, I stayed. Apparently I’m one of many. 

Tennessee has recently become one of the most popular moving destinations for Americans. Evidence suggests many Americans coming from “Bellwether states” such as Florida or California are making climate-based moving choices. 

A May 2023 report from Invest Appalachia confirms climate change is driving Americans’ choices on where to live. “Available data and information point toward Central Appalachia as a likely important hub for in-migration and climate-adaptive development.” Despite Tennessee’s rising floods and tornadoes, it’s become a popular destination. 

The unique tropical rain-forest environments of the Appalachian Mountains are some of the oldest on Earth. According to the Nature Conservancy “the Appalachians’ rich variety of species, natural resiliency and diverse communities and cultures put it alongside the Amazon Rainforest and the Kenyan grasslands as one of the most globally important landscapes for tackling climate change and conserving biodiversity.” 

Climate-driven moving is causing climate-gentrification. Newcomers arriving from states with lower poverty levels – and more threatening climate issues – are driving locals out of their housing markets. Invest Appalachia’s report further states “also relevant are issues of equity and justice, affordability, opportunity, good governance, housing and food access, and education.”

They urge a federal level of study to protect already at-risk rural communities and further quote the Nature Conservancy (2022): “It is clear that Appalachia will become increasingly relevant nationally and internationally in the coming decades due to its role as a natural carbon sink and as a globally-significant site of ecological diversity that is juxtaposed by defaced mountains, fouled waterways, and other legacy impacts of fossil fuel extraction.” 

Due to a surge of climate-related interest in electric cars, General Motors and L.G. Energy Solutions have co-opened a 2.8 million square foot battery plant in Spring Hill, Tennessee, creating over 1,300 jobs and bringing in thousands of newcomers to a town of 53,339.

This is a potentially exciting timeline hopefully bringing much needed infrastructure like schools and also hospitals, which have the 2nd highest closure rates in the country. But locals may be driven out and not stay to benefit from this surge in popularity. Whether Americans live in a “bellwether state” or a different region, looking ahead to safeguard vulnerable communities such as mine can benefit everyone. 

Appalachia has a history of being exploited by wealthy companies and politicians and ravaged by opiate distributors, as told in Barbara Kingsolver’s recent book, “Demon Copperhead.” Climate-gentrification is one more addition. Understanding who owns the land (private landowners, federal government, and corporations) and sharing those results publicly as well as discussing what land-ownership means and the responsibilities involved therein is important if the land and its people are to be protected.

This isn’t the first time locals here have been driven from their homes. 412, the highway that runs past my solar-powered cabin in the woods, follows the The Trail of Tears where Cherokees such as my husband’s mother’s family and other Indigenous peoples were forced on a perilous relocation during the 1830s to land west of the Mississippi River. While climate-change gentrification can’t compare to the Trail of Tears, the process of forced relocation is an ancient one, not new to our country’s origin story. Moving forward, we can make different stories today.