Monday, March 03, 2008

Common-sense environmentalism

-- by Dave

I like to consider myself an environmentalist, but I almost never call myself one. Mainly because I really don't want to be associated with a lot of the people who do.

Because environmentalists are usually right about the facts of the issues they attempt to confront: global warming is a reality, the rape of the world's forests is a disaster in the making, corporate pollution is poisoning us, and the extinction of animal species is both an ecological and a human disaster. On the science and on most policy issues, the environmentalists are right.

But on the human front ... they leave a lot to be desired. And this in turn has a lot to do with why their rightness fails to translate into effective action.

The classic case, in my mind, is the way environmentalists in the Northwest have worked to bring a halt to the destruction of old-growth forest in the Lower 48 in the 1980s and '90s, but did so in such a way that they permanently alienated people who should have been allies in that fight: the residents near the forests that were being torn down.

Most of these folks worked in the timber industry, but few of them trusted their corporate bosses much at all. And the reality was that their bosses' rapine behavior -- especially the mass liquidation of forest stocks in the 1980s -- may have meant a short-term uptick in the local economies, but they guaranteed a future where scarcely any cutting or milling would even be possible, because the entire stock of cuttable woods would be gone.

But if you talked to urban environmentalists at the time (and even now), their attitudes about working people in those small towns was strikingly uniform: Those people were just anachronisms, and they should just work up fresh resumes (maybe go back to school) and go get jobs elsewhere. Indeed, a surprising number of them believed that the world would be better off if there just were no timber cutting at all.

It was clear that, as well as they might grasp some of the scientific realities of the issues (and not even those all that well, considering how many of them really believed the nonsense about halting all logging) they had little understanding of the human consequences of their argument. Many people who live in rural areas do so because that's what their ancestors did, and they log because that's how daddy and granddaddy and great-granddaddy made their livings; their family homes are not just dwellings, and they can't and won't just up and move into another one as if it were a condo. People who live in rural areas are often deeply rooted.

A smart approach for the environmentalists would have been to win these people in the true "grassroots" to their side -- arguing for maintaining the long-term viability of working forests by not overcutting, keeping jobs permanent, and requiring better working conditions and pay in the mills, as well as retraining for the sake of modernization. Argue for preserving wildlife habitat because, among other things, it helps improve hunting.

But culturally, they just couldn't do it because too many of those urban environmentalists couldn't help looking down their pert little noses at those poor redneck schlubs in the sticks.

I've seen this play out time and again. In the fight to save the last salmon runs on the Pacific Coast and restore them to a semblance of their historic levels, the environmentalists' obvious allies should and could have been the various fishing interests in the region, both commercial coastal fleets and the many sport fishermen who ply the region's rivers.

But those alliances have been few, rare, and fleeting -- mainly because environmentalists see fishing and hunting as, well, kinda icky things.

And because of that, the political victories likewise have been few and fleeting, and increasingly hard to come by.

Rebecca Solnit at Orion wrote a piece recently that took this problem on, and it should be required reading not just for every environmentalist, but for everyone who calls themselves a progressive or a liberal:
This one is about what happened afterward, when I and the Canadian environmentalists I’d been traveling with arrived at the nearest settlement, a logging town in the far northeast corner of British Columbia consisting of a raw row of buildings on either side of the highway to Alaska.

We were celebrating two weeks of rafting down the central river in that ungulate- and predator-rich paradise at the outpost’s big honky-tonkish nightclub, where the DJ kept playing country songs, to which all the locals would loop around gracefully, clasped together. But my compadres kept making faces of disgust at the music and asking the DJ to put on something else. He’d oblige with reggae, mostly, and we’d wave our limbs vaguely, dancing solo and free-form as white people have danced to rock-and-roll since the mid-1960s. Everyone else would sit down to wait this other music out. It was not a great movement-building exercise. How far were you going to get with a community when you couldn’t stand their music or even be diplomatic about it? I’ve been through dozens of versions of that scene over the years and got reminded of it last year by my letter from Dick.

He really was named Dick. From a return address in the exorbitantly expensive near–San Francisco countryside, he sent me a typewritten note about a section in a recent book of mine. He declared, “The country music parts of the US you love so much are also home of the most racist, reactionary, religiously authoritarian (i.e., Dominionist) people in the country. You don’t have to go far: just look @ voting patterns among rednecks descendants of the white yeomanry, if you wish to be polite) in the Central Valley. They love Bush and are very backward people by the standards of the Enlightenment. The Q might be, what is the correlation between country music and political backwardness, if any?”

What struck me about this was that most of these people, if they were to travel to another country, wouldn't walk into the local cantina and ask if they could listen to something other than those awful corridas or whatever the local music was. Because they'd understand that it was bigoted and arrogant of them to do so. Indeed, most of them would do their best to just absorb and enjoy the local culture. But not so with urban visitors to our rural areas.

As Solnit observes:
I grew up surrounded by liberals and leftists who liked to play the idiot in fake southern accents, make jokes about white trash and trailer trash, and, like the Canadian enviros, made gagging noises whenever they heard Dolly Parton or anything like her. If Okies from Muskogee thought they were being mocked, they were right, in part. This mockery was particularly common during the 1970s and 1980s, but it has yet to evaporate altogether—after all, Dick, who judging by his typewriter was around then, wrote me only last summer. My aged mother continues to make liberal use of the term “redneck” to describe the people I grew up among (though they were just suburban conservatives), and last summer I met a twentysomething from New York at a Nevada campout who told me he too was raised to hate country music. He was happily learning to love it, but late, like me.

This built-in bigotry affects the red-blue state divide in areas well beyond simply environmental issues: it affects how we deal with issues like agriculture and land use, cultural issues like abortion and gay rights and education, and economic issues like immigration.

It's time for this to change, and there are signs that it is. As Solnit concludes:
Fortunately, I think Dick might be a relic. There are particular organizations as well as general tendencies that make me hopeful. Among them are the resurgent interest in where food actually comes from, the growing tendency to condemn less and build coalitions more, and a stronger capacity for thinking systemically. And then climate change is an issue that could unite us in new ways as it makes clear how interdependent everything on this planet is, and the extent to which privilege and consumption are part of the problem. The solutions will involve modesty as well as innovation.

The anti-environmentalist right has shot itself in both feet in the past few years, losing credibility and constituency, and a smart and fast-moving left could make hay out of this, to mix a few fairly rural metaphors. It would mean giving up vindication for victory—that is, giving up on triumphing over the wickedness of one’s enemies and looking at them as unrecruited allies instead. It might mean giving up on the environmental movement as a separate sector and thinking more holistically about what we want to protect and why, including people, places, traditions, and processes outside the wilderness. It might even mean getting over the notion that left and right are useful or even adequate ways to describe who we are and what we long for (or even over the notion of rural and urban, as food gardens proliferate in the latter and sprawl becomes an issue in the former). We must also talk about class again, loudly and clearly, without backing down or forgetting about race. This is the back road down which lie stronger coalitions, genuine justice, a healthier environment, and maybe even a music that everyone can dance to.

This goes beyond environmental issues. Advocates for effective and real change need to understand that we're all in this together, and we can only make the change real by shedding our self-serving prejudices.

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