Notes from the urban/rural divide: Yes, there are environmentalists here

One of the enduring myths about rural America is that since it’s filled with uneducated, conservative hicks (it’s not), it’s also filled with disdain and hatred for environmentalism. Rural people hate environmental regulations, ignore the law, count on wealthy agricultural and sporting lobbies to slap down legislation, and believe that the natural world is theirs to exploit, obligation-free. This is especially rich coming from urban dwellers who spend little to no time in nature or on farms, but apparently know how this whole thing runs based on their lofty experience because they read a book once.

So here’s a thing. Many people in rural communities live much closer to nature than urban people do, because they’re interacting with the natural environment regularly, and sometimes as part of their work, or part of their recreation. Consequently, that connection comes with a much more acute awareness of, yes, the need for environmental protection.

Like clean water? So do rural residents, who want safe drinking water, would like to be able to supply their livestock and crops, and, yes, also enjoy fishing and boating and swimming and doing other fun things in and on and around America’s waterways. Rural communities have a huge vested interest in protecting America’s water, which includes, for many, taking steps to make their own communities more environmentally friendly, from changing the way they irrigate to protect against drought to making pasturing decisions that keep cattle away from fragile riverbanks at especially critical times.

Think clean soil is nice? So do rural residents, some of whom depend on it for survival. They don’t want contaminants in the dirt they’re using to grow crops and livestock fodder because it hurts them. They want mining companies held accountable and believe that contamination from agricultural chemicals is a valid concern that needs to be addressed. They have worries about relaxing regulations that limit damage caused by industrial processes.

Love open space? So do we. Think that public lands should be public, rather than held for the pleasure of a handful of profiteering people and corporations? So do we. Have concerns about migratory birds, or bees, or butterflies, or endangered mammals? So do we. Many rural people also think that nature has an intrinsic value because it’s just nice and should exist, regardless as to whether its existence affects their careers, livelihoods, or sporting activities. Nature doesn’t need an excuse to be worth preserving.

Some rural communities are deeply committed to environmental protection and organising. They’re suing polluters, leading community environmental justice movements, explicitly tying environmental problems to racial and class injustice, doing conservation work, changing the way they farm and do business, educating people about environmental issues, and striving to make a difference. In some ways, they serve as warning signs — farmers started thinking about soil conservation and rebuilding the soil long before urban people suddenly decided it was something that mattered, at which point they blamed farmers for exhausting the soil before bothering to look at the work being done in rural America.

Now obviously, not all rural people care for the environment, and among those who do, there’s definitely a split on how best to address that concern. There are obviously some people who do view the natural world as a resource to be exploited, and who resent any attempts to curb their use of nature, like large ranching companies that think they should be allowed to trash public land while benefiting from extremely cheap leases, or farmers who take more than their allocated share of water for irrigation.

But lest ye view this as a product of rural America, consider the fact that there are urban Americans who similarly don’t share conservation priorities, and some of them are sitting in Congress and the presidential administration. Their views may manifest in different ways, but they have the same net impact. The people working to repeal laws, retract rules and regulations, and dismantle government agencies and departments that focus on conservation hate nature too. And it’s not because they’re urban, or because they’e giving in to pressure from their evil, unenlightened rural constituents. It’s because they have different priorities about how the world should be run.

There’s a tendency to ascribe harmful social attitudes and practices in rural America to the fact that people live in rural communities and don’t care, don’t know better, or are building on decades of tradition. Yet, the exact same attitudes in urban America are more accurately pinned to the sociopolitical beliefs that guide people’s decisionmaking. This is called an ingroup bias (bad things that people not in my group do are because of the group they belong to, bad things people in my group do are about them as people) and it is pernicious in many other settings in America.

The belief that environmentalists don’t thrive in rural America, that they don’t find sympathetic audiences and can’t organise meaningful movements, is patently false. The fact that urbanites often find this hard to believe is another illustration of how people are actively refusing to see what’s right in front of them. It doesn’t take much to see rural environmental movements at work — indeed, it could be argued that you have to go to considerable lengths to convince yourself that they don’t exist. If you’re working that hard not to see it, maybe that’s a sign that you should reevaluate how you conceptualise the relationship between rural Americans and their environment.

Image: Farm, Ted Van Pelt, Flickr