Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Environmentalism, Class, and Country

I fairly regularly check out Orion Magazine, but I'm not nearly as consistent a reader as I should be. Case in point is the thanks I owe to Chris Bertram, who pointed his Crooked Timber readers (myself included) towards this fine piece by Rebecca Solnit on, well, environmentalism, class, and country (both country music and the country as a whole). It's not a radically original thesis; as my David Salmanson comments in that CT thread, the various points that Solnit makes--that environmentalism as an ideology and a movement has more often than not been the sole province of a particularly white, wealthy, urban class of true believers; that said believers rarely have done the work--or had the sort of life experiences that might make it desirable for them--to reach out the rural working and underclasses that in theory they ought to support and make solidarity with; and that a lot of this divide can be summed up by urban, youthful, overeducated environmentalists' contempt for the sort of music that rural working and underclasses tend to enjoy (specifically, Elvis and country music in general)--have been kicking around for a while. Everyone who takes the time to think about it knows that when progressives write off "rednecks," they're also helping to write off the possibility of a truly country-wide movement; but knowing that nonetheless doesn't guarantee any change in perceptions or strategy. And so, Solnit's article is worth reading, just to help pound the message in a little deeper. You should read the whole thing, but let me hit a few great passages. It begins when Solnit accounts her arriving along with a group of other green activists in a small British Columbia town, coming back to civilization after some time traveling through the mostly undisturbed Canadian wilderness:

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 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...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.

My own conversion to country music came all of a sudden in 1990, around another campfire, also in Nevada. The great Western Shoshone anti-nuclear and land-rights activist Bill Rosse, a decorated World War II vet and former farm manager, unpacked his guitar and sang Hank Williams and traditional songs for hours. I was enchanted as much by the irreverent rancor of some of the songs as by the pure blue yearning of others. I’d had no idea such coolness, wit, and poetry was lurking in this stuff I was taught to scorn before I’d met it....

I remember talking to a young rancher in an anti-environmental bar in Eureka, Nevada, who humbly presumed that environmentalists, including myself and the group I was with, loathed him. His hat was large and his heart was good. Whatever you think of arid-lands ranching, he seemed to be doing it pretty well. He boasted of grass up to his cows’ bellies, talked about moving the cows around to prevent erosion, and deplored the gold mines that are doing far worse things to the region. We were clearly on the wrong track—the environmental movement as a whole, if not the Nevada activists I worked with, who did a decent job of bridging the divide, but why was there a divide?...The socialism and progressivism that thrived through the 1930s saw farmers, loggers, fisheries workers, and miners as its central constituency along with longshoremen and factory workers. Where did it go? You can see missed opportunities again and again. Some of the potential for a broad, blue-collar left was trampled by the virulent anti-communism and anti-labor-union mood of the postwar era. More of it was undermined by the culture clash that came out of the civil rights movement. By the 1980s, when I was old enough to start paying attention, the divide was pretty wide. And environmentalists were typically found on one side....

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.


The whole piece puts me in mind of a post I wrote nearly five years ago, a post inspired by a visit by New York Time columnist Nicholas Kristof to the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, and how he rhapsodized about the Refuge as the "last great wilderness virtually untouched by humans other than Eskimos and Indians," and how thrilling it was to spend time in an "awesome," "harsh," "inhospitable" land where "humans are interlopers and bears are kings." I couldn't resist myself: I thought this was the worst kind of eco-porn, an environmentalism that depends upon the money to parachuted into a distant place, and presumes that while one is there, you won't be bothered with addressing the needs of--much less enjoying the music of!--the actual human beings (just "Eskimos and Indians," of course) who happen to live in that part of the country. I was hardly then and I'm not now dismissive of the green arguments in favor of protecting ANWR, but seriously: Kristof approach to the issue was as dismissive and as uninterested in reaching out to and building something common with the people of this country--the great majority of whom, urban or rural, Indian or white, educated or redneck, really can be moved by a genuine, communally aware love for the earth--as anything I'd ever read.

Solnit's hope, expressed at the conclusion of her piece, is that the old divides--musical and otherwise--are fading, that a new, more participatory, more class-and-culture-sensitive environmentalism is being born. One can only hope. But anyway, give her essay and read, and pass it along: the more people who hear the message, the better.

2 comments:

PithLord said...

Surely, there's more too it than musical snobbery. Rural people have to make a living from the environment. That doesn't mean they want it degraded, or think mining and oil companies are always benign, but it means that "preservation" isn't a goal that they can sign on to.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Thanks for commenting, Pithlord; sorry I didn't respond sooner. Your concluding sentence--"That doesn't mean they want it degraded, or think mining and oil companies are always benign, but it means that 'preservation' isn't a goal that they can sign on to"--expresses everything I wanted to say in this post (and the earlier one I linked to) wonderfully succinctly.