Thursday, June 26, 2014

It's Not the Rich Who Suffer From A Degraded Environment

When coal mining poisons streams and cracks foundations and strangles its workers to death, the victims are rarely "liberal elites."

And they are never the conservative gasbags who claim that environmental protection is a rich liberal conspiracy.

Charlie Pierce:

If attempts to confront the overwhelming crises in the environment—climate change, first among them—really are perceived in our politics to be issues relevant to "this or that sliver of privileged constituents," then you'll have to excuse me because I'm going off to buy some oceanside property outside of Pittsburgh. There is nothing remotely "privileged" about the people living at the sharp end of our various environmental crises. The people living in Cancer Alley in Louisiana are not privileged, neither are the people in Arkansas whose neighborhood was ruined by a pipeline break. There's nothing privileged about the people in Shishmaref, in Alaska, whose home island is falling into the sea. The people dying in our increasingly dangerous heat waves down here are people who can't afford air conditioning or, occasionally, screens. By and large, the victims of Katrina, and the victims of Sandy, were poor or, at most, lower middle class. The people who get asthma from dirty air are not living in gated communities.  
Environmental racism is no more an elite concern than any other kind of racism is. at least not to the people who have to live most closely with its effects. If climate change continues to worsen, and if it endangers further food production or the supply of fresh water, it is not going to be the privileged who are crushed by its consequences. I have no gripe with Skocpol's basic point. It's just that, if she's wrong, we're doomed. If she's right, we're completely and totally fcked.

(And it's impossible to ignore the effect of weaponized ignorance on the attempts to convince working-class white voters that they have skin in this game. Just look at the wingnut reaction to the president's announcement that he is appointing a task force to study the decimation of the country's bee population. Look at the fun everyone has with the whole idea! In all the laughter, you could forget the fact that, without bees, we all pretty much starve, and the scale of who starves when begins at the lower income levels.)

You can't have followed this issue and not realized that, too often, as political actors, the major environmental groups have dropped the ball in making the above arguments. If environmental issues have been framed as the concerns of wealthy dilettantes, if they are perceived generally as a group of Hollywood types who want to save the sky, then the people most concerned about those issues bear some responsibility for that. That having been said, I think it's a capital mistake for progressives to abandon these issues in favor of any others. If "working Americans" don't understand the mortal stakes involved in combatting climate change, which is a problem too big to be left to local control, then it is the obligation of progressives to find a way to make that case to that particular audience. It's not as though there aren't examples of how to do that. The flashy Washington marches against our old friend, the Keystone XL pipeline, get a lot of run on the news, but, out in the states, the fight has been carried by a legitimately bipartisan coalition of farmers, small business owners, and Native Americans. What Jane Kleeb and Randy Thompson have done in Nebraska is a legitimate model of how to frame environmental issues for a mass audience.

(And, it should be noted that, in doing this, Kleeb and Thompson were following the example set in that same state back in the late 1980's, when Nebraskans in the tiny town of Butte in Boyd County rose up and stopped the construction of a nuclear waste dump on their land. These were not privileged people, either.)

The real problem, alas, goes beyond the ineffective attempts of progressives to make the case for environmental regulations. The fact is that, in addition to all their other problems, the people most directly affected by the consequences of environmental degradation are also the people whose voices have been stifled most effectively, and who are the people most directly affected by our new sweet-tooth for voter suppression. To break out environmental issues from those other issues, is to betray the search for a solution to any of them.

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