Muck and Mystery
   Loitering With Intent
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July 09, 2006
Language Camouflage

We've heard a lot about divides of various sorts, and some about the rural/urban divide. One theme often heard comes from urban activists wondering why rural people are so stupid that they vote against their own interests, at least as seen (and misunderstood) by those activists. Another theme is gleeful anticipation of the hollowing out of the country as rural people give up and go to eke out some sort of existence on the margins of urban enclaves, and farmers teach their kids to leave home and work in cities rather than go into farming. The average age of farmers is in the upper fifties. Much of this anti-rural attitude comes from urban Democrats incensed that rural people voted Republican in large numbers in recent times since the culture war jettisoned working and rural people from the Democratic party, with sneers and insults about cousin marriage for good measure.

Theodore Roosevelt IV (yes, that TR) argues that though pundits dismiss environmentalism as an issue in recent elections that the attitudes and behaviors of environmental activists, who are often though not always Democrats, were a larger factor than has been recognized. Two issues seem important: activists try to dominate society with top down imposition of controls at the federal level, and they treat non-urban people dishonorably. [via Conservation Finance -> Walking the Berkshires]

Rural Americans feel that the national environmental movement does not understand and is not sympathetic to their economic dependence on natural resources, and is furthermore dismissive and condescending toward their views, lifestyles and economic hardships. Unfortunately, they base this view on a history of environmental callousness toward their communities, marked by national campaigns that by their lights demonize rural people, overlook issues of social justice, and utilize half-truths and misinformation. This complaint is echoed in Mac Chapin's article "A Challenge to Conservationists" in World Watch magazine. Chapin chronicles a similar outcry of injustice from indigenous people in developing countries about what they consider the "abusive" treatment of many international environmental groups.

Let me share one example from the ranching community along these lines, an example that haunts me as both a wilderness and ranching advocate. Years ago, when it was suggested that part of a national forest in Wyoming, where cattle grazing had occurred for over 80 years, should be given wilderness designation, the local ranching community was hostile. They were given assurances, however, that their nonintrusive management styles on those allotments would be allowed to continue, since they fell well within the parameters of the Congressional Grazing Guidelines. Leaders among the ranchers agreed to the proposal and convinced their peers to follow suit in order to "protect a pretty place." The support of the ranchers was essential for the passage of the necessary congressional legislation. Shortly thereafter, local wilderness groups had second thoughts and tried to force the ranchers off the allotments by pressuring the Forest Service to institute a stricter interpretation than a reasonable reading of the Congressional Grazing Guidelines allowed. The ranchers felt betrayed. Businessmen and -women accustomed to closing deals with a handshake felt that environmentalists were not honorable. Not only would it be impossible today to get another wilderness designation in that part of Wyoming, but these unfortunate experiences have hardened ranchers against environmentalists.

The Chapin piece was discussed here when it came out and socioecology has been a recurring theme. People matter, and not just in an abstract sense, they matter for conservation. But the urban eco-warriors don't seem to grasp this.
The good news is that most of the national environmental organizations acknowledge that they are not well-liked in rural America; this acknowledgement is an important first step. Many of the leaders in the environmental movement to whom I have spoken, however, feel that the problem lies with rural communities, that they don't, in their words, "self-identify" as environmentalists. In my experience, rural communities would find this infuriating and extremely condescending; they regard themselves as first order stewards, despite the fact that they receive little recognition for the ecological services they provide without remuneration. But environmental NGOs have concluded that all they have to do in response is massage their message: change "who the messengers are" and adjust their language camouflage, while continuing on-the-ground policies and national campaigns that alienate rural constituents.

A good example of this is the "voluntary grazing buyout" proposal. Despite the tag of being "voluntary," it is widely rejected by the ranching community because it sends the message that public lands grazing is categorically undesirable. The advocates for the buyout program overlook the following:

  • Many of those who depend on public lands grazing are family ranchers such as the four-centuries-old subsistence Hispanic ranchers in America's Southwest, for whom ranching is of profound cultural, as well as economic, significance.
  • One hundred million acres of prime private home-range lands, key to fisheries health and biodiversity abundance, are tied to federal leases and likely to be sold if the leases are lost.
  • Scientific studies comparing biodiversity on ranches, wildlife refuges and subdivisions found that ranches match the species counts of wildlife refuges (but with fewer invasive weeds) and outperform "ranchettes."
  • Ranching represents one of the oldest herding cultures on the planet and is part of our cultural diversity and our national strength.
  • Ranchers were the leaders in range reform, hastening the Taylor Grazing Act into passage; most of the damage done to the range happened in the heyday of unregulated grazing at the beginning of the 20th century; and, finally, much of the range, now lacking native grazers, must depend on well-regulated grazing for its health and vitality.
But, for the sake of this "voluntary grazing buyout" proposal a highly dubious public program in terms of its ecological benefits and one whose costs are so enormous it is unlikely to ever be funded environmentalists have generated enormous ill will, again losing much in the way of social capital and trust.

Environmentalists are looking at a hard-pressed rural America and asking "What can you give us?" instead of standing with rural people in their view shed to understand their problems and build strong, durable alliances that are partisanship-proof. . .

It is time for the environmental community to take a hard, critical look at ourselves with regard to our treatment of rural people and our resultant standing in those communities. This is important, not just from a political perspective, but from an ecological and humanistic one. If we continue our business-as-usual approach or pursue inauthentic remedies, we will continue to alienate a large, vulnerable and critical sector of the American electorate.

Politics is stupid in part because it is seldom effective - creating discord, resistance and enemies where there would otherwise be shared purposes. Unlike TR IV I doubt that the environmental movement and the organizations they have created can reform themselves. It isn't just foolish Lakoffian nonsense like language camouflage, it is their whole "view shed" that is skewed. These aren't what could be called good hearted and sincere folks honestly trying to help society, and that have made some mistakes in doing so. There are some followers who are unaware of this that are in fact good folks, but they have been deceived by the insincere opportunist who have risen to leadership positions in recent decades and warped the focus of what were at one time, albeit briefly, admirable civil society efforts. It's now power politics and big business and has attracted an unsavory group that exploits the issues. They are entrenched and will not be reformed.

The views of movement followers are at best romantic nonsense. This isn't just fashion crime - though it is and that's OK, dance any way you want to and all - it is at best ineffective but more often destructive of the things they claim to wish to assist. Environmentalism in general, like climate change activism in particular, has degenerated into public relations gimmicks by venal politicians, and activists focused on power. Their bitterly fought campaigns that alienate large swathes of the public won't even dent the problems they claim to care about. Their only concern is to appear to be champions of the cause in order to get votes and donations. The public is being gulled by sharpies.

When these type of people apply themselves to more pedestrian concerns - Coke or Pepsi, tastes great or less filling - their deceits are unimportant. When they import these attitudes and methods to civil society and apply them to major issues then it is important and we should object. We need a better sort of behavior if we hope to actually achieve good works. The blunders of the environmental movement have made the task very much harder. By engaging in blood sport politics and seeking to destroy those who hold different views they have prevented useful improvement. By treating others as enemies they have turned those others into enemies not just of inept environmentalists, but all of those who express such concerns. The bad apples have truly spoiled the barrel. It's going to take a lot more than twisty language to pay that debt.

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