The greatest threat to our nation just may be climate change. Yet many conservatives, especially rural conservatives, don’t believe it exists. Or they don’t believe it’s caused by human activity. With almost unanimous scientific consensus that climate change is real and human-caused, how can rural people deny it? The answer is simple: They can’t afford to.
Of course, there’s a little more to it than that. They are skeptical of science, and for good reasons. Environmentalism in general has often taken a combative approach to rural America, sometimes from woefully-uneducated viewpoints. Economic policy, supposedly based in science, has left them poorer. And there’s also been a shift in conservative values from preservation to short-term gain.
The Remaking of Conservatism
As a child, I grew up in one of the most conservatives states. Back then, conservatives believed in preservation– of tradition, resources, community, and wealth. You saved your money. You preserved the land for your children. And you helped your neighbors because they would help you when you needed it. These are values at least as old as the first European settlements.
But that changed. President Reagan ushered in an era of deficit spending, self-centeredness, and short-term profits. The reasons for this exceed the scope of this post. But they changed the landscape of American politics, in part by changing the economic landscape.
Since 1980 the economy has generally been more favorable to resource exploitation for profit of major corporations. This hasn’t always been a partisan issue, either. President Obama, a Democrat, lifted the ban on offshore oil drilling.
Likewise debt, rather than something to be avoided unless absolutely necessary, has become a good thing. President Reagan was the first big spender, almost tripling the national debt. This was the largest non-war increase in American history. But Presidents Bush (43) and Obama also raised the deficit by historic amounts (54% and 74% respectively). President Trump, despite his promise to eliminate the national debt, has added 36% in just the three years before Covid hit.
American consumers are also encouraged to spend more than they make. The Federal Reserve panics when Americans save too much. That’s how the economy stays afloat: it only works if we all spend more than we have.
This leaves those at the bottom of the economic pyramid struggling to survive. Environmental preservation becomes a luxury they cannot afford.
Ill-conceived environmental policies haven’t helped matters. One of the best known is the campaign to save the wild mustang. It’s a campaign that sells well: wild, majestic horses being removed from their land and slaughtered for dog food at the behest of evil cattle ranchers. But of course it’s not that simple.
The wild mustang is an invasive species, introduced (like so many others) by European colonists. It consumes range land that would otherwise be available not only for cattle, but for native species. Managed grazing can actually improve rangelands. In balance, wild mustangs could coexist on the range with other species. But they are not in balance. The Bureau of Land Management, which is responsible for maintaining the herds, estimates that 72,000 mustangs live on land that can support only 26,000. The result: range land can’t support other species like antelope and deer, much less managed grazing by small ranchers whose living depends on access to these federal lands.
This is a good place to recall that the federal government owns most of the land in the American West, including 87% of Nevada, 65% of Utah, 62% of Idaho, and 53% of Oregon. Federal land use policies remain a huge issue in these states and others.
But wild horses aren’t the only issue. Other local issues feed contempt for environmental policies. For example, the Utah Prairie Dog is listed as an endangered species. By law, any prairie dog on your land cannot be killed, but must be relocated. Where they can be relocated remains a mystery, and there is no money to pay for relocation. Yet an infestation can ruin grazing land in a matter of months. Over the course of two years, I watched a breeding pair move to a 20 acre field and expand into a colony of dozens, devastating all the vegetation on what had been healthy range land.
Examples like this abound: decisions driven by passionate but uninformed people with little knowledge of or regard for local realities.
John was a computer expert who lived in a small rural town. For years, he did computer repairs and other small jobs. His wife worked as a waitress. They barely scraped by supporting their four children. Then the oil boom started in North Dakota. He began commuting, three weeks on and two weeks off. And he made four times as much money as he had before.
A year later, a company began putting in solar panels on plots of land ranging from 10 to 40 acres. They hired hundreds of employees to put them in. The jobs lasted up to two years. Then they ended. It takes far fewer employees to maintain solar panels than it does to install them.
This is the dilemma of clean energy. It doesn’t require constant extraction. From an environmental standpoint, that’s great. But from an employment standpoint, it’s a problem– especially in rural areas already short on jobs.
Consider the campaign against coal, often considered one of the dirtiest fuels. Coal mining employs about 52,000 people nationwide– not a significant number. But 30,000 of these are in West Virginia alone, and coal contributes over $6.5 billion to the state’s economy. That’s roughly 10% of the state’s GDP!
Similarly, 20% of Wyoming’s employment is in the oil industry, along with 12% in Alaska and 10% in New Mexico.
When we talk about a shift to clean energy, the obvious question is, “What are these folks going to do?” There are vague promises of tech jobs and retraining, which may or may not be practical for the education level of those involved– if these jobs materialize at all. But, in an environment where non-energy jobs are scarce, people worry not so much about the future as about putting food on the table today. A call for clean energy is a call to devastate the economy of several states and eliminate good-paying jobs in the areas that most need them.
We should not forget that many of the policies that have challenged rural America were touted as based in science. From globalization to endangered species, from clean energy to the deficit economy, science– at least as it has been wielded by those with political power– has not been kind to rural people.
Are many rural people skeptical? Yes, for obvious reasons. They’ve been burned already. But more importantly, they are desperate and afraid. And the answers they’ve been given by those who promote these policies fail to address their needs.