|Empire Mine, Palmer, Michigan.|
I found myself thinking about a 1995 article by historian Richard White -- "Are you an environmentalist, or do you work for a living?" -- that generated a lot of discussion when it first appeared. White's point was that for many people, the environment is something "out there" somewhere, a place to visit and to recreate in but not a place where they actually make a living. They like looking at it; it's a playground. Naturally, whole herds of environmentalists were (and still are) extremely unhappy about being portrayed as elitist asshats.
I, quite frankly, wasn't much surprised by White's paper. Back when I was still pretending to be a sociologist with an interest in voluntary associations, I studied a group known as the Friends of the Land of Keweenaw (FOLK). FOLK was organized as part of an effort to prevent construction of a pulpmill in northern Baraga County, Michigan. For various reasons, the mill never materialized -- how much the local opposition contributed to it not being built is debatable (my memory is that the overall economic climate in the pulp and paper industry had more to do with the project being abandoned than anything else) -- but its construction (or not) wasn't the point of my study. I was interested in FOLK -- how it was organized, what the demographics looked like for the membership, etc. The research also included a content analysis of letters to the editor in local papers. What did I find?
Nothing earthshaking. I simply confirmed what numerous other sociologists have found: the environmentalists (anti-mill) tended to be people who worked, loosely speaking, at white collar occupations; the pro-mill were more hands on, i.e., blue collar. Anti-mill types were either working with nonmaterial items (e.g., an insurance salesman) or retired; the pro-mill had occupations that were more directly connected with industry (e.g., machinist). The anti-mill letter writers worried about aesthetics ("a mill is ugly," "pulpmills stink," logging trucks are noisy"); the pro-mill writers focused on the economic benefits ("increased tax base for local schools" "good paying jobs"). It was kind of a head*desk experience. I really did not want to read self-centered crap like "When I retired, I moved here to get away from industry" or "An ugly pulpmill right on US-41 will upset tourists." Holy fuck. It was like a confirmation of every negative stereotype I'd ever heard about clueless tree huggers. There were a handful of anti-mill types who had brains enough to point out that maybe, just maybe pollution of Lake Superior should be a concern or that perhaps the timber resources of the area weren't sufficient to support an operation on the scale being discussed, but overall it was "don't mess with my playground." In short, NIMBY-ism.
Well, if not in your backyard, who should get stuck with it? None of us like thinking about the obvious philosophical and ethical questions -- if we like living with all the benefits of a highly technological society (smart phones, central heating, automobiles, whatever), how much of a price are we personally willing to pay to enjoy those goodies? We want the electricity -- shouldn't we be willing to live next to the power plant? And if we generate the garbage, shouldn't we be willing to live next to the dump?