Friday, January 13, 2012

Are you an environmentalist, or do you work for a living?

Empire Mine, Palmer, Michigan. 
Over at The Lake is the Boss, DaveO's done several interesting posts about a proposed mining operation in northern Wisconsin. I don't have a real strong opinion about this specific project one way or the other, but I know Dave started to lose me as a potential mine opponent when his rhetoric switched from talking about contamination of a watershed and possible toxic byproducts to damage to the viewshed and degradation of aesthetic values. Loss of scenic vistas doesn't strike me as much of an argument against anything: to be blunt about it, you can't eat scenery.

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? 


  1. It must be nice to have a choice, to be so secure in your living condition that you can oppose something for reasons like it's ugly, smelly, noisy, etc. My bitch all my life has been that the ones that run things downstate don't want any industry in the U.P. because it would fuck up their playground!! There are many reasons to oppose something, but "It will fuck up my view" isn't a valid one.

  2. I took a friend of mine from Quinn (by then KI Sawyer) up to Copper Harbor - I cannot imagine anyone favoring a mine or a pulp mill that would destroy the prestine beauty of Baraga County or the Keeweenaw Peninsula. Sharon went wading in the BIG lake - I am amazed that she didn't have her toes amputated...



  3. Very true, Nan. If we dance to the music, we have to pay the piper. But in a perfect world, everyone would hold hands and get along and figure out a win-win solution to both the environmental and work-related issues. But of course, it isn't a perfect world, unfortunately.

  4. "You can't eat scenery". 'Nuff said.

  5. An excellent post. A developer is someone who wants to build a house in the woods. an environmentalist already has a house in the woods. I was just reading a blog post here:
    It discussed to poverty of coal miners in Romania as the old inefficient Soviet era coal mines shut down one after another. A Canadian mining company is trying to develop a gold mine in Rosia Montana area of Romania but enough do-gooder foreign NGOs persuaded enough locals that it will ruin the entire earth, that I believe it is on hold.

  6. A big mill closed here in 98, the cleanup of it and who pays for it is still being fought over. Not to mention who gets the land after that.

    I know a lady here that worked in the paper mill here, making big bucks until she got hurt, but she's a tree hugger now.

    I say the way to a better economy is for there to be fewer of us.

  7. Thanks for the plug Nan. Lots of comments on the most recent post at TLITB, all favoring responsible mining. I think the majority of folks realize we need mining but don't want to 'give away the farm' which is what this Assembly bill seems to be all about. GTAC is a Canadian registered LLC with Cline Group as the parent. If this bill passes they can literally 'dump and run' with zero consequences. A couple of the comments address that. Wonder why Cliff, who operates taconite facilities in the immediate area right now at Empire, Silver Bay, and Hibbing are not interested in this ore deposit? My point is to above all protect the water resource and make sure any 'issues' that crop up are covered by the beneficiary, GTAC, and not the taxpayers, which is normally what happens.

  8. I'm not sure why CCI hasn't expressed an interest in the Penokee Range. After all, the Empire is expected to be tapped out within the next five years and the Tilden isn't going to last forever either.

    The Empire, incidentally is about 1500 feet deep and a mile wide. One does wonder what happens to it once the ore is gone -- although I suppose they could always fill it with the waste rock pile I refer to as Mount Tilden. That pile could end up being the highest point in Michigan in the not too distant future.

  9. Perhaps the answer includes putting some of the tax revenues in a trust for the aftermath/clean-up. With all the buying, selling and abandonment of tese site, it would assure that something will be there to deal with the mess we insist is so important to the economy.

  10. I dunno... seems to me there ought to be a more balanced approach.

    Sure, some "environmentalists" go too far -- and some certainly come across as spoiled rich kids - less worried about that scenic vista than about whether they can go rock climbing or ride their ATV --and we certainly can't designate every forest, prairie, mountain, and valley as "off limits" to industry. But I do think there is value in preserving some open spaces and beautiful scenery for future generations to enjoy. I also think all of us benefit from being able to see beauty in our daily lives, rather than living surrounded by steel and concrete.

    I don't know whether it is better to save some beautiful places by designating more national and/or state parks, or by requiring industry to minimize the negative effects on the surrounding areas, or both, but I do think it is short-sighted to simply dismiss the whole idea that at least some beautiful spaces are worth preserving.

    So, build the pulp mill, but try not to block the most beautiful vistas with it; mine the minerals, but require a set-aside fund for filling the hole, or at least landscaping it, when you're done... and yes, make some particularly wonderful places (e.g., Grand Canyon...) off limits.

    Surely there is room to respect both the long-term aesthetic and the short-term purely economic values?

    Maybe I'm just one of those spoiled white collar workers.

    I wonder, though, if it's just that some of the white collar workers are more aware of the history of broken promises by industry. The tax base (jobs, better schools) never lasts as long as they promise, and then they leave ruined forests and mountains and toxic land and water behind, which last decades, or sometimes forever.

    Or maybe it's not that the white collar workers are more aware, maybe they're just more financially able to worry, in this minute, about the future...

    Yes, we need jobs now, but at what long-term cost?


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