In one of the handful of “a liberal visits Trump’s America and this is what she learned” articles that have come out lately, author Arlie Russell Hochschild talks about a five-year stay in Calcasieu Parish in Louisiana, where she met and interviewed many local residents. One of the themes that came up time and time again in her conversations was the deep love that the people of the bayous had for their land. Thinking about the environment, she asked them why they would be hostile to environmental regulations and to the actions of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Quoting Hochschild, “Some of the people she met were worried about regulations killing jobs. Others saw toxic pollution and environmental disasters as the sort of risk essential to a vibrant economy, something to be stoically endured… Then there were others that I felt swallowed unpleasant news in a kind of quieter stoicism. It was almost like they were renouncing their right to a clean environment. One respondent told me: Pollution is the price we pay for capitalism.”
She goes on to explain that the working class saw themselves as a kind of minority group, one that has been waiting in line to get the good things in life that they had been working for, the opportunity to get ahead as the result of hard work that is the moral justification for capitalism. When they saw other people and even creatures like “oil-drenched pelicans” cutting in line and being rewarded before they got theirs, that was hard to take. When they perceived President Obama as a kind of gatekeeper, rewarding others (and pelicans) first, it was galling enough for them to turn their backs on the politicians that spend more time thinking about the environment than they do about Americans.
Stepping back from Louisiana, this is a sentiment that can be found in pockets throughout “Red State” America. From Appalachia to Wyoming, people supported Trump because of his promises to turn around the fortunes of the coal industry. Coal has been losing out to renewables, but especially to natural gas, which fracking has made cheaper than coal in recent years. Trump’s claims that “clean coal” is workable is an exaggeration: the technology is still largely experimental and makes coal even more expensive than it already is, therefore less competitive, and even less likely to lead to a resurgence for the coal miners.
Trump’s pick of a climate change denier and Washington insider to lead the EPA transition, Myron Ebell, is a clear indication that the last thing the Trump administration will be doing is thinking about the environment. Ebell has worked for years to roll back environmental regulations, open public lands up to logging and oil exploration, more coal mining, and to prevent the signing of climate agreements such as the Paris Agreement. The next two to four years (or Gaia forbid, eight years) will be murder for the environment and a guarantee of catastrophic climate change.
Which brings us back to the bayous of Louisiana and the mountains of Appalachia. It’s easy to understand why places like Calcasieu Parish need jobs immediately. People have families to feed. People want meaningful work. But people also need clean water to drink and clean air to breathe, and in the long term, we need a planet that supports human life. The climate is already changing so fast that scientists are hard pressed not to speak in apocalyptic terms. Even if we ceased emitting carbon right this minute, the impact of what we’ve already released would go on for centuries. If we love our children, it’s right to want jobs so we can support them, but it is also right to want them to be able to live long, happy lives.
We need to be thinking about jobs, but we also need to be thinking about the environment. Trump’s care for the immediate future comes at the too-expensive cost of the permanent future. If we love our children, we need to think of new ways to live that will provide them the future they deserve. Insisting that changes are not happening because we don’t want to make difficult choices robs them of a full lifetime, while denying us the opportunity to be the kind of Americans who step up and do the hard things to win the future, just as our ancestors did for us.