Reviving Blue-Collar Environmentalism

by Alfred T. Palmer

Environmental racism has been coined as an expression describing any policy, practice, or regulation that negatively affects the environment of low-income people.  Everyone seems to acknowledge that the poor get the short end of the stick when it comes to negative environmental impacts, but at the same time the broad assumption is made that low-income people simply don’t care about the environment.

Now if I were to say that poor people hate the earth then you would probably cry foul and fill the comment box at the end of this post with vitriol and lingual excrement.  But if we are honest, yes, the majority of us well-to-dos operate under a low-level yet constant assumption that low-income individuals (whether rednecks, urban minorities or simply blue-collar) don’t care about issues of sustainability.  These assumptions have been built on a long tradition of alienating all brands of low-income folk with hoity-toity environmental clubs and lofty policies built on negative reinforcement.  What do I mean?

Well, what kind of self-respecting immigrant or redneck would want to join the Sierra Club? or would even be allowed.  (I am sure they would be allowed, even if it was assumed they were too poor and dumb to seek legal council, but I am making a point.)  When was the last time an environmental activist approached a farmer with a solution to or alternative to an environmentally harmful product/practice?  Seriously, it should not take a Green Peace genius to figure out why “putting food on the table” has become the battle cry of the rural working man in America when confronted with talk about environmentalism.

The bottom line has been that low-income people in the U.S. have long felt that nature has been elevated above them in importance – that the rainforest and spotted owls matter more than poor people.  Who among us would care about duel flush-toilets when we are, after all, having trouble “putting food on the table.”  And so sustainability is ultimately an issue of social justice, and most Americans, whether poor or rich, care about justice.  It is just that we take a different view of the subject.

I strongly believe that low-income, blue-collar America cares just as much for the sustainability of life on earth as snooty-white-collar America.  It’s just that their solutions are less flashy and tend to focus on family and community.  Plus, they don’t have as much time to blog about it.

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