Opinion

Rural America as Committed to Environmental Issues as Urban Areas

Following a short and disappointing presidential campaign, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s star is fading in the Democrat Party. But his sound bites that resurfaced during the race may leave a lasting impression with general election voters, and one in particular could haunt Democrats in states with large rural populations.

In 2016, Bloomberg said he could “teach anybody” to farm. “It’s a process. You dig a hole; you put a seed in; you put dirt on top; add water; up comes the corn. You can learn that.” He followed by saying jobs in other sectors like technology or finance require “a lot more gray matter.”

That kind of condescending attitude toward rural America may not be universal among the heavily Democratic urban elite, but it adds to the nation’s partisan divide.

It also illustrates city dweller’s fundamental lack of understanding of their rural neighbors and their values. Rural residents are too often dismissed as rubes who care little about the environment.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Rural Americans’ relationship with the environment is profoundly different compared to urban residents’—but they care about it just as much. The truth is that many rural Americans have a much closer bond to the land because they depend on it for their livelihoods. This is especially true of farmers. 

A recent study by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions on rural attitudes toward the environment and conservation confirms that residents in small towns and remote hamlets across America support stronger environmental protections.

The study confirmed the existence of an urban-rural divide on environmental policy but found it has nothing to do with how much rural voters care about the environment. Rural voters have stronger “place identity” and value environmental stewardship and a strong connection to nature. Most rural Americans are also well-informed on environmental policies and relatively sophisticated concerning the associated tradeoffs of the policy proposals.

When it comes to policies meant to protect the environment, however, the study found that rural residents are wary of big federal programs that leave little space for local voices.

They are ready to take action to improve the environment — if it is the right approach. They express support for conservation but question the unintended impacts and efficacy of federal policies, and they are skeptical of outside activist groups, whom they view as more influenced by politics than the environment. Instead, they tend to place a higher emphasis on directly relatable matters, like farmland conservation, clean water and clean air, and less on reducing global emissions.

Rather than centralized mandates passed down from Washington, environmentalists, conservation groups and policymakers should engage with rural voters directly to form authentic partnerships to develop environmental policies at the local level that have a real impact on communities.

The researchers suggest emphasizing state and local action, and even individual collaboration, to address climate change and other environmental challenges while also bundling the issue with rural residents’ stated priorities for conservation and clean air and water.

“Given that cynicism toward the government is a significant barrier to rural support for environmental policy, environmental advocates should consider strategies that find credible voices in rural communities who can point to successful policy interventions — ones that work for both rural communities and the environment — as a way to diminish skepticism toward the government’s actions on the environment,” the study’s authors wrote.

The study concluded that rural residents respond best to environmental messages that emphasize moral responsibility, acting on behalf of future generations and protecting clean water — all core conservative values.

Fundamentally, rural communities believe in stewardship rather than activism; for them, conservation isn’t a “cause,” it is a way of life.

That is an important distinction, and the politicians who want to not only win elections but work on effective environmental policies that are inclusive and consensus-based would do well to keep that in mind.

 

Brent Fewell, an environmental lawyer who served in the EPA’s Office of Water under George W. Bush, serves as general counsel to the nonprofit ConservAmerica, which champions conservative solutions to environmental problems.

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