Don’t Forget Rural America, Environmentalists

Only 65% of Americans believe that climate change is a “very serious” or “somewhat serious” issue, a decline from 77% in 2007. Nearly 15% of Americans fully deny climate change, which contravenes the near-universally accepted scientific conclusion that anthropogenic climate change exists. The government’s record of inaction is also concerning. From failing to ratify the Kyoto Accord to turning down Cap and Trade to leaving the Paris Accord, the federal government has continuously dropped the ball on climate issues.

While much of the fault lies with vested special interests, the environmentalists who fail to reach rural and often conservative parts of America are also partly at fault. The former problem is especially entrenched and well-known. However, the latter is growing more evident. For example, the admittedly vague Green New Deal touted by many prominent Democrats makes little mention of the role rural communities can play in climate change mitigation. This effectively leaves out a huge sector. For that matter, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a the charismatic main proponent of the Green New Deal, suggested offhandedly that Americans eat less beef and the government crack down on agribusiness. This led some to assume that she wants to get rid of meat altogether. While this backlash conclusion is patently ridiculous, the fact that it’s a debate at all portends badly for the ability of activists to reach rural communities, especially those dependent on livestock. Perhaps these omissions and misstatements reflect lacking outreach around the measure itself. Activists close to Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez reached out to a few agricultural researchers (a good start), but didn’t contact the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, one of the most important agricultural groups in America. How can we revolutionize agribusiness without accounting for producers? This calls into question how much outreach is really being done outside of the pundit-think tank bubble that sometimes dominates policymaking. So long as the Green New Deal’s proponents fail to properly account for rural America, Republicans can more easily weaponize rhetoric against Democrats with a characteristic blend of hyperbole and lies. This effectively stymies progress on these issues.

Polar ice continues to melt as the planet warms. UN Photo/Mark Garten https://flic.kr/p/p4nbgV

Additionally, Democrats spend a lot of time talking about climate solutions that greatly expand the size of government, causing warranted suspicion. Oftentimes, well-meaning federal government regulations harm small and medium sized farms. Corporate agribusiness and their hordes of lawyers find ways to dodge rules. However, bureaucracy and over-regulation are often more difficult for family farmers to handle, causing a disproportionate negative impact. The need for duplicate pesticide permits and the regulation of dust as a pollutant are just two examples of regulations that make some small and medium sized producers nervous. We need a new strategy that isn’t just about new rules and taxes. So long as the face of green activism in Washington is a self-proclaimed socialist hawking a vague proposal expanding the central government, the fight for a cleaner environment will simply miss millions of Americans. New ideas and new voices need to be heard in these debates.

Tragically, the longer these voices remain unheard, the more danger we face.  For one, anthropogenic climate change worsens by the day. The signs are everywhere. Alaska broke record high temperatures over the July 4th weekend. Despite much discussion, America’s carbon emissions since 1990 have dropped by a pathetic 0.5%. The impacts of global warming are mind-boggling in their seriousness. From health to national security to the economy to the existence of whole communities and our planet itself, climate change is a pressing crisis. But it’s not just climate change. Whole stretches along the Mississippi River are known as “Cancer Alley”, where mostly poor rural communities are afflicted with diseases caused by industrial pollution. All across the US, groundwater depletion continues, putting innumerable communities at risk of simply drying up. These issues will worsen unless environmental activists can tap into the political will to pass solutions. Creating this political will requires bold changes in the way we advocate for the environment. Leaving any community behind in this struggle endangers all of us–urban, suburban, or rural. Those seeking to protect the planet thus need a different message, one that doesn’t alienate rural America but instead emphasizes the important contributions it can make towards a greener country.

For one, activists should emphasize how being eco-friendly doesn’t have to mean choosing between important sectors and the environment. Innovation can break the old ‘zero-sum’ paradigm Republican attacks rely on.

Methane—A New Way Forward?

As Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez notes, the livestock sector contributes to climate change. Cattle in particular emit methane during digestion, a particularly potent greenhouse gas, which exacerbates global warming. A staggering 15% of global greenhouse emissions come from livestock according to the Food and Agriculture Association of the United Nations. On the other hand, though, the value of all beef cattle in America totals $69,167,213, representing a substantial economic sector. States like Texas, Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma are particularly reliant on beef cattle for economic sustenance. On the dairy side, the US produces over 10% of the world’s milk, with dairy exports representing $3 billion. Therefore, Democrats attacking meat-eating, whether consciously or mistakenly (as Green New Deal proponents later claimed when they back-tracked) risk politically alienating entire swaths of America dependent on this industry.

Thankfully, technology allows us to forge a new path forward. The unexpected answer? Seaweed. It turns our that replacing just 1% of cattle feed with a specific type of seaweed results in a 50-80% decline in methane emissions from cattle. The best part is that seaweed is cheap, accessible, and doesn’t change the taste of these cows’ milk. Moreover, advances in genetic modification technology mean that certain genes coding for high methane production could potentially be modified to further reduce livestock-based emissions. Such a precipitous decline in methane emissions is especially promising. The Green New Deal should incorporate further research into means of reducing emissions from livestock while supporting agricultural communities.

Changing the Way We Grow Crops

Other issues more visibly impact the middle of the country. Aquifer depletion is another serious problem confronting rural America. The Ogallala Aquifer, which lies under much of the Great Plains, nourishes $20 billion a year in crops, with 90% of its water used going towards irrigation. However, due to overuse, studies show that by 2060, this aquifer, literally the lifeblood of the Great Plains, will be 69% depleted. It’s clear that current water usage is unsustainable. If depletion continues, agriculture will struggle immensely. Thankfully, science provides environmental activists with a way to help farm communities and reach out.

Rural America presents many opportunities for the fight against climate change and pollution. https://flic.kr/p/px422F

The fields (no pun intended) of perennial crops and regenerative agriculture are especially promising. Perennial agriculture encompasses crops that return and grow again each year. Their re-growth and deep root structure eliminate the need for annual plowing, reseeding, and replanting. This results in cost savings for farmers as well as healthier soil and better carbon sequestration, helping the earth absorb more atmospheric carbon. Environmentalists are sure to love the impacts of perennials, while farmers could use the cost savings. Groups like the Land Institute, based in Salina, Kansas, are conducting cutting edge research on perennial crops like Kernza (a type of wheat), legumes, rice, sorghum, and oilseeds. Kernza in particular has especially high water-efficiency, helping reduce aquifer depletion and water pollution. Replacing some of our current grain with perennials would go a long way towards tackling environmental crises, and it would directly benefit middle America. While Kernza isn’t quite ready for widespread adoption, it remains promising as research continues. Working hand-in-hand with farmers, it’s possible to increase research efforts and eventually spur widespread adoption. In this way, farmers are part of the solution. Advocates of the Green New Deal should focus on perennial agriculture.

No-till agriculture (as exemplified by perennial grains) is just one kind of regenerative agriculture. Even if perennials aren’t ready for widespread adoption yet, the broader field of regenerative agriculture contains solutions to climate change, aquifer depletion, and unhealthy soil. Over the years, industrial cash-crop farming wore away soil in the Midwest. This erosion of soil makes growing crops tougher in the long-run. Regeneration seeks to rectify this problem by rebuilding soil—in essence making it deeper, more fertile, and more nutrient-filled. Healthy soil results in better crops, reduced water usage, and additional carbon sequestration, as mentioned above. Anecdotally, some farmers report their soil holding three times as much water once they switched to diverse crops, ended overuse of chemical pesticides, and stopped tilling. Regenerative agriculture takes many forms, many of which mirror ancient agricultural practices. For example, farmers can rotate grazing animals and plant multiple species. Science has gifted us with new insights into these traditional methods. Crop diversity helps restore soil and contributes to its nutrition. Expanding research and promotional efforts will prove helpful in broadening the use of these techniques and proving that switching over can create savings of all sorts.

Perennial cropping and regenerative agriculture broadly exemplify how everybody, especially farmers, can be an environmentalist in their actions. Instead of costal bureaucrats who don’t understand rural communities, these solutions are often advocated by famers who benefit from their adoption. Promoting solutions that uplift rural communities and save the environment is the way to go, because Agriculture must be part of the solution.

Thankfully, these ideas are beginning to gain traction in the political sphere. Two Presidential candidates, Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigeig, incorporate ideas like regenerative agriculture into their respective platforms. Tim Ryan in particular has talked about sustainable agriculture for years, even writing a book, The Real Food Revolution which connects agriculture, healthy food, and family farms. In the book, Ryan focuses more on human health, but also discusses issues like overuse of fertilizers, which leads to toxic algae blooms. Currently, his 2020 platform incorporates ideas like paying farmers for carbon sequestration, which would have the effect of encouraging adoption of regenerative agriculture and perennial cropping. Ryan’s proposal actualizes some of the ideas I’ve mentioned. However, political discussion of these issues begets changing not only our ideas of what environmentalism looks like, but the very way we frame green issues.

Ohio 13th District Congressman Tim Ryan, now running for President, has been an advocate of sustainable agriculture for years.
https://flic.kr/p/6rkfdd

Look Locally

Another way to bridge the gap between rural communities and environmentalists is by reaching people where they are, emphasizing environmental issues in rural communities. While we rightfully discuss disappearing islands in the Pacific, we would also do well to highlight the negative impacts climate change has in the middle of the country. Renowned author Wendell Berry once wrote, “There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.” In appealing to these sacred places, progressives can better induce attentiveness to climate change and pollution. The desecration of Middle America due to climate change and pollution isn’t a hypothetical exercise; it’s a reality people deal with every day. In Nebraska and Iowa earlier this year, massive floods ravaged agricultural communities, leading to $800 million in crop and livestock losses in Nebraska alone. In 2017, record-shattering wildfires swept across rural Kansas, destroying countless acres of farmland. As mentioned before, the aquifers we rely on are drying up. The quantitative data gloss over the fact that a destroyed farmstead isn’t just an economic matter; it often represents the destruction of an entire livelihood, of a family heirloom. Farmers are foremost stewards of the land. Many farmers in affected regions risk losing their entire operation in the face of economic volatility and natural disaster. That’s why greater efforts must be made to link escalating Midwestern disasters to anthropogenic warming and discuss how climate influences the weather patterns agriculture relies on. Framing discussions of climate change in terms of local impacts and local solutions is one way to achieve this. Red state Democrats have done a great job with this so far. Nebraska Democratic Party Chair Jane Kleeb is leading calls for Democrats to debate climate issues, influenced partly by the impact climate change has had on her state. While we certainly can’t tackle climate change without global solutions, sometimes progressives forget that framing issues in a local light often makes them more accessible. Local voices are crucial, and they often emerge from grassroots coalitions. There’s something to be said for action from the ground up, literally.

The Art of the Coalition

Sometimes, this action operates through interesting coalitions. Hunting and fishing, activities reliant on the outdoors, provide a channel for environmental messaging, allowing environmentalists to partner with those who might prefer an afternoon in a layout blind to an afternoon at a downtown Sierra Club meeting. Hunting and fishing are an important part of life in Middle America. From 2012-2017, over 30 million Americans per year partook in fishing and 11.5 million went hunting. For many, these traditions are ingrained in their culture, and also serve as a source of nourishment. Ominously though, a warming planet jeopardizes the future of these activities. Climate change threatens to flood marshes in the South, alter waterfowl migration patterns, and cause extreme weather. As the climate warms, birds will go farther North. Each of these trends directly imperils the duck habitats that make hunting possible. Already, in parts of Arkansas known for waterfowl hunting, ducks are disappearing. This leaves hunters without a cherished activity and harms the local economy. Disappearing ducks may prove a unifier.

Interestingly enough, some sportsmen’s groups maintain links to environmental conservation efforts. Ducks Unlimited already practices conservation efforts like habitat restoration, demonstrating a commitment to preserving wildlife. Hunters recognize that without adequate habitats, their passion becomes difficult to pursue. Additionally, state governments run wildlife conservation programs on funds collected from hunters and fishers thanks to the federal Pittman-Robertson Act. This should make it easier to reach out to rural Americans who hunt and fish. After all, if trusted groups with their interests in mind publically take up the mantle of conservation, the environmentalist message can get across. A well-written Guardian piece makes just this point—author Megan Bergman notes, “Sportsmen and traditional environmentalists aren’t always mutually exclusive, or easy co-conspirators. But, there is a critical need for information to flow between those on the ground and those in policy. In order to address the urgent realities of climate change, traditional environmentalists must continue to find ways to communicate and partner with non-traditional audiences: hunters, big agriculture, fishermen, corporations and loggers”. She’s exactly right, and the examples she provides of Southerners, some Republican, working on this issue, are hopeful.

Hunters and fishers should be seen as allies in the fight for environmental conservation.
https://flic.kr/p/dw43NE

What’s missing at this point is for American liberals to better incorporate these groups into the fight against climate change and pollution. It’s time to understand this. Discussions around the Green New Deal too often focus on what the center can do. Lawmakers could benefit from greater outreach to hunters and fishers when they create policies. Policies drafted in conjunction with rural Americans are likely to be better received. In turn, the communication Bergman mentions can open the door to further progress on other issues. Sadly, few voices elevate this perspective within the Democrat party; Dave ‘Mudcat’ Saunders explored the topic in his book Foxes in the Henhouse, but the message seems to have fallen on deaf ears. Environmental platforms should incorporate conservation in light of outdoor activities. As noted before, red and swing state Democrats can take the lead. Many Democrats, as Saunders notes, hunt and fish, and those who respect these traditions, like former Virginia Governor Mark Warner (discussed in the book), not only profit electorally, but help build the partnerships needed for a better future. Taking the environmental fight to Middle America necessitates leaders willing to listen to those who live, work, hunt, and fish there.

Conclusion

Years of neglect and flat-out abuse have left us with pressing crises on climate change, aquifer depletion, pollution, and various other issues. None of these dilemmas will be solved without more Americans taking up the environmental cause in some form or another, but current messaging too often remains inaccessible and condescending.  Progressives must recognize that messaging on ecological issues is anything but one-size-fits-all, a weakness evident in recent legislative initiatives. Thankfully, science gives us opportunities to move past old rhetorical battles and opportunities for rural-urban coalitions abound. While problems mount, we should remain hopeful and take action to reach all Americans.

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