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How to get rural Americans involved with climate crisis
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How to get rural Americans involved with climate crisis

People eating at a diner


I love small towns. I was born in the Hudson Valley in New York, just outside the reach of commuter trains to Manhattan. I spent 15 years in rural Colorado, with no traffic lights and a population of less than 2,000. I then moved to a similar small town in southwestern Washington, where I now live. I could probably settle anywhere with reliable internet and a reasonable living cost. Sometimes I wonder why I choose to live in places that are both inconveniently small and unhip. 

I’m drawn to the big landscapes that surround them, but most of all, I think, I value my membership in these cranky, intimate communities. I like that my neighbors come from many different walks of life, and that they regularly (and sometimes uncomfortably) puncture my assumptions about their experiences and interests and political leanings — just as I puncture theirs. I like knowing the librarians by their names and being able to let them know when my books are late.

Since the 2016 election, the national media has frequently used the term “rural Americans” as shorthand for Trump supporters are middle-aged whites. The conflation obscures that approximately One in five rural Americans You can identify as Black, Latino or Indigenous. Immigrants are responsibleRural areas account for a lot of the recent population growth. Rural areas are home to between 15 and 20 percent of LGBTQ Americans. Rural youthThey are now as likely to identify themselves as LGBTQ as their urban peers.

Rural Americans are also politically diverse; while it’s accurate to say that I live in a deep-red county, it’s also accurate to say that I live in a powder-blue town surrounded by precincts that range from pale pink to brick red. And though both rural and urban Americans are more politically polarized than they used to be, the politics of rural voters don’t always fit neatly into partisan categories. Many rural voters are skeptical of both the parties. Others are suspicious about government regulations, but also critical the environmental damage that unregulated industry causes. (The decline in local news, which is Most acute in rural areasThis means that nuanced reporting about rural issues is rare and that media stereotypes often go unchallenged.

In my experience, there’s only one characteristic that essentially all rural people share: We hate being told what to do, whether by a neighbor who doesn’t like our political yard signs or a state wildlife official charged with enforcing new hunting regulations. When it comes to addressing climate change, this reflexive independence can pose a stubborn obstacle, but it also holds opportunity — renewable energy, for instance, can appeal to those who prize autonomy. To turn opportunity into progress, however, one must be able to clearly see rural people.

Rural Americans value the protection of their air, water, and soil as much — or even more — than their urban counterparts, but boy do they use different words for it. While progressive urban activists might consider “conservation” and “environmental” to be more or less interchangeable, for instance, many rural people may cautiously accept the former but reject the latter, assuming that those who call themselves conservationists will be less confrontational and friendlier to hunting, fishing, and farming. (That said, plenty of people worldwide are wary of the term “conservation,” too, given the movement’s history of violating the land claims of Indigenous and other rural people.) 

“‘Environmentalism’ is seen as intrusive, top down, and driven by people who don’t make their living from the land,” says Virginia farmer and rural economic development consultant Anthony Flaccavento. “Anyone who has the term in the name of their organization is going to have a hell of a time, even if they’re trying to come down on the side of farmers and fishermen.” 

Farmers who support sustainable agricultural practices may nonetheless react to terms like “regenerative agriculture,” offended by the implication that other forms of agriculture are somehow non-regenerative. Campaigns against the environmental and economic sins of “Big Ag,” however warranted and well-documented, are similarly unlikely to sit well with farmers who are forced, however unwillingly, to depend on Big Ag for a living. 

People eating at a diner
Decatur City, Iowa’s most popular gathering spot, is home to the Dinky Diner. It had 175 residents as of the 2020 census.
Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

“Climate change” is another loaded term, given that many rural people associate climate fixes with government regulation. As Kate Yoder Grist reported recently, urban climate activists may make more headway with potential rural allies by talking about the need to mitigate and adapt to floods, fires, and heatwaves — independent of their root causes. 

These and other language barriers, like most urban-rural misunderstandings result from real grievances as well as deliberately exaggerated resentments. Climate activists can start a conversation by avoiding hyperpolarized terms and phrases.

The U.S. has increased the gap between the rich and the poor over the past 40 years. Farmers and farmworkers are the beneficiaries of U.S. economic policies. Consolidation of corporations is a major problemInternational agricultural conglomerates are threatening land and livelihoods, and many of the factories that once employed generations of rural families have gone overseas. Recent history has added to these problems. Rural employment rates have never recovered after the Great Recession, and rural economies were disproportionately affected. 

Rural living costs are rising too. In my small town, for example, telecommuters with much deeper pockets than mine are driving up real property prices. As a result, trailer parks are being replaced by second homes. These and other genuine economic disparities aren’t just practical problems; they’re often emotionally agonizing, and in recent years they’ve increased the Risk for farmers and farmworkers Suicide as a method of death. They’ve also created a rural audience receptive to divisive messages, with some eager to blame their troubles on city people, Democrats, government workers, and — in the case of some white rural residents — people of color. (The sheriff of my county attracted national attention and not a lot of local support recently. Threatening to arrest any public employeesFrom schoolteachers and county commissioners, they tried to enforce COVID-related regulations on health. 

Despite this, the real causes for rural suffering are inadequate healthcare, Schools chronically underfundedThe Persistent technology gap, are rarely prioritized by either party — fueling yet more toxic resentment. The result, says Flaccavento, is that “many rural people, especially white folks, may simultaneously have a greatly exaggerated sense of grievance and real and long-standing grievances that have not been addressed.”

Two Black men on horses in a bronc riding competition
The Bill Pickett Invitational in Memphis, 2017, was the only national touring Black rodeo. Nearly one fifth of rural Americans identify themselves as Black, Latino, or Indigenous. Scott Olson/Getty Images

It is difficult to bridge the gap between urban and rural. The resentment felt by rural dwellers can be pervasive and even fatal. It can be difficult to reach rural areas and it can take years to learn about them. At the same time, rural places are often heartbreakingly gorgeous and surprisingly diverse, and they’re almost guaranteed to upend whatever expectations you might bring to them. The climate movement can grow its reach and power by taking time to understand rural issues. This is becoming more of a matter for survival, regardless of where you live.

The rural areas I call home hold the key to finding solutions to the climate crisis. The conservation of Indigenous lands and privately owned rural landscapes is central to the Biden administration’s America The BeautifulPlan, an ambitious initiative that aims to benefit both the climate and biodiversity. Much of our wind and solar energy production — existing and potential — is located in Rural areasAs such, these are our best remaining opportunities for carbon sequestration in forests and grasslands. 

Yet Surveys of rural AmericansMost people are skeptical about concerted climate action. We value clean water, wildlife, and parks as much as urban dwellers, and we’re at least as well-informed about environmental policy. We’re also facing some of the worst effects of climate change, from megafires to storm surges to landslides to drought-induced crop failures. We have found that environmental regulations often burden the wrong people. Many of us worry that government policies to stabilize the climate will only lead to more of the same.

These concerns can easily become paranoia when they are nurtured by the right-wing media environment. But understanding their legitimate roots is key to building rural support for climate action, and that’s politically essential, especially given that the Founding Fathers gave rural people an outsized voice in the U.S. Senate. 

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that anyone indulge the lies and conspiracy theories so common in what passes for political discourse today. I firmly believe that seeing rural people as the complex human beings we are is a form of resistance — resistance to the disinformation, and the climate disruption, that threatens us all. 


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