Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Environmentalists, don't make the working-class the enemy

A little disclaimer, some environmentalists are going to skim this post and think it is a pro-drilling screed. It is not. It is a call to understand those whose support you will need.

One thing about the fossil fuel industries is that they are among the few remaining labor intensive workplaces in America. If you grow up in an economically depressed region obtaining any job, let alone a well-paying one is one of the most difficult things to accomplish. Sure, better education would help, but remember we are living in a world where graduates of selective colleges are whining about not finding a job, imagine how it is with just a high school education in a rural area.

A little essay I found a few weeks back crystallizes this sentiment quite well:
In the late 70s and early 80s, during a different recession, the country abandoned western Pennsylvania. It was then that the steel industry—an industry so strongly linked to the region that Pittsburgh is called the Steel City, the football team is the Steelers, and the local brew was called Iron City—collapsed...
It’s easy for those who live in cities faraway to oppose fracking. For them, it’s abstract. They fight with soaring rhetoric and online petitions against fracking and for good reason. But they don’t have to make the hard decision. When the devil comes for the soul of western Pennsylvania, it’s easy for those not living there to make it a black and white issue of right vs. wrong.
But the devil operates in the gray areas.
Let’s do the math for a small farm that has 50 acres the gas companies want: $3,000 x 50 = $150,000 signing fee. After that, they receive around 18 percent in royalty payments.  For a family who most likely lives paycheck to paycheck, who has a good chance of not having health insurance, and which maybe would just like that new car they’ve been wanting for the last 15 years, that’s the financial equivalent of winning the lottery.
Western Pennsylvanians are no stranger to the ravages of the energy extraction industry. From oil to the omnipresent coal, they’ve been there, done that. It’s not that they don’t love their land and want to protect it. But can they reasonably be expected to walk away from a perhaps once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make their families financially secure? What have they been offered in return from those who oppose fracking? Not much.
"Don't criticize a man unless you walk a mile in his shoes."  It is easy to use throw-away lines like green jobs and new economy.  It also easy to demonize those who take these jobs and say they are just ignorant and backward. It is no different than the chickenhawks who also push for war, but never serve themselves. It reminds me of the recent Vermont ban on fracking, a development that activists are practically orgasmic over.  Considering that there is little or nothing to frack in Vermont, it was quite easy for the pols there to do it.  The cost and risk was practically non-existent, like making movies during WWII instead of volunteering for combat.

A while back, a blogger called Mike the Mad Biologist took the steelworkers union to task for supporting the Keystone XL pipeline.  He expected them to forgo the construction jobs because he saw unions as part of the liberal coalition and sitting in his tenured position at Tufts he couldn't comprehend why they didn't take one for the team.  One must ask the rhetorical question, would Mike give up his guaranteed job security to save the environment?  I once worked as a lab coordinator at a Boston-area university. At the time the EPA had discovered that university labs were one of the biggest local generators of hazardous waste.  Many faculty in the area wouldn't accept this finding and balked at having to follow expensive haz mat disposal procedures.  Well-educated scientists with self-proclaimed progressive worldviews suddenly started to sound like Massey Energy when it came to their waste.  And this wasn't even a choice between taking a destructive job or not being able to put food on the table.

Anti-fracking activists, the working class folks in these areas are not your enemy. They have likely sacrificed more by age twenty than many of you have sacrificed in your whole life. The energy companies are offering them immediate economic survival, what are you making as a counter-offer?  You must figure out a concrete way to provide a secure economic future.  Platitudes and sentiment don't do shit.  Walk a mile in their shoes.

Otherwise you'll lose and the future will as well.

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