From Conservation to Climate Action: Organizing in Rural America

Instead of expecting rural folks to immediately sign onto our platform or write them off forever, we need to work on building trust, fighting for resources, and appealing to the values most important to them.

I grew up in what has been considered the safest haven far far away from climate change--Northern Michigan. Yes, the weather can be rough, but there’s no hurricane or tsunami-causing oceans. There are enough hills to keep tornadoes away. There are four beautiful seasons, and while winters can be harsh, summers rarely break above 90 degrees and there is no flooding or drought. And most importantly, we are surrounded by the Great Lakes, both keeping the temperatures cool and moderate, and providing what can sometimes feel like an unlimited supply of fresh water. But as much as countless climate scientists have quoted that Northern Michigan is the place to be in this new, hot, melting world, even the northernmost point of the Upper Peninsula is no longer safe.

This past June, more than sixty sinkholes consumed the Yooper college town of Houghton-Hancock. The Governor of Michigan declared a State of Disaster, bringing in both state support and the National Guard--an important move since the northern half of Michigan is often forgotten both by its own state government and the rest of the country. Even more important when you factor in the lack of preparedness and resources set in place in the Upper Peninsula, less money, and limited reliable internet and connectivity. I mean, who the hell is really paying attention to what’s happening up there, other than nature enthusiasts and born-and-raised Yoopers? But when nearly the entire town sunk into the ground seemingly instantly from extreme rainfall and flooding, suddenly people were paying attention. What does this have to do with climate change and politics?

As we have learned from a growing list of extreme storm events in recent years, disasters like this one can change minds. The Upper Peninsula, and much of rural and Northern Michigan (as well as rural areas in general) are generally considered stubborn-as-nails Republicans. But locals who have lived in Houghton-Hancock for generations going back say that they have never seen anything like it, and many are not afraid to connect the newly extreme flooding and sinkhole activity to climate change. I like to joke that the farther you drive north, the more it feels like the south, because of the number of confederate flags lining driveways and pickup trucks. But as much as many of my northern rural neighbors love their gas-guzzling trucks and may or may not have voted for Trump, they still respect the environment. Why? Because they need to.

I grew up in a generally progressive, environment-obsessed family. My mother runs a successful regional recycling center, and my father builds energy-efficient-to-the-max passive houses. We share about 200 acres of land with close friends, and I learned from a young age that the food on our table at dinner was often linked to how well our garden was going that year, and how well we were working with the land--not against it. In so many ways, my family felt different from others in our conservative town. But like most plants, animals, and humans born and raised on the shores of Lake Michigan, we all share a deep appreciation for the Great Lakes. As someone who left Northern Michigan only to land in Chicago, I still feel this connection. But in Chicago, it all feels different. Chicago has done better than many cities at preserving the lakefront and making it publicly accessible, but the lake is often murky, and sometimes unsafe, polluted from the BP Whiting Refinery, an outdated water system, and industry remnants.

And as someone who has lived my entire life on Lake Michigan, but on the two opposite ends of it, I can tell you that Rural and City folks view the lake very differently, and with it, view the environment very differently. They value it differently. They treat it differently. Progressives and conservatives and everything else in between are more likely to respect the environment in rural areas but not in cities--because we recognize how much we stand to lose.

In my hometown, we have no public transit. There are no taxis or Ubers or Lyfts, either. While we have some talented and hardworking healthcare professionals, access to healthcare is limited. The population triples in the summer, quadrupling in July alone. Most businesses make more money in the 8-12 weeks of summer than they do in the rest of the year combined, and because almost the entirety of our economy relies on tourism, most of the jobs are service-related and seasonal, even for year-round residents. Once summer ends, the money often leaves with the tourists. Many restaurants and shops are seasonal, and it can sometimes feel like locals do not have access to the high-quality goods and services that they provide, and that those services are not meant for us. But the one thing that we do have, that feels like it is meant for us, every single season, is the lake and the land. The outdoor activities and sports are endless, thanks to the clean lake and undeveloped land, and from gardening and farming to hunting and fishing, local food is abundant. We live because of this lake--it is the number one  reason to visit my hometown, and the number one reason stay.

But even this northern freshwater haven is being threatened in a much larger way than ever before. Within the past year, sinkholes wreaked havoc in the Upper Peninsula; Governor Snyder is allowing the Nestle corporation to bottle Lake Michigan water at nearly no cost; Flint is still in its own water crisis; the Enbridge Line 5 oil pipeline is still pumping millions of gallons of oil through the Straits of Mackinac every day; and everyone recognizes that the summers are getting hotter, both causing drought and shifting growing seasons. Usually, the people that are angered by these hot-button environmental issues are progressives, Democrats, and millennials--the opposite of my rural community--but people up here care. So many of the classic right-leaning, blue collar, under-educated, older residents care. They are farmers, hunters, fishers, and good ol’ country boys. They care because they are practical--and like climate activists and scientists, they realize that our lives depend on it.

So why are these communities not a part of our greater movement? Why are we still losing?

Reason 1: Rural folks have been trained their entire lives to believe that city folks don’t care about them. I remember being told by a teacher in middle school that the outside world didn’t care about our small town, and that as someone who was born and raised in this small town, I in turn would never know how to communicate with the outside world, especially the intellectual, the political, and the powerful. We see this often in elections as well--rural areas often feel forgotten. So while many are primed to care, they are also primed to not trust outsiders.

Reason 2: General lack of resources. Like I mentioned earlier, there just aren’t as many resources available within or offered to rural America. There is less money and are fewer funders interested in investing in rural communities, fewer trained professionals and educational resources, and often even cell service and internet connectivity is unavailable--things I now take for granted living in a city. While there are some amazing organizations and people doing environmental and climate research and work up there, resources to make this work possible are not as abundant and the environmental movement at large is much more focused on remedying urban areas or protecting national parks, not the in-between of the rural midwest.

Reason 3: While climate organizers have gotten much better at adapting to climate justice issues in many urban areas, we have not done the same in rural areas. For example, I see amazing organizing work happening in the south side of Chicago around Petcoke and Manganese pollution, but in rural areas, the same is not true. We often take rural folks at face value, criticizing them for voting for Trump instead of looking at why they desperately tried to vote for change, falling into the narrative that they are often uneducated and do not care about the rest of the world outside of their small town. To this, I redirect you to back to Reasons 1 and 2.

Now, I know that y’all are here for climate change and politics, not rantings about rural America’s lack of resources or about my love of the Great Lakes--but maybe that’s why rural communities aren’t listening. Before you stop reading this, hear me out.

We know that the biggest reason that we are experiencing climate change is because of corporate action, not individuals, and this failure greatly lies with our government and some industries and corporations. But pushing this big-picture, often vague agenda against corporations and for progressive political leaders is not something that rural folks are going to connect with right off the bat. Like I mentioned before, rural folks are practical. This is heightened even more as many rural folks have been trained to distrust outsiders (see Reason 1). Instead of expecting rural folks to immediately sign onto our platform or write them off forever, we need to work on building trust, fighting for resources, and appealing to the values most important to them.

So what messaging works? How do we meet rural folks where they are? What measures fill that practical sweet spot that I mentioned earlier? Messaging around keeping the lakes clean. Keeping dirty energy and corporations as a whole out of the community and our land. Keeping coastlines undeveloped and soil free from toxins. Talking about shifting growing seasons and lower crop yields. Even recycling. I’m not just talking about conservation efforts or putting the responsibility on the individual--I’m talking about a mostly Republican county that thrives on clean air and water and loves recycling, because the local government has put in the resources to keep the environment clean and make recycling the norm. In my home county, county government has made recycling cheaper and more accessible. It is a public service provided by the government, includes curbside pickup, and accepts countless more materials than Chicago and many other places do. Most importantly, everyone loves it and recycles, because it is practical. Locals, even many of the anti-government, Tea-Party extremists love it--it is cheaper than trash, doesn’t spend tax dollars, cuts down on production of new materials (a huge win for emissions reduction), and if done right, it actually relieves pressure from individuals and puts it all on the government to provide a necessary service as a public service. Rural folks aren’t anti-environmental policy across the board, as some people like to imagine. They just prioritize the policies that work with their local community and align with their values.

So yes, the main culprits of climate change are corporations and dirty industries, not individuals, and it is the failure of the government--and rural folks are ready to push their governments, but they don’t respond to highly intellectual and sometimes pretentious climate change talk. They respond to practical solutions to the problems that they face every day, and like anyone else, they respond when we speak their language and relate to their struggles. While every farmer won’t respond well to high-level conversation on carbon emissions and global climate policy, they will respond if you start talking about hotter temperatures and drought that has cut their hay supply in half. And as a group that has often felt forgotten by city folks and politicians, they aren’t afraid to point fingers at the people in power causing these problems.

I don’t care what ticket they pull--rural folks have more at stake than many other communities when it comes to climate change, and while they may speak in different terms than most climate politicos and progressive organizers, they are silently fighting the same battles. We need to do a better job at connecting with these communities, and not let judgement keep us from talking about what climate change means to them, not just to us. Rural communities have been overlooked for far too long. Maybe because people just don’t care. Maybe because they just don’t know. Maybe because it seems like a lost cause. As environmental organizers, we need to do a better job at showing up year-round in rural areas, bringing in organizing expertise while listening and learning from those who live in rural areas year-round, and highlighting the rural values that are inherently environmental: clean and accessible land and water, sustainable and local small-scale food production, and resilient, self-reliant communities run on practical policies.

Kylah Johnston is currently a campaign manager on an aldermanic race in Chicago, and has been active in environmental justice organizing in Chicago for six years, with a focus on Great Lakes climate policy. She tweets @kyrosesj.