Dear rural South, can we please talk? I don’t mean “I want to lecture you.” I do mean “talk.” Because, despite the fact that I’m frustrated with you and occasionally have very dark thoughts about you (I won’t deny it), the situation still grieves me.
You see, I used to be one of you. Very recently, in fact. I spent my early childhood in what is now a busy suburb of Memphis, TN, but at the time was a small town with plenty of outdoor spaces. I remember climbing a grassy hill and picking wildflowers, then returning to my own backyard where there was a small grove of trees on one side. My family moved, and I grew up several miles from a community that was not even incorporated. I lived on 10 acres of former pasture land and played with my sisters along a creek bank.
I went to the Gulf Coast for vacations almost annually. I wept when a hurricane devastated it, and I ground my teeth and cussed the perpetrators when an oil rig explosion defiled it. I had many a sleepless night when a tornado outbreak killed over 300 people in the South here, in the United States, in the 21st century.
Jimmy Buffett makes me hum along. Marshall Ramsey makes me laugh. John Grisham provides guilty reading entertainment. I know about all the SEC college football rivalries. My degrees are from one of those colleges, in fact.
For those to whom this is very important, my ancestors were all settled somewhere in the South by the early 19th century, and some much earlier. I have a couple of Revolutionary War veteran ancestors. I have Confederate veteran ancestors, too.
My point is, you should not consider me an outsider, “the Other,” the type of person to be despised and scapegoated as the source of the economic and personal problems in your life—and yet, I know many of you do.
You see, I’m also a Ph. D. atmospheric scientist (a “so-called, self-proclaimed climate scientist,” in the words of Rep. Lamar Smith—words that I am not entirely sure he understands, given that scientists are “proclaimed” by our degree-granting institutions after years of study), an ex-staffer for former Secretary of State Kerry (from his time as a Senator), and, now, a “liberal government elite in the swamp of Washington, DC.”
It’s true that my political views are moderate-liberal. However, why must this mean that we can’t talk? Why does it have to make me evil in your eyes? It wasn’t always this way. As ugly as politics might have been as a profession, as vile as the conduct of professionals sometimes was, regular people used to be able to agree to disagree about politics. It was just another thing to have friendly disagreements about, not a deal-breaker for any sort of amicable relationship. You could think your best friend was wrong, but not think they were literally destroying your community. You could have spirited arguments about FDR and Huey Long, but at the end of the day, you would shake the hand, slap the back, or offer the last swig of beer to your quirky liberal friend before heading home for the evening. You didn’t think that your friend was out to destroy your way of life or personally ruin you economically.
Do you really choose Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Steve Bannon—who do not know you and likely never will—over the people you grew up with? If this is about “elites” who “don’t understand your way of life,” do you really choose them over the person who does share that same background and life experience? Do you really choose the millionaire media personalities over your middle-class old schoolmate (or relative) who lives somewhere else now? That’s your prerogative, but if you do choose them with eyes open, please be honest about why you are doing so. It’s not because your friend is a “coastal elite” or suddenly no longer understands the culture of rural America. It’s because of political ideology.
Now, while I would respect that degree of honesty, I can’t say it wouldn’t make me sad anyway. So may I say a bit more first?
I don’t understand why you have a problem with my educational and career choice. Yes, I accept the validity of anthropogenic climate change. I’m in the 97% of my own profession, because I’ve examined the data myself. Yes, I think that something should be done, policy-wise, to mitigate the effects, both as-yet still avoidable (by reducing emissions) and unavoidable (by community resilience against climate and weather extremes).
I don’t want you to be directly, personally hurt economically in any of those policy decisions, however. Truly, I don’t.
And in fact, I’ve run up against some progressives on this very subject. I bet you didn’t know that! I don’t support any consumer carbon taxes unless they are demonstrably non-regressive. I don’t support instituting them unless an existing tax that everyone (or almost everyone) pays is reduced correspondingly. I support local and state control of matters such as vehicle emissions and home efficiency mandates, and when they create a hardship (for instance, when a family cannot afford to replace a polluting car or better insulate a leaky home), I don’t think that the state should apply punitive measures. On the whole, when it comes to individual household responsibility in carbon reduction, I favor “carrot” measures rather than “stick” ones.
The reason I break with the most “activist” of environmentalists is because I grew up in the rural South. I get it. I’m on your side. I am also on the side of the Earth, and I don’t think they are mutually exclusive.
I think the market has the capacity to innovate its way out of this crisis, too. Clean power is burgeoning, and vehicles are more efficient by the year. It won’t be too many years before substantial parts of the country are majority electric car, and this is not because “government is killing fossil fuels” or “regulating the auto industry to death.” Government has provided a push, yes, to make the innovation happen faster than it otherwise might have—believe it or not, the free market can stagnate too, especially sectors where entry is incredibly expensive and a small number of very large companies dominate—but after that, the market took off on its own. I believe this will continue to happen. In fact, personal solar is much more competitive and small-business-driven than traditional utilities. It’s why a coalition of environmental groups and Tea Party groups allied in Florida to defeat a ballot measure last November that would’ve crippled personal solar in the state.
Yes, that happened. See? We’re not all your enemies.
And I have to say, I really don’t get why you would hate me for being a scientist. We’re not as different as you might think. In fact, in some ways my philosophy of the world is more similar to yours than it is to that of your “ivory-tower academic progressives.” I am an empiricist. I reject postmodernism, the usual philosophy of that set, because I think it is incorrect (i.e., I don’t think the universe works that way), nihilistic at the core, and on a more selfish level, it completely opposes scientific thinking. I don’t think there is “my truth” or “your truth,” just truth. (Sorry, Obi-Wan Kenobi, but that whole “ceased to be Anakin Skywalker and became Darth Vader”? That’s not true. They’re the same person. You lied. Luke was correct.) In the view of a scientific empiricist, things are either true or not. There is objective reality separate from our senses and our brains. It doesn’t matter what race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or religion the person presenting a datum is; that piece of data is either correct or it isn’t.
You probably see the world in the same way, just through a fundamentalist or evangelical religion. That’s your philosophical framework. Things are either true or false, right or wrong. Since I’m a scientific empiricist (though I am not an atheist, actually), I do think that the scientific method is the proper way to learn about morally neutral objective facts of the world rather than a religious text. I’ll be honest (this piece is an exercise in full honesty); I think you’re incorrect about many things you say regarding the operation of the natural world. I also think you’re incorrect about some human issues that society has instilled with a moral dimension but that do have a connection to the natural world (such as sexual orientation, which is biological and immutable). I don’t think your views on all “social issues” are wrong, though. I agree with you about monogamy, two-parent homes, and opposition to unserious relationships or hookups, and it is because of empirical scientific data. But my overall point is, although we differ on the details, we really don’t see the world that differently philosophically speaking. We have worldviews that hold to the existence of objective, immutable truths. In that regard, we have much more in common than either of us has with postmodernists.
So, back to the first question I asked. Why do you think I am “the Other” who doesn’t understand you, lives in an elite bubble, is indifferent to your lives at best and possibly outright hostile?
We have different points of view about politics. I have an advanced degree in a scientific field. I happen to live in an East Coast metropolitan area right now and make a middle-class living.
That doesn’t mean I don’t understand you. It certainly doesn’t mean I hate you and wish you harm. To the contrary, I care deeply about you, because I grew up with you. Why do you think I would want the land where I grew up, and where most of my family lives, to shrivel up and die? It upset me when tornadoes plowed through it, when a hurricane flooded it, when an oil spill contaminated it. Why do you think I would shrug indifferently if the economy of your town or your state gets caught in a death spiral and you lose hope? If you struggle through life paycheck-to-meager-paycheck at menial jobs? Accept public aid with embarrassment and shame, because you have to take “charity” to feed your child? Maybe die at 50 of opioid overdose?
I get it if you don’t consider me “one of you” anymore. Arguably, I’m not. I don’t want to pretend to be something I am not. However, I do know you. Your region is, metaphorically speaking, in my blood. I may not be “one of you” in the true sense, but “you” are part of me. How could you think I would wish you ill or not care?
You can hate me and hold me in contempt because we have political disagreements, if you wish. You can consider Donald Trump your friend and consider the middle-class former schoolmate with the Southern accent in DC to be your adversary if you so choose. But if you decide that, I ask that you recognize and acknowledge the reason: political differences.
I don’t wish ill on you. I don’t shrug indifferently when I read about the decline of rural America. I don’t think that if a community is mostly white, then it automatically follows that it is mostly racist. I don’t think that the despair that many of you are feeling is caused by depression from “loss of privilege,” but rather, from real trauma in the spheres of finance, career, and family. When I read about this kind of situation, I don’t spout off platitudes like “they could just move” or “just go to college,” because I understand these things cost a lot of money and that matters. I don’t call you bigoted for not knowing the latest “intersectional” term to avoid “microaggressing” someone; I probably don’t know it either, because I don’t take a lot of interest in thought-policing. I don’t think you’re wrong to believe that there are things in this world that are true and things that are not true. I may disagree about what is or is not true, but human history is about searching for those answers, and I, like you, believe that they can be found, and they can be found regardless of who you are.
I’m not your enemy, and I hope that someday you can see that.