From now until at least the midterm elections in November, we’ll be featuring essays from powerful cultural voices alongside one simple thing, chosen by the author, that you can do to take action against the paralyzing apoplexy of the daily news. Maybe it’ll be an organization that deserves your donation; maybe it’ll be an issue that deserves greater awareness. Whatever it is, our aim is to remind you, and ourselves, of the big and small things we can do to work toward justice and change.
The Environment on Main Street
by John Hultgren
I commit to take action because working-class communities across the country are being devastated by intersecting social and environmental crises. On Main Street, the shops are shuttered and jobs long gone, but the industrial toxins remain. In the heartland, immigrant farmers labor under dangerous and unhealthy conditions, while crops suffer from prolonged droughts and run-off threatens local waters. The Forgotten America—the real silent majority—lives, works, and plays in food deserts and fenceline communities, its complex political needs and desires drowned out by oversimplified but omnipresent images of Trump Country: militant coal miners protesting the environmental tyranny of the EPA, autoworkers in MAGA gear cheering the rollback of fuel-efficiency standards, and unemployed construction workers pledging to help “build the wall.” The industrial era may be a bygone one, but it casts a long shadow.
Out of the darkness has crawled a snake-oil salesman peddling promises of fossil-fueled national renewal. He may “dig coal,” but he speaks for the working class only insofar as the working class has been transmogrified into a synonym for white male extractive workers. It is true that the oft-invoked white working class faces real hardships, and neither the Democratic Party nor mainstream environmental organizations have adequately advanced an environmental agenda attuned to working class needs. But the EPA isn’t responsible for the downfall of coal, manufacturing, or timber, and Trump isn’t going restore these industries to their flourishing pasts. Under his rule, actually existing working-class populations—not only the well-worn tropes of conservative iconography, but the janitors, maids, line cooks, secretaries, nursing assistants, cashiers, customer service reps, teaching aides, adjunct professors, and many, many more people across lines of race and gender who are struggling to get by—will see their share of national income further plummet and their exposure to a range of environmental hazards intensify. Adding insult to injury, those most responsible for the crises of our time are the most capable of evading their impacts, jetting off to gated communities or hunkering down behind guarded walls.
And yet there is reason for hope. As sacrifice zones expand and common resources continue to be sold off to the highest bidder, the race- and class-based fault lines that have long separated Leftist political movements are fracturing, and new working-class coalitions are forming in pursuit of environmental justice. Their politics take aim at the extraction of natural resources and the exploitation of labor. They unite the fights for good jobs and green jobs, for worker centers and wilderness, for just borders and just transitions. This is the groundwork for an environmental insurgency being laid.
Take action today:
Get involved in an environmental organization that confronts issues of social and economic inequality, like the Center on Race, Poverty, and the Environment.
John Hultgren teaches environmental politics at Bennington College. He is the author of Border Walls Gone Green: Nature and Anti-immigrant Politics in America.