white people on the grounds that they hate black people. But that
latter hatred accuses many wrongfully, and it serves as a convenient coverup for the racism that is all around us. The reason why
it matters is because middle-class people despising poor people
becomes your basic class war, and the ongoing insults seem to
have been at least part of what has weakened the environmental
movement in particular and progressive politics in general.
Right-wing politicians may serve the super-rich with tax cuts
and deregulation and privatization galore, but they also dress up
expertly in a heartland all-Americanism that has, at least until
Bush’s plummeting popularity, allowed a lot of rural Americans
to see them as allies rather than opponents. The right has also
done a superb job of portraying the left as elite and hostile to
working-class interests, and the class war going on inside and
outside leftist and environmentalist circles did this propaganda
battle a great service. The result of all this has been a marginalized environmental movement—more speci>cally, an environmental movement that has alienated the people who often live
closest to “the environment.”
Of course dreadlocks and ragged clothes weren’t exactly diplomatic outreach tools either. I spent some of the 1990s with and
around activists in the public forests of the West, and a lot of the
supposedly most radical had a remarkable knack for going into
rural communities and insulting practically everyone with whom
they came into contact. It became clear to me that in their eyes
the worst crimes of the locals did not involve chainsaws and
voting choices but culture and what gets called lifestyle. It was a
culture war that got pretty far from who was actually doing what
to the Earth and how anyone might stop it.
Grubby, furry, childless pseudo-nomads who could screw up
all they wanted and live hand to mouth until something went
wrong and the long arm of middle-class parents reached out
to rescue them scorned the tough economic choices of people
with kids, mortgages, and no bail-out plan or white-collar
options. Some of them did great things for trees, but their
approach wasn’t always, to say the least, coalition-building.
It also wasn’t ubiquitous. There were some broad-minded people in the movement, and some who even hailed from these
rural and poor cultures, and Earth First! always had a self-proclaimed redneck contingent—but the scorn was widespread
enough to be a major problem. And it seemed to be part of the
reason why a lot of rural people despise environmentalists.
I remember talking to a young rancher in an anti-environmental bar in Eureka, Nevada, who humbly presumed
that environmentalists, including myself and the group I was
with, loathed him. His hat was large and his heart was good.
Whatever you think of arid-lands ranching, he seemed to be
doing it pretty well. He boasted of grass up to his cows’ bellies,