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Blue Collar Environmentalism and the Red/Blue Divide in America

It is strange but true that the environment has become a politically-charged wedge issue in America – like abortion or gun control. In the last election, for example, the phrase “Green New Deal” was used by Republicans as a weapon to scare voters into thinking Democrats are socialists bent on government control.

This is tragic. Historically, the environment was a bipartisan issue, with both Republican and Democratic support. In fact, Republicans deserve a lot of the credit for pioneering the field of conservation – from Teddy Roosevelt, who invented the whole idea of national parks; to Richard Nixon, who founded the EPA.

But then something changed in the 1990’s and 2000’s – and that thing was growing awareness of climate change as a pre-eminent environmental threat. As the fossil fuel industry geared up to fight government regulation, it bankrolled an extensive political donation and disinformation campaign that accelerated the shift of the Republican party into the anti-regulatory, anti-government crusade it is today.

How do we fix this? How do we get Trump voters and Biden voters alike to see common cause in protecting our shared environment?

If we are looking to inspire people, the vast majority of American voters will never be moved by scientific data – no matter how accurate -- about 1.5 degrees centigrade warming over a century. People are terrified of losing their jobs tomorrow and being evicted from their homes.

Meanwhile, our world is being trashed. Literally. Trash is everywhere you look – on the sides of highways and roads in both urban and rural areas, and swirling in an island the size of Texas in the Pacific Ocean.

We need to bring average people – Republicans and Democrats – into a common cause to make a cleaner world through blue collar environmentalism. That is, environmentalism that helps people at home, where they live, in ways average folks can see and appreciate – and that nobody can debate.

Here are four areas we can all agree on and that desperately need intervention: drinking water, sewage, litter, and American jobs.

A large number of rural families – Trump voters – have drinking water contaminated with nitrates and bacteria from farm fertilizer runoff, and the laws today provide no protections for citizens with private walls. Many Hispanic communities along the border, as well as soldiers of all ethnic backgrounds on U.S. military bases, and the Black residents of Flint and other cities, are drinking water contaminated by arsenic, rocket fuel, lead and other pollutants. This is a disgrace that can be easily fixed through government investments in our drinking water infrastructure.

Americans love to talk about American Exceptionalism. But we are what Trump might call an outhouse nation if we continue to intentionally pipe millions of gallons of raw human waste into our rivers, which we do in Baltimore, Harrisburg, Pa., and hundreds of other U.S. cities.

President Biden has promised a new infrastructure plan. Let’s make sure it’s a clean water infrastructure plan that pays for the construction of wastewater treatment plants and sewer lines, which will create thousands of blue-collar jobs for construction workers.

To help combat the growing litter problem that is inundating our rural and urban communities, we need to expand nationally bottle deposit laws that are currently in place in 10 states to encourage recycling and the pick up trash from roadsides. The 10 cent or 5 cent refundable deposits – although fought by Coke, Pepsi and other beverage companies -- have been incredibly successful in Michigan, Oregon, and elsewhere in dramatically reducing litter. The deposits should be expanded to cover all plastic bottles and fast-food wrappers and bags, so that average folks will be financially incentivized to clean up the world around them, for cash rewards.

In terms of the climate, a good step forward is President Biden’s proposed Climate Conservation Corps. It would put millions of people to work planting trees to absorb carbon dioxide pollution, as well as restoring wetlands, and improving farms and public parks. The idea is much like FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps, which uplifted so many unemployed people during the Great Depression and improved our national park systems by building shelters, trails, and bridges.

That very successful program linked conservation and the environment to jobs for working class Americans. Hopefully, the climate corps can rebuild people’s faith in government while handing out real paychecks to blue-collar Republicans and Democrats. By lifting shovels together, we can build a bridge between red and blue America.


The Environment in Focus is independently owned and distributed by Environment in Focus Radio to WYPR and other stations. The program is sponsored by the Abell Foundation. The views expressed are solely Tom Pelton's. You can contact him at [email protected].