Yesterday I had a beer with a blogger/journalist friend. We got to talking about local food and the economy, and he told me that elected representatives in Alabama are getting increasingly interested in the local food movement, not as a means to cut carbon or save our soils, but as a serious tool of economic development. Later that evening, I was perusing the NPR website and saw this piece on how the White House is pitching its Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food as a serious job creator. Pointing out that every million dollars in sales spent in local markets creates 13 jobs, compared to just 3 for spending in agricultural operations without the local angle, NPR suggests that the administration is countering accusations of elitism:
By positioning the initiative as a "jobs-creator," Merrigan may be hoping to assuage detractors on Capitol Hill who have criticized Know Your Farmer as a program for the foodie elite that promotes organic and niche farming over conventional, larger scale operations.
"Elitism" Becomes a Rhetorical Weapon
These accusations of elitism are something that run way beyond food (and actually way beyond environmentalism). From fundamentally dishonest conservative attacks on the Volt to Santorum's recent suggestion that advocating for further education equals snobbery, there are concerted efforts afoot to exploit and exacerbate cultural tensions and divide communities that, in reality, have more in common than they might realize.
I was reminded of this when I was hanging out in a coffee shop in Saxapahaw—the former mill town I wrote about that has become a hub for resilience and rock and roll. I inadvertently overheard a conversation in which one patron was indulging in some good natured ribbing of another one over how the community was changing. It went something like this:
Patron A: You know these Chapel Hill environmentalists keep moving into our community and changing things. But they sure do bring some good beer and fine food with them.
Patron B: Well, it's funny how I can stand up and advocate for cleaning our river or protecting our watersheds and be shut down immediate. If someone else were to stand up and say the same things, they'd be applauded.
Party Politics Becomes a Wedge
Now I don't know the back story to this conversation, so it would be wrong of me to comment on details of the content. But the underlying theme—that most of us have similar concerns and interests even when we view each other as different—is a strong one. And yet as the conversation continued jovially, the topic of "Barack Hussein Obama" came up, and the tone appeared to get a little less friendly. It seems that party politics too often divides when our real, on-the-ground political needs call for cooperation.
So how do we get beyond such notions of "otherness", and how do we resist explicitly political attempts to divide?
Image credit: Solarcentury/Creative Commons
Lead With The Common Ground
One factor—as the White House has clearly realized—is jobs. We all want and need decent, well paying jobs in our communities. And if Farmer's Markets create jobs, and renewable energy employs more people than conventional energy per dollar invested, we can hopefully move beyond the "oil, coal and cars equal freedom" nonsense that gets peddled out to shoot us down.
Discussion Does Not Equal Surrender
It's important to note, however, that I am not suggesting stopping talking about emissions, clean air or combating climate change. Just because vested corporate interests are out to disseminate doubt and sow division over climate does not mean we should retreat and talk about jobs instead. It just means that jobs, economy and community well-being are our starting point for a conversation that establishes solid common ground that can serve as a basis for rational, evidence-based discussion about the other stuff.
Elitism Is Defined By Actions, Not Demographics
It's also important to note that I am not suggesting we can "all just get along". If we've learned anything since the heady days of An Inconvenient Truth's runaway success, it is that consensus over climate change and clean energy can easily be pedaled back by the true elites who have vast fortunes invested in business-as-usual and will defend those interests even when they conflict with the notion of the common good. And before anyone suggests that it is hypocrisy to decry the labeling of environmentalists as elites, and still point the finger of "otherness" at an entirely different group of citizens, I say bullshit. Because divisions exist and conflicts will continue—but we should judge the nature of those divisions based on people's actions not their demographics.
To suggest that the people buying 100% local, organic t-shirts from the fields of North Carolina, or focusing their purchasing power on the farming communities that surround them, are elitist is a heinous lie. To make that same accusation against a portion of the 1% mega-rich who are outsourcing jobs, dodging taxes, and trying to bend our democracy to their will—that's an observation that is hard to refute. Yet from Google's investments in renewables to the Gates Foundation's attempts to reinvent the toilet, many of our richest corporations and citizens also recognize—and act on—our fundamental interdependence.
It's not being rich that sucks. It's using your riches to divide those who are not. There's nothing wrong with accusations of elitism, but let's save them for the elite.