How to Engage Trump Supporters on Sustainability

(3BL Media/Justmeans) - Last week’s US election was both a shock and a disappointment for many people around the world. It’s important to think about what happened and why. There are important lessons to learn for all, including those of us working for a more sustainable society.

What’s clear is that there are a lot of people in America who are struggling, people whose lives had fallen outside of the traditional scope of the compassionate liberal vision, with its focus on “underrepresented minorities.” As ironic as it seems, this election was decided by primarily white, working class voters, who had come to feel that they were underrepresented. Donald Trump spoke to these people. Whether or not he will help them remains to be seen, but when a person is suffering, what they want first is to be seen and heard.

The reason this matters in the sustainability fight is, that for these voters, the issue is not one they felt they could afford to pay attention to. When a man who is barely scraping by, has to drive 50 miles each way to a minimum wage job in a beat-up old pickup truck to feed his family, all he wants to know is how much will gas cost. Not only can he not afford a Prius, he wouldn’t want one. He needs that pickup to do odd jobs with, collect firewood, and find other ways to make ends meet.

Many of these people have lost the good-paying jobs they once counted on, in areas like manufacturing and the energy sector. These jobs were often swept away by changes in technology, as well as by global trade. Robots, ATMs, self-checkout lines, and soon, autonomous cars and trucks continue to squeeze out livelihoods, as does the export of manufacturing jobs to lower wage countries. Environmental concerns have also been cited, in slowing down coal production, for example, though cost competition from natural gas has been a far bigger factor. Laying all this at the feet of the president is a bit unfair. Most of these decisions are made by company executive, sometimes because their products are not competitive.

Democrats are angry and scared, but calling these people names, or painting them with the flaws of their candidate will not be helpful. All that can said definitively is that they felt strongly enough about the need for change to overlook those faults.

The biggest block of Trump supporters was rural, while the smallest came from big cities.  While demographers talk about the migration to cities and planners are looking at how make those cities sustainable as the potential salvation of our planet, there are still plenty of people—enough to swing an election—still living in the past century, for whom this is a corner they haven’t gotten to yet.

Many of these supporters come from areas that lack diversity. They have not had the opportunity to go to school with or become friends with children from other backgrounds while growing up. I don’t mean to oversimplify the issue of racism here, or in any way excuse it, but those who have had firsthand experience of other groups tend to be more tolerant. There is also the question of education, and perhaps even more disturbing is the impact that the right-wing media echo chamber (e.g. Fox News, Limbaugh, etc.) have had by spreading false information couched in inflammatory rhetoric.

These are the patterns and trends that now potentially block the path to a sustainable future. On the plus side, these folks obviously love their families, care about their children’s future and their own health. Many of them surely love the land and are sad to see it  being despoiled. If provided with the facts of the situation, they will see that a flourishing, sustainable future is in all of our best interests.

Topics like connected smart cities, smart grid, renewable energy, electric cars, local and organic food—topics that have generated so much excitement among those of us who are ready to incorporate them into our lives—only describe an abstract distant future for these folks, who are far more concerned over how they are going to make this month’s rent. It seems to be a truth of life that the hungrier people are, the less they care about where their food comes from.

Furthermore, climate change, for many working people, is seen as a “high class problem,” meaning that it’s really not something that they feel they can afford to worry about. Some pundits, say that the election was a wholesale rejection of elitism, and that to the rural poor, climate change and other such global issues were elitist issues tied to a sector of society they have nothing to do with, don’t understand and have no power over. At the same time, they hear a lot of talk about helping minorities and immigrants while no one was talking about helping them—except Donald Trump.
The fact that climate change has been misrepresented and denied by certain so-called “news” sources certainly hasn’t helped either. Many people are beginning to find out the hard way, through destructive storms and droughts that it is a very real threat to their families and their futures. So how can we best engage these people in a constructive conversation about this issue that concerns all of us?
That will be our challenge in the months to come, certainly for those of us who write about this subject. How can we reach across the aisle? We must share positive compelling stories of solutions that don’t trade off between the environment and jobs, but instead help both. A person shouldn’t have to choose between feeding his family and saving the planet.

We need to add the concerns of this group into the mix of design goals. We can look to FDR as an example. Certainly, the need to create jobs was part and parcel of the New Deal and was considered at every turn.

While closing down our borders and reopening coal plants could be one approach, most  experts recognize these as being counter-productive. It needn’t be a zero-sum game. There are win-win solutions, such as upgrading our infrastructure to cleaner more sustainable options. Green jobs, ranging from installing and maintaining renewable energy systems employ millions of people around the world, a number that continues to grow.

Mr. Trump talks about clean coal, but that option is not ready to go at scale, nor has it been demonstrated on a cost-effective basis. Sure, research should continue, since the same technology can usually be used to remove carbon from natural gas plants that have taken on an increasing portion of our electric generation capacity. A sizeable number of new approaches to carbon capture are being pursued that are far less cumbersome than the now-defunct FutureGen approach of liquefying the CO2 and pumping it underground.

Finally, we need to look at other ways of taking care of people left behind, such as a guaranteed living wage, an idea that is starting to catch on in places like Denmark. Not only does Denmark provide a basic income for everyone out of work, but they also provide re-training to allow people to keep up with a rapidly changing job market. That may cost a lot, but, they say it’s cheaper than the alternative.

Of course, this will require leadership at the federal level, and that doesn’t seem too promising at the moment. But this is a good time to remember that this is a Democracy and that we the people, perhaps more than ever, need to make our voices heard.

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