A common assumption is that industrial progress and the improved welfare of humanity provides sufficient benefits that certain geographical areas must be “sacrificed” for the greater good. The manufacture of products demanded by the modern economy causes pollution and ill health for both humans and the environment; therefore both may need to be sacrificed on occasion. Wikipedia provides this definition of a sacrifice zone.
“A sacrifice zone is a geographic area that has been permanently impaired by environmental damage or economic disinvestment. These zones are most commonly found in low-income and minority communities.”
We are not necessarily discussing minor environmental or health issues here.
“The concept of sacrifice zones was first discussed during the Cold War, as a likely result of nuclear fallout.”
Arlie Russell Hochschild is a sociology professor at the University of California at Berkeley who was disturbed and puzzled by the increasing political polarization within the nation. Being comfortably imbedded in a liberal enclave, Hochschild had little opportunity to interact with the engaged members of the other party, and assumed that those with opposing political views would be equally isolated from contrary opinions. She decided she must meet with red-state people and try to understand where their beliefs came from. Ultimately, she settled on Louisiana as the place to set up shop. Her findings are recorded in fascinating detail in Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right.
Louisiana seemed like a logical place to study the Tea Party phenomenon.
“In the 2012 election, in the nation as a whole, 39 percent of the white voters voted for Barack Obama. In the South, 29 percent did. And in Louisiana, it was 14 percent—a smaller proportion than in the south as a whole. According to one 2011 poll, half of the Louisianans support the Tea Party.”
Louisiana is also a home for the oil industry and the many associated chemical processing plants. Sections of it merit the label of sacrifice zone: Yet the state is also the home of people virulently opposed to government regulation of industry.
Hochschild was particularly interested in learning why people who were so injured by environmental pollution would be so adamantly opposed to environmental regulations. She referred to this contradiction as the “great paradox.”
“Across the country, red states are poorer and have more teen mothers, more divorce, worse health, more obesity, more trauma-related deaths, more low-birth-weight babies, and lower school enrollment. On average, people in red states die five years earlier than people in blue states. Indeed, the gap in life expectancy between Louisiana (75.7) and Connecticut (80.8) is the same as that between the United States and Nicaragua. Red states suffer more in another highly important but little-known way, one that speaks to the very biological self-interest in health and life: industrial pollution.”
Louisiana would be the place to come for understanding. Hochschild’s findings concerning political leanings were discussed previously here. The present topic will be attitudes relevant to economic and environmental issues.
It seems that the acceptance of industrial devastation must require at least tacit acquiescence of both politicians and the affected inhabitants. The situation in Louisiana seems to combine a misbegotten political ideology with what Hochschild refers to as a “least resistant personality” on the part of the residents.
She points out how the political environment has changed over time.
“In the last Louisiana oil boom, from 1928 to 1932, in the midst of the Great Depression, Louisiana governor Huey Long, the progressive demagogue—the Kingfish as he was called—taxed oil companies, using that money to put a ‘chicken in every pot,’ give out free textbooks to children, create evening literacy courses for adults, and build roads, bridges, hospitals, and schools. Long curbed homelessness and poverty. Before succumbing to the lure of oil money himself, Long embraced the ideal of an activist government that lifted the poor and added to the common good….And were he alive today, very few Louisianans would vote for Huey Long.”
Long’s approach is contrasted with that of recent governor Bobby Jindal who went out of his way to take money away from social services and education in order to pay for the incentives provided companies to encourage them to settle in his state.
“During the eight years Bobby Jindal was governor of Louisiana, he fired 30,000 state employees and furloughed many others. Social workers increased their caseloads. Child abuse victims were for the first time spending nights at government offices. Since 2007-2008, in the nation’s second poorest state, Governor Jindal had cut funding for higher education by 44 percent….Given cuts to the state’s judicial branch, in which eight out of ten of the accused rely on public defenders, lawyers had been laid off, and the accused languished in jails….their names on waiting lists with thousands of others, no lawyers to defend them.”
“Jindal had cut corporate taxes as well as individual taxes and he had spent $1.6 billion in ‘incentives’ to lure industry to the state, offering companies ten-year tax exemptions. Jindal had sold state-owned parking lots and farmland, potential sources of revenue. He put the state’s hospitals in ‘business-friendly’ hands for which costs proceeded to rise. He had gambled that oil prices would rise and companies would reap taxable profits, and he had lost.”
“….Jindal’s successor, Democratic governor John Bel Edwards, reluctantly announced in March of 2016 that in order to address the “historic fiscal crisis,” the state would need nearly $3 billion—almost $650 per resident—just to keep up regular services during the next sixteen months.”
Most of the Tea Party supporters Hochschild talked with had voted twice for Jindal because he “promised to enact their values.” However, they did admit that he had left the state in a “shambles.” They are against taxation and regulation and view social assistance as an unnecessary evil. They viewed Jindal’s efforts to bring in new businesses, even if they provided low-wage jobs and polluted their environment, as good things. They seemed to have Hochschild’s “least resistant personality.”
Back in 1984, California wanted to build a waste facility that would provide a difficult environment for any living nearby. It would be noisy, smelly, generate a large amount of traffic, lower property values, provide few jobs and would likely produce unhealthy levels of pollution. The thought was to learn how to convince any who might dwell in the neighborhood that they would be enduring something that was worth the discomfort. A study was commissioned to Cerrell Associates, a consulting firm, that provided a completely different perspective. The report was written by J. Stephen Powell.
“The plant manager’s best course of action, Powell concluded, would not be to try to change the minds of residents predisposed to resist. It would be to find a citizenry unlikely to resist.”
“Based on interviews and questionnaires, Powell drew up a list of characteristics of the ‘least resistant personality profile’:”
· Longtime residents of the South or Midwest
· High school educated only
· Uninvolved in social issues, and without a culture of activism
· Involved in mining, farming ranching (what Cerrell called “nature exploitive occupations”)
· Advocates of the free market
Hochschild concluded that most of the people she met in Louisiana fit “some or all” of these characteristics. Those that would be willing to resist were a quite different class of individual.
“Those who resisted the oil industry fit a very different profile—young, college educated, urban, liberal, strongly interested in social issues, and believers in good government.”
This list of characteristics of the “least resistant” provides a template with which to evaluate the Louisianans Hochschild encountered and to try to explain why they acquiesce to the sacrifice of their land.
Louisiana certainly meets the educational requirement for a candidate sacrifice zone.
“When the big oil companies first came to Louisiana in the 1940s, 40 percent of adults in Louisiana had no more than a fifth-grade education, and its citizens were the least likely in the nation to move out of state.”
The building of oil and chemical plants has done little for the state.
“The Measure of America, a report of the Social Science Research Council, ranks every state in the United States on its ‘human development.’ Each rank is based on life expectancy, school enrollment, educational degree attainment, and median personal earnings. Out of the 50 states, Louisiana ranked 49th and in overall health ranked last. According to the 2015 National Report Card, Louisiana ranked 48th out of 50 in eighth-grade reading and 49th out of 50 in eighth-grade math. Only eight out of ten Louisianans have graduated from high school, and only 7 percent have graduate or professional degrees.”
It would seem that being a sacrifice zone is not a onetime thing. The conditions that allowed the corporations to take over the land must be maintained. The poor, undereducated, least resistant people must continue to be poor and undereducated, and unresisting for corporate prosperity to continue.
The federal government rushes in trying to help—for which it receives no credit—but merely ends up providing a tacit subsidy to the corporate owners.
“Given such an array of challenges, one might expect people to welcome federal help. In truth, a very large proportion of the yearly budgets of red states—in the case of Louisiana, 44 percent—do come from federal funds; $2,400 is given by the federal government per Louisianan per year.”
Next, consider the first entry: longtime residents of the South or Midwest. Many of the people Hochschild talked to had been residents of small towns where generations of family members had resided in the same area. This produces a community with entangled relations, both familial and social. Some will find such an environment comforting and supportive; others will find a place “where everyone knows your name” to be stifling and wish to escape. Most of her Louisianans fell in the first category.
If you live in a city, you soon realize that a city cannot function without a strong and effective government. The trash must be picked up on time; traffic must move on schedule; there is only the government to rely on for the care of the homeless and misfortunate. In a small town, many of these functions either lose their significance or can be handled through social networks. Government can be seen as an intruder—especially if it is incompetent government, the kind Louisiana seems determined to produce. Consider the attitude of “Mike.”
“Even if the government helped people—and he didn’t think it did much—government should never, Mike felt, erode the spirit of community. He had grown up in a dense circle of aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents, all within walking distance from each other….Now in his sixties, Mike felt happy to live in a community as close and cooperative as the one he had known as a boy.”
“It wasn’t the simple absence of government Mike wanted, it was the feeling of being inside a warm, cooperative group. He thought the government replaced that.”
This feeling for the place in which they live is emotionally powerful. Small towns can be difficult to maintain in a changing economy. The promise of a factory bringing in jobs to help keep the place going can be a much stronger motivator than the inconvenience of a little pollution—especially when everyone you listen to tells you not to worry about it.
It seems a candidate place for a sacrifice zone requires people who are unlikely to move no matter how bad it gets.
It is interesting that when Hochschild chose to write a section about the effect religion had in forming attitudes in Louisiana she chose to also consider the effect of media. Both their churches and their sources of news contribute to a narrative that must be recognized if the Louisianans are to be understood.
It can be difficult to understand how important church is in the lives of the people Hochschild met.
“People speak of children not as ‘going to church’ but as being churched. And this is said with the same pride as others might say ‘highly educated’ or ‘well mannered.’ Church in Louisiana—usually Baptist, Catholic, Methodist, or Pentecostal—is a pillar of social life.”
Churches in other circumstances have been sites of social revolution. In the world Hochschild entered, they were the place to go to gain the strength to endure what had befallen you, not to make you angry enough to fight back.
“Word from the….pulpits seemed to focus more on a person’s moral strength to endure than on the will to change the circumstances that called on that strength. The service offered a collective, supportive arena, it seemed, within which it was safe to feel helpless, sad, or lost. As in an hour of therapy, the individual drew strength from support to endure what had to be endured….Another grief-stricken parishioner, mother of an ill child living in the highly polluted town of Mossville, told me, ‘I don’t know how I could have gotten through this without my church.’ As for altering the pollution, poverty, ill health, and other things that had to be endured, for many that lay beyond the doors of the church.”
It is difficult to worry about things like climate change and ecological damage to the earth when you hope—and expect—that the present earth will no longer exist. She shares with us the beliefs of one Louisianan named Madonna.
“….Madonna believes in the rapture. According to the Bible, ‘The earth will groan,’ she tells me, ‘and earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, rain, blizzards, strife will occur, and the earth is groaning.’ Drawing from the books of Revelation and Daniel, Madonna believes that within the next thousand years, gravity will release the feet of believers as they ascend to heaven, while non-believers will remain on an earth that will become ‘as Hell’….After the rapture, the world will end for a time before Christ creates it anew and begins a new thousand-year period of peace, Madonna explains.”
“Madonna attended two years of Bible College in Mississippi and explains, ‘This is not what you would learn at your university, but mine is a true belief.’ This belief offered her a graphic image of the creation of the earth in seven days. It put the age of the earth at six thousand years. The City of Heaven, she told me, was a cube 1,500 miles square, divided into 12 bejeweled stories, each 120 miles high with gates, the largest one of pearls.”
Environmentalists believe that what humans are doing to the earth is a long-term problem. To the religious who expect the earth to end—perhaps in their lifetime—what humans are doing is a short-term issue that is rather irrelevant.
“Across the nation, many share these beliefs with Madonna. According to a 2010 Pew Research Center report, 41 percent of all Americans believe the ‘Second Coming’ ‘probably’ or ‘definitely’ will happen by the year 2050.”
Hochschild’s experience in Louisiana also makes clear that we cannot begin to understand the residents of that state without taking into account the effect of Fox News.
“As a powerful influence over the views of the people I came to know, Fox News stands next to industry, state government, church, and the regular media as an extra pillar of political culture all its own. Madonna tunes into Fox on the radio, television, and internet….Fox gives to Madonna and others the news. It suggests what the issues are. It tells her what to feel afraid, angry, and anxious about.”
“All news programs address our emotional alarm systems, of course. But with talk of a ‘terror mosque’ at Ground Zero, of the ‘left’s secret immigration plan’ to wipe traditional America off the face of the earth, of Obama’s supposed release of the ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, of his supposed masterminding the massacre at Fort Hood, Fox News stokes fear. And the fear seems to reflect that of the audience it most serves—white middle- and working-class people. During the series of police killings of young black men, Fox reporters tended to defend white police officers and criticize black rioters. It defended the right to own guns and restrict voter registration, and it continually derided the federal government.”
And, of course, Fox News leads the pack in condemning those who they claim would kill jobs by worrying about the environment.
“None of the people I talked to one-on-one, off and on, over five years used the extreme language I heard on Fox. George Russell, a Fox commentator, spoke of the ‘green energy tyranny.’ Business anchor Eric Bolling referred to the EPA as ‘job terrorists’ who are ‘strangling America.’ Fox News Business Network commentator Lou Dobbs commented in 2011 that ’as it’s being run now, [the EPA] could be part of the apparat of the Soviet Union.’ One woman’s favorite commentator, Charles Krauthammer, compared the rise in EPA air quality standards to an ‘enemy attack’ on America.”
We come now to the final requirements that are necessary to make people willing to allow their region to become a sacrifice zone: conservative Republican advocates of the free market. In order to appreciate the zest with which whites in the South switched from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party, one must understand the degree to which whites in the South maintain, however tacitly, their racist traditions. Hochschild makes it clear that her Louisianans support the notion that whites occupy a privileged place in this country. Their fury is aroused not by political or financial manipulation, but by the notion that their place of privilege is being eroded by a federal government that encourages people with different colored skin to succeed when they themselves are not getting ahead. This is the narrative that the Republican Party encourages using Fox News to spew incendiary content to its viewers. While the left views conflict as being between a small wealthy elite and everyone else, the right views the main conflict to be between middle class whites and the poor.
“For the right today, the main theater of conflict is neither a factory floor nor an Occupy protest. The theater of conflict—at the heart of the deep story—is the local welfare office and the mailbox where undeserved disability checks and SNAP stamps arrive. Government checks for the listless and idle—this seems most unfair. If unfairness in Occupy is expressed in the moral vocabulary of a ‘fair share’ of resources and a properly proportioned society, unfairness in the right’s deep story is found in the language of ‘makers’ and ‘takers.’ For the left, the flashpoint is up the class ladder (between the very top and the rest); for the right it is down between the middle class and the poor. For the left, the flashpoint is centered in the private sector; for the right, in the public sector.”
Hochschild recognized that the political logic involved in governing a red state generated a trend in which poverty, lack of education, and ill health were inevitable consequences.
“[In Louisiana] The logic was this. The more oil, the more jobs. The more jobs, the more prosperity, and the less need for government aid. And the less the people depend on government—local, state, or federal—the better off they will be. So to attract more oil jobs, the state has to offer financial ‘incentives’ to oil companies to get them to come. That incentive money will have to be drawn from the state budget, which may lead to the firing of public sector workers, which, painful as it might seem, reduces reliance on government and lowers taxes. It is a red state tactic. But the paradox is that it goes with being a poor state with a lot of problems.”
Low wages are inherent in and necessary to the red state logic. When that is combined with low public spending you end up with Louisiana and states like it.
When a plant moves to Louisiana it generates a large number of jobs—temporarily. Skilled craftsmen are required for the building of the plant, but because Louisiana does not provide those skilled workers, most of the workers are imported from outside the state, or outside the country. Most of the earnings of these workers leaves the state as well as most of the profit made eventually from the facility. What are left when the plant operates are a few highly skilled positions, often held by workers from outside, and a few lower skilled jobs. Louisiana gains some in turns of income distributed, but not enough to overcome the lower property values inherent in sacrificing one’s land and the decrease in public services provided—such as education and health maintenance.
The goal of southern politicians has not changed for hundreds of years. It is to allow the process described above to continue. It is necessary to keep wages low and keep workers fixated on their place within the social landscape. As long as the system has kept whites ahead of people with darker skin the system has remained stable.
The interested reader might find the following article informative: