We are in Gillette, WY. Emma stands across third street with a giant white coat hanger when she sees me here, in the coffee shop. As she clutches two bags of fabric, wearing a clunky necklace of faux turquoise and coral, she begins to waddle toward me, half of the coat hanger falling off midway across the street. Bending over to pick it up I see Emma’s got a large fake daisy plant tucked into the back of her shorts, springing up like a tail. The gal in the coffee shop peers over her phone from where she leans on the counter. Eyes like this seem to follow us everywhere around here. From the American flag patterned fabric in Emma's hand, and the coat-hanger, you can see we are trying hard just to be accepted.
In the mornings we wake up and put away our sleeping mats. We make coffee and oat bran, find the nearest gas station bathrooms, and plot out our days. Usually, we spend the mornings reading, and often come to headlines like this. But, we are immersed in places that would never even run across a headline like that. They read headlines like this instead.
In Wyoming, there is coal and oil and not many people unattached to them in some way. There are beautiful landscapes of rolling hills smothered in wildflowers, red rock canyons, and bone chilling gulches to sweep you off your feet. People are often mean, and fearful of us outsiders. Families roam towns on vacation from school, buying tourist t-shirts that bemoan PETA and praise our 2nd amendment.
We spoke with one family in Cody, Wyoming who was on vacation from Pennsylvania. We were lucky to find them, as they were the nicest and most conversational conservative folk we've found yet. They liked a lot of the exhibits on the left side of the bus (the change-making side), but nothing on the "global warming side" (which is way more than global warming, for the record). When pressed on the issue, they said they were opposed to notions of climate change because the earth has been on a constant cycle of cooling and warming, and in any case the issue had become too politicized. They asked: how is one supposed to believe anything either side says when the back and forth is so contentious? We asked them what would need to happen for their views on climate change to shift, and they responded that the research would have to become depoliticized. Pressed and pressed, there is no discernible example or description of what that would actually look like, and we came to the conclusion that anti-climate change is part of their worldview, and it will not budge.
But are there other issues surrounding earth stewardship that you believe in, we asked? Of course, there's waste to be concerned with, and pollution--but we don't want the government to meddle, they said. Of course, of course. Advocating for issues should be done through screaming and organizing, community efforts. That sort of thing. Of course.
These conversations are common enough, though never quite as long. People would seem to rather talk about anything else, to keep these issues out of their purview, away from concern.
Nevertheless, through patience and listening we believe that both sides walked away with something new to think about. After all, it is hard to find the time to scream and organize with our busy, busy lives. And what company will really take care of its waste if not prodded by the government, just a little? And what about the organized way government manages our trash? And for us, yes, the government can be cumbersome can't it? Perhaps there was some melting of previously solid opinions--some remolding--and through that, some coming together.
We headed towards Gillette, WY, opened up at Walmart, and met Chris, a friendly, open minded man who works as a blaster in the coal mines. He spoke highly of the work he does and his work environment too, making sure to mention how great his employer was. Soon after Chris we met self described “oil trash”, a man with a big toothy smile. Walmart customers here were more likely than not to walk up with dusty boots and jeans, sun tanned faces and the look of a hard day's work.
What were we doing here advocating for alternative energies when most people probably felt like we were telling them their jobs, the ways they spend their time, and what they sell their labor to is wrong? How must people feel when they come in contact with "environmentalists"? (A group defined largely by the media and politicians, just as "oil trash" are defined to liberals.) So much blame is put upon these individuals when in fact, we all are a part of this polluting mess. So many liberals we know go from one gadget to the next, buy organic foods swaddled in plastic, and take costly flights all over the world, all the while bemoaning conservative anti-regulative politics in Middle America.
People here seem proud. These are their jobs and they enjoy them. These jobs have provided for them, perhaps their forefathers, their family, they have even created the community within which they are a part. Their culture in turn has been crafted around it.
Shoot, maybe we actually know very little about this America. We have taken American studies courses, history, this that and the other thing, but we didn’t know coal was still as prolific as it appears to be here. We know little about these people, their lives, and culture. And why? What would a course at UC Berkeley look like on this topic? "Rural, coal, oil, and the rest..." We have Latin American studies, African American studies, gender studies, why not this group of people too? We have certainly felt undereducated.
And so maybe, instead of disparaging these people and how they live, those who wish to change the energy industry in America should learn about them--better yet, from them--and work with them to find alternative jobs, economies, and futures.
It seems we have work to do. We want to ask people here: what would you tell a liberal about yourself? What would you tell them you are proud of? What do you like to do outside?
Advocating for the environment is possible in these parts. But it needs to be done differently. People's livelihoods depend on oil and coal, and there is a deeply ingrained worldview around the role of the government. Yes there are contradictions within that worldview, and ways to make an argument otherwise--but so are there contradictions in the liberal worldview--of pressuring a government to fix problems that were caused by a corrupt government in the first place and the fact that despite our opposition to oil and coal, so much of our daily lives, wealth, and infrastructure depend on it.
Contradictions in worldviews are easy to pick out when they belong to the other, and easier to make excuses for when they're your own. But we're trying harder to empathize in our interactions, and build new environmental stewardship in places like these. Its hard and frustrating. It makes us cry and want to go home. But no rest for the environmentalists! We’re off to North Dakota.