B. Kal Munis*
Philipsburg, Montana, January 18, 2014 (Alochonaa):
“Quit talking bad about women, homosexuals, and preferred social minorities, and you can say anything you want about people who haven’t been to college, manual workers, country people, peasants, religious people, unmodern people, and so on.”
-Wendell Berry, preface, “Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community”[i]
In the fall of 2013, I began my graduate career at the University of Montana. Expecting to enter an intellectual world inhabited by enlightened and tolerant individuals, what I found instead was, in far too many instances, one peppered with individuals who – mirroring Wendell Berry’s satirical observation of the educated elite , above – practice a form of ‘acceptable bigotry’ against the rural and non-university educated. Notably, among the most egregious individual cases are a number of those who are working toward graduate degrees directly related to environmental issues. I take exception to this bigoted behavior, not simply due to my rural roots, but because generalizations, such as that rural people as a whole are ‘stupid,’ ‘barbaric,’ and ‘destructive’ (amongst other negative things), are simply not true. Looking back, it is probably fair to conclude that my notions of graduate school in the fall of 2013 were hopelessly romanticized.
But, it is also fair, I believe, to say that environmental scientists, natural resource policy and administration professionals, and the educated urban elite more generally, could benefit from a ‘Wendellian reminder.’ This essay asserts that the knowledge, cultural identity, interests, and concerns of rural people matter. This is especially true in the realm of environmental politics and policy, for, despite rhetoric extolling the ideal of all U.S. citizens as’“equal stakeholders’ in issues concerning public lands, it is a simple fact (seemingly inconvenient to some) that rural people are, by and large, most intimately connected to our public lands and, consequently, most affected by policy decisions regarding them.
The Role of Place and Public Lands in Rural Identity
‘Place,’ or the ‘sense of place’[ii] as it is sometimes referred to, has been the subject of extensive study in several social science disciplines – especially geography, and social psychology. Simply stated, a ‘place’ is a geographic space that has been attributed special meaning and significance by humans.[iii] In his ‘Symbolic Territory Theory,’ Brian Osborne refers to the end result of this process as, places becoming ‘symbolically charged.’[iv] The meaning that people attribute to place then becomes a part of the identity of those who live in their proximity. In other words, places shape, and are shaped by, people. All of this is evident in human communication. As communication researchers Donal Carbaugh and Tovar Cerulli explain, place is of chief importance to our communication, as our conceptions of place help organize our thoughts and speech as being ‘not just anywhere (but) somewhere in particular.’[v]
Other research has shown that outdoor recreation is especially important to the construction of place, and ‘place-based’ identity.[vi] Public lands, as the reader likely appreciates, are an important resource for outdoor recreation. This is an important consideration, because, as noted above, most public land is located in relative close proximity to rural communities. Therefore, due to such close proximity, it is reasonable to expect that rural people use our public lands more frequently on average than non-rural people, thereby shaping, and being shaped by, the identity of those places.
Furthermore, though this is not specific to rural areas per se, research also links traditional rural economies to place formation and identity. Examples of such communities in Western Montana include Eureka as a ‘logging town,’ and Philipsburg as an ‘old mining and ranching town.’ As with outdoor recreation, economic activities such as these are inextricably linked to public lands; a fact that has left many rural people bitter toward government agencies charged with managing natural resources and the environment. This bitterness is due to these agencies being viewed as largely responsible for the withering away of traditional rural economies. It is worth noting here that community identities based upon traditional rural economic practices seem to have a large degree of ‘staying power.’ For example, though Philipsburg’s economy is no longer dominated by resource extractive industry, and has not been for some time, many of the area’s inhabitants – including younger generations – still identify with such economic practices. Consideration of such lingering identities that are linked to the historical legacy of former economic practice is important for understanding rural peoples’ perceptions of natural resource agencies today.
A relatively recent (and important) development on university campuses and within natural resource agencies across the country is the increasing consideration given to what is known as ‘traditional’ or ‘indigenous knowledge.’ Traditional knowledge is often highly ‘sophisticated,’ based upon direct empirical experience, and is typically developed over long periods of time.[vii] Related to environmental issues, traditional knowledge is a ‘particular form of place-based knowledge of the diversity and interactions among plant and animal species, landforms, watercourses, and other qualities of the biophysical environment in a given place.’[viii] Such knowledge, in isolation or when paired with modern science, can be of use to natural resource agencies seeking to craft more holistic and nuanced policies that lead to better, more satisfying outcomes.
As stated above, natural resource agencies have begun incorporating traditional knowledge into their decisions more frequently during the past two decades, particularly in management areas that are in close proximity to indigenous populations. Resource management efforts in and around the Flathead Lake, located in Western Montana, provide some interesting examples of traditional knowledge being used in tandem with modern science. While these developments are inspiring and exciting, there remains much to be done in terms of incorporating the traditional knowledge of other groups. The traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples has been given a seat at the metaphorical table of resource management but that of the non-indigenous rural populace has not. Rather, in the words of one of my former professors at Montana State University, rural knowledge is often demeaned and trivialized as so-called ‘barstool biology.’
A Need for Building Mutual Trust and Respect through Greater Understanding
As a short recap of the above argument, rural identity is to a large extent shaped by symbolically charged landscapes – i.e., places, in which rural people live – many of which are partly comprised by, or in close proximity to, public lands. Recreational and economic activity (whether past or present) on these landscapes further shapes and entrenches these identities. Natural resource agencies, already viewed with suspicion and, in some cases, outright hostility by many rural people due to perceived past grievances, are compounding this problem by failing to adequately take rural interests, concerns, and traditional knowledge into consideration.
To their credit, natural resource and environmental agencies already make some effort to incorporate public input in management decisions, though whether or not it is to an appreciable extent is debatable. Such efforts aside, if future cooperation with, and legitimacy in the eyes of, rural populations is to be improved, resource agencies need to do a better job of incorporating the thoughts, concerns and traditional knowledge of these peoples. Furthermore, since rural peoples are affected most by such decisions, it can be argued that there is, in a sense, a moral obligation for these agencies to do so.
Returning to the sphere in which we began, this problem can begin to be addressed by the university undergraduate and graduate programs that are training our future scientists, administrators and agency professionals. Bucking bigotry toward rural people, many of whom are also uneducated (a group that also tends to be prejudiced against), is only possible through developing a greater understanding of rural cultures. As when combating prejudice against any other social or ethnic group, in order to develop a greater understanding of, and appreciation for, rural culture, students need to be exposed to it during the course of their education. And, while it likely cannot be foretold with absolute certainty, it is reasonable to believe that, as more tolerant individuals, who are considerate of rural values, interests, and knowledge, begin their careers in natural resource and environmental professions a similar softening will take place in the minds of rural people. In other words, if the educated natural resource and environmental agency professional treats his or her rural counterpart with respect, then the rural person is much more likely to reciprocate. And, (again this is conjecture) it is possible that this increased mutual respect and understanding will, in turn, breed trust. But if all of this is to be deemed too utopian and unrealistic (like my idealization of graduate school), then we shall continue to operate in the standard mode in which, as Wendell Berry describes (again, satirically), ‘any necessary thinking…will be done by certified smart people in offices, laboratories, boardrooms, and other high places and then will be handed down to supposedly unsmart people in low places.’[i]
*B. Kal Munis is an MA candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Montana. He obtained a BA in political science from the University of Montana and has research interests in political behavior, environmental policy and politics, and political communication with regional focuses in the Western United States and Southeast Europe. He travels to the Balkans on a somewhat regular basis.
** To read the works cited, click here—– Munis-Bibliography
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