Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American RightStrangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As Senate hearings for Scott Pruitt begin today, I wish I could put this book in every person’s hands. I am a Rust Belt native who was raised with a profound respect for the environment, and learned natural stewardship from my father: a hunter whose family roots trace back to the days before the American Revolution, when Western Pennsylvania was the old frontier. This book, written by a UC Berkeley sociologist, is both a remarkable bipartisan olive branch and a terrible warning of what happens when industry and politics work together to manipulate the American voter’s skepticism of the government.

Through personal interview and careful research, Arlie Russell Hochschild dissects EPA skepticism. Her years-long study focuses on southwestern Louisiana, both the most conservative and the most polluted area of the nation. She locates residents’ resentment of federal regulation in a combination of deliberate political messaging and, more important, in a long history of political quid pro quo between oil companies and the state government, which left EPA regulations toothless. Although federal regulations were put in place to penalize oil companies for decades of flagrant pollution–which had annihilated the region’s bayous–the state’s attitude toward these regulations created a pattern of unfair enforcement. Broadly, the state government made campaign promises in exchange for donations, and then recklessly granted drilling permits. Big Oil was shielded from meaningful penalties while the environmental regulations that were enforced affected only individuals (e.g., fines for illegal game fishing).

Ultimately, Hochschild explores what she calls the Great Paradox, the tendency of Tea Party members to vote against their interests. It’s not all ignorance, as many on the left believe. For example, she records Harold Areno, a Tea Party member and lifelong Cajun who knows exactly who to blame for the devastation of his childhood landscape: “I remember sitting under the cypress for shade in the heat of the summer. The moss hanging on it was green then. Frogs could breathe and they could find all kinds of minnows. Then industry came in. It began to stink so bad you had to leave the windows down on hot nights. It killed the cypress and grass from here clear out to the Gulf. And you still can’t eat the fish or drink the water. … Floating bits of rubber would clog the water pump on your motorboat. We were downstream from Firestone.”

Will this story be echoed around the country? From a 37-acre sinkhole to the ruinous consequences for Louisiana’s fishing and tourism industries, political quid pro quo has irreversible costs. Hochschild is no doomsayer; she reinforces that EPA regulations can and do work if enforced, and presents an economic case that the choice to regulate a polluting industry is not the death knell to a region’s economy: it is not, in fact, an either-or decision. Right now, we stand with one foot already over the line of irreversible climate damage, and yet see the nomination of cabinet members whose interests all interlock in a protective wall around the oil industry.

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