Everyone must be able to afford wilderness

Essay by ‘Asta Bowen

Wilderness – July 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

AT THIS YEAR’S International Wildlife Film Festival, held each spring in Montana, I worried a little about the price of admission. Not that moviegoers were balking; these days, $7.00 for an evening of world-class films doesn’t seem too far out of line, and it certainly didn’t keep the theater from filling up for the Friday night screening.

Ticket price, for once, was not the issue. The issue was who had the money and time to show up in the first place. I hate to say this (please draw the drapes and send young children from the room), but the issue was: social class.

We’re not talking Versace dresses and stretch limos here. Missoula, Montana, is not Hollywood, California, and festival founder Chuck Jonkel — whom we love for better reasons — is not Robert Redford. In any case, compared to the dazzle of too many snow geese on the tundra or the drama of forcible rape among fruit bats, the social status of human beings doesn’t pack much of a cinematic punch here.

The topic of class came up at a festival symposium, where someone wondered whether wildlife filmmakers were “preaching to the converted,” and whether some important audiences — like cattle ranchers in wolf country or maize farmers in elephant country — might not buy into the conservation message of these films. Nobody wanted to say so out loud (perhaps there were children in the room), but there rose the old specter of classism, with its ever-poisonous stereotype: environmentalists are just a bunch of narrow-minded rich people who care more about the survival of a few oddball animals than they do about their working class brethren.

It’s a familiar theme in these parts. Just the other day, a letter to the editor bemoaned falling incomes in western Montana’s resource-dependent economy, and laid blame squarely at the feet of “preservationists” seeking to create “an ecosystem that is untouched by the hands of mankind.” That burden, the writer said, is borne by the “average working-class individual.”

Maybe so. Considering that most of society’s burdens are borne by that same working-class guy, I don’t know why conservation would be any different. But I’m not sure that what we have here is rednecks vs. soccer moms, ATVs vs. SUVs, or country music vs. classical.

Sociologists don’t seem too sure either. Some say that as more people consider themselves environmentalists, divisions by income, education, and even age grow blurry. Other analysts contend that social class — at least compared to race or ethnicity — is still a major predictor of environmental attitudes. Then again, an international Gallup survey found that concern for the health of the planet is not just a luxury indulged by the wealthy, but a priority shared by citizens of low-income nations as well.

Attitudes aside, if the burden of environmental protection seems a heavy one for the working class to bear, consider how much harsher the burden of environmental loss. In Spain last month, when the toxic spill from a zinc mine poisoned miles of Andalusian crops and waterways, it was farming and fishing workers who lost their jobs first: that same old working class guy.

Lingering PCB contamination in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, may not target poor people, but it’s toughest on families who can’t move to a cleaner location. When a Lithuanian cheese plant loses 20% of its milk as waste, polluting local water supplies, do the cheese workers just buy Evian? The division between workers’ interests and environmental interests is slender at best.

Not long ago, I helped a young woman draft an essay about her father, a career logger. Proudly, she told of his love for the land and its creatures, and showed how his passion for his work had made him a fierce defender of the timber industry. She called the essay “My Father, the Environmentalist.” She didn’t think he would appreciate it; I hope he surprised her.

We who live near the bottom of the economic food chain may have the most to lose, but we also have the most to gain from environmental preservation. If there is anything that should unite and not divide one human class from another, it is the earth we share. Nothing is more democratic or egalitarian than our need for air, water, food and goods from the land. We may not always have the time or money to watch movies on fruit bats or snow geese, but neither can we afford to lay waste to the wildlife and wildlands around us.

Class or no class, people who live close to the land know this: the price of preserving nature may be high, but the price of losing it is incalculable.

‘Asta Bowen is a school teacher from Somers, Mont. She is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News, based in Paonia, Colorado.