The “Least Resistant Personality Profile” and Factory Farms

While studying rural communities that face poverty, shocking rates of cancer, and poisoned fishing waters from industrial pollution, sociologist Arlie Hochschild learned about a disturbing money making scheme.

A “waste-to-energy conversion” company wanted to build plants that burn highly toxic and noxious smelling waste—what they called “locally undesirable land use.” The corporation paid half a million dollars to a consultant who promised to identify places to site the plant where people had a “least resistant personality profile.”

They reasoned that it was not worth dealing with well-informed people who had the skill and determination to learn about their plans and fight them. Rather they would look for “less resistant” people.

The “Less Resistant” and Their Fate in Louisiana

In general, this consultant advised that such people were likely to be (1) longtime residents of small towns in the Midwest or South, (2) religious, (3) not educated beyond high school, (4) involved in mining, farming, or ranching, and (5) conservative.

Hochschild documents dozens of heartbreaking and enraging results from targeting them, starting from her careful study of how it played out in Louisiana.  One community that eventually had 75 toxins in its drinking water; another saw a large proportion of its town sucked into a sinkhole caused by the developers.

She also found, through an ambitious comparative study, a strong correlation between (1) impoverished communities and (2) places with weak environmental and workplace regulations. More pointedly, trying to promote jobs by weakening such regulations most often backfired—the effect on prosperity trended strongly negative.

(If you wish to assess Hochschild’s evidence for yourself, her book is called Strangers in Their Own Land. I’ve written about it on MBE a couple of times already, here and here.  If you are skeptical, please don’t imagine that she takes a tone of looking down on her “less resistant.” Rather she bends over backward to listen to them carefully, and she is clearly trying to defend them against misinformation about policies that might seriously hurt them.)

The More Resistant in Our Community

One can hope that our Wisconsin DNR has more resources than Louisiana to enforce safety regulations in relation to abstract sales pitches from developers—although I do not wish to roll the dice on the bet with my health on the line.

Thankfully our local community in Northern Wisconsin seems to be deciding that it does not wish to fall prey to a “least resistant” profile in relation to industrial hog factories that are trying to move in. Although pro-CAFO promoters are selling a hope of prosperity and some of their promises may seem plausible on their face, judging by results in other places the major results would very likely be sharply lower property values, a markedly weaker tax base, and dire threats to our air and water quality.

Therefore, we can be glad that this threat has generated strong local opposition. Still a pro-CAFO contingent is trying to claim that it is too late to stop them, with thinly veiled threats to sue if there are efforts to block them.

Since suits also seem likely if the CAFO plans are not blocked, it seems obvious to me that we should choose the path toward the common good.

I say this not because I am hostile to small farming—nor are any “CAFO resistant” people I have met in this area, many of whom are farmers themselves. I have uncles who were dairy and hog farmers on both sides of my family. So I am well aware that small farmers work very hard, all too often without making decent wages, and that we need ways to transition from existing small farms to agriculture that will works for upcoming generations. I see this as an urgent challenge to solve, and I intend to be part of solutions that come forward.

But I cannot see how getting bigger and bigger, with more and more antibiotics and pollution, squeezing out more and more small farmers, is a good solution—especially if this undermines other parts of our economy. Doesn’t it deepen problems in the long run—whether or not a few people profit in the short run by converting a few farms into industrial CAFOs? No one should forget the challenges of small farmers, but we need better solutions.

What If Don’t Feel “Least Resistant” and Do Think I’ve Been Following the Rules?

No doubt many local people who are pro-CAFO or still on the fence can say, in full sincerity, that they are evaluating the promises of CAFO developers in a context of real economic challenges, and as they do this they do not feel anything at all like a giant corporation is stalking them like predator for “least resistant personalities.”

Let’s assume that everyone’s intentions have been good, and that most local CAFO developers thought they were working in good faith within the parameters of ordinances (previously on the books) that would not necessarily block CAFOs. This goes with the legal claim that is too late to stop the process or stated differently that their rights to a permit should be grandfathered in.  But let’s be clear on two points. First, it’s not true that everything important was grandfathered in before the wider community stakeholders could consider the pros and cons. And obviously nothing about additional future development is settled.  Second, the earlier ordinances probably included the loopholes they had because no one imagined the scale of the threats before. This set us up as potentially “least resistant” before the corporations came sniffing around.

But, again, assume for the sake of argument the most charitable and optimistic interpretation of how pro-CAFO folks have proceeded so far.

To my mind, this does nothing change the basic situation: that we need strong community pressure and ordinances that firmly defend our air and water quality and don’t allow a few developers (mainly from the outside, leading back toward Chinese companies) to reap short term profits at the costs of imposing massively larger costs on the local economy and environment.

If the current ordinances on the books are not strong enough, the main point is how this creates new challenges going forward: more information, new and better ordinances, far more credible and enforceable assurances from CAFO developers that their visions of safety and prosperity could actually prove true, and alternative ways to transition existing agriculture toward a sustainable future.

I wish I could believe the Iowa corporate promises and trust our DNR to prevent all major problems—for the indefinite future!—so that this conflict could fade away. But this is simply not credible. The evidence is overwhelming that the balance between the definite extreme risk and probable low reward for these plans is wildly skewed against the CAFOs.

The Points to Take Away

So I urge those who are still making up their minds to consider: what you do not yet know may still hurt you, and meanwhile these plans risk great danger to neighbors who are not so optimistic.

I urge the Iowa corporate people who fly in on their private helicopters to leave us alone. I have lived in, and am glad to have escaped, a small town in Iowa with a quality of life that was deeply undermined by the trends toward industrial-scale agriculture. If the Iowa people like it there, they should stay there.

And I urge everyone else to step up and continue to show that we are not suitable targets for corporations searching for “least resistant personalities.”

MBE standard notice: The time I spend on this blog is not in addition to a Twitter and FaceBook presence, but an alternative to it.  If you think anything here merits wider circulation, this will probably only happen if you circulate it.

2 thoughts on “The “Least Resistant Personality Profile” and Factory Farms

  1. Animal husbandry. It translates to animals within your living area. Not meat factories because we eat meat and this makes it cheaper.” Animals are more than ever, a test of our character, of mankind’s capacity for empathy and for decent, honorable conduct and faithful stewardship. We are called to treat them with kindness, not because they have rights or power or some claim to equality, but in a sense because they don’t, because they all stand unequal and powerless before us.” Responsible hunters and livestock farmers know it instinctively. It’s about respect.. Quote from Matthew Scully, National Review.


  2. Industrial wind and industrial solar are the same for rural communities. The contracts offered are one sided, the negative impacts to homes and the land is completely understated. The land agents lie and bully to push through their agenda while a few locals help it along while their hands are in the cookie jar. 230 government entities across the US have banned or blocked industrial wind at the urging of their constituents. communities block the excessive power lines and should also be wary of industrial solar.


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