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—representing “locally undesirable land use.” This corporation paid half a million dollars to a consultant who promised to identify a “least resistant personality profile.”
They reasoned that it was not worth dealing with well-informed people who had high skills and determination to learn about their plants and fight them. Instead they would look for “less resistant” people.
Their highly-paid 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) relatively conservative. Hochschild documents dozens of heartbreaking and enraging results from this approach, including one community in Louisiana that eventually had 75 toxins in its drinking water.
One can hope that our Wisconsin DNR has more resources than Louisiana to enforce safety regulations and promises from developers—although I do not wish to roll the dice on that bet with my health and safety on the line.
Hochschild also found, in a broad comparative study, a strong correlation between impoverished communities and communities with weak environment and workplace regulations. Trying to promote jobs through weakening such regulations typically backfired—the effect on prosperity clearly trended negative.
(If you wish to assess Hochschild’s extensive evidence for yourself, the book is called Strangers in Their Own Land. I have written about it on MBE a couple of times already, here and here. Please don’t imagine that she takes a tone of looking down on the “less resistant.” She is listening carefully and trying to defend them against destructive policies and misinformation.)
Thankfully our 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 promoters are selling a hope of prosperity and some of their promises sound reasonably good, the key results would likely be lower property values, a weaker tax base, and major threats to our air and water quality.
We can be glad that this has generated strong opposition. Still these corporations are trying to claim that it is too late to stop them, with implicit threats to sue if there are efforts to block them.
Since suits also seem quite likely if they 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.
No doubt many local people can say, in all sincerity, that they are evaluating the promises of CAFO developers in a context of real economic challenges, and they do not feel anything at all like a giant corporation stalking like a predator for “least resistant personalities.”
Let’s assume that everyone’s intentions are good, and that the developers have been working in good faith in relation to existing ordinances that might not necessarily block CAFOs (although they may be written this way because no one imagined the scale of these plans before).
Still to my mind, this does not change the basic situation—a need for community pressure and ordinances that firmly defend our air and water quality—in any decisive way.
It only creates new challenges going forward: more information, new and better ordinances, far stronger assurances that CAFO developers’ promises of safety and prosperity could 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.
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 can 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.”
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