I read an article in the New York Times today that hit close to home. It was about energy efficiency, politics and the Midwest. “Being green” has become synonymous with being liberal, but a few communities in Kansas were dispelling that myth. Energy efficiency is often associated with being “left-wing” and a “tree-hugger,” phrases that aren’t usually compliments in the Midwest.
You can be energy conscious and conservative, as several communities in Kansas are showing. Which is pretty amazing, when I think about it. Someone doesn’t believe in global warming, and they’d rather give up red meat than hear another word about Al Gore, but they’re interested in energy efficiency?
The Midwest has very interesting politics, as Thomas Frank’s book “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” illustrates. I read it when George W. Bush was president, as a democratic college student in a red state. Even back then, I was one of the foreign-car-driving, “latte-sipping liberals” mentioned in the book — and proud of it. Frank explained how several divisive issues (same sex marriage, abortion) became part of the standard party platforms, which explained why these people who might have voted as democrats, or populists, were voting for republicans. Being green doesn’t mean you have to be a democrat. And these people in Kansas are proving it.
“If the heartland is to seriously reduce its dependence on coal and oil, Ms. Jackson and others decided, the issues must be separated. So the project ran an experiment to see if by focusing on thrift, patriotism, spiritual conviction and economic prosperity, it could rally residents of six Kansas towns to take meaningful steps to conserve energy and consider renewable fuels.”
“The project’s strategy seems to have worked.”
It all started during a kitchen table discussion, with the observation that “even though many local farmers would suffer from climate change, few believed that it was happening or were willing to take steps to avoid it.”
So they separated the environment from the politics. Instead of being politically motivated, energy efficiency was about being thrifty and creating jobs. And it tied into religion and the Christian obligation to care for the earth. In a way, it’s like mixing a child’s medicine in a spoonful of sugar, like in Mary Poppins. Instead of this horrible connotation of left-leaning tree-huggers, now energy effiencency was related to faith, saving money, competing with your neighbor and adding jobs to the local economy.
Energy efficiency became a competition among local towns, which is a good strategy. A little friendly competition is healthy. Hometown pride ranks pretty high in the Midwest — I think it’s somewhere between taking pride in your mother’s and/or grandmother’s cooking and the Nebraska Cornhuskers, which are definitely in the top 5 on the list of “Midwestern Things to be Proud of.” Personally, I’m not a fan of the Cornhuskers, but I rooted for the Minnesota Twins when they played in the post-season, and I’m convinced my mom’s biscotti (a recipe she got from my grandmother) are the best biscotti I’ll ever have.
A more important factor than being proud of the hometown team or family recipes, is practicality. Midwesterners are practical. Stubborn, perhaps, but they are definitely practical. These communities in Kansas didn’t need to believe in global warming to become more energy efficient, because they believed in the almighty dollar. Saving money and improving the community are great motivations in a small town.
“Whether or not the earth is getting warmer,” a grain farmer was quoted in the article, “it feels good to be part of something that works for Kansas and for the nation.” He wasn’t convinced about global warming, but he didn’t see the sense in our country’s dependency on foreign oil.
It’s pretty amazing that that a town that wasn’t convinced global warming even existed successfully lobbied for a wind turbine factory to come. This will create several hundred local jobs. Farmers can lease part of their land for the turbines, and boost their income by doing so. (I’d venture a guess that wind turbines are much less labor-intensive than raising cows, soy beans or corn.)
Nice to see that the Midwest is taking an interest in energy efficiency, regardless of the politics involved. Proof that you don’t have to be a democrat, or particularly care about the environment to become more energy efficient.