Is the Red v Blue / Country v City political divide in the US about how we relate to Nature?

Yes, argues immigrant author Jonathan Raban in the BBC, starting with an analysis that is not really all that novel, i.e., that in the US, urban areas tend to lean Democratic while the rural hinterland votes Republican. What’s intriguing is his argument that the divide stems from differences in how rural vs. urban people relate with nature! Here’s an excerpt where he presents the case for the Seattle / Washington area:

At issue is the fundamental question of mankind’s relationship with nature.

To many country dwellers, the mountains, plains, forests, and rivers of the state are a limitless resource of arable and grazing land, precious metals, timber and hydroelectricity – and some of the pious among them like to quote the Book of Genesis, in which God is said to give man “dominion” over “all the earth”.

To environmental activists (usually described by the ruralists as “Seattle liberals”), the magnificent geography of Washington state is a sacred space, a wilderness to be lovingly preserved and restored, as closely as possible, to its original “pristine” state.

And Seattleites have been inclined to treat the rest of their state as a giant park, a recreational facility for hikers, fly-fishermen, climbers, mountain-bikers, birders, and the like, for whom the traditional occupations of the countryside appear simply as rude blots on the landscape.

Pitched battles have been fought between the city and the countryside over such bones of contention as the habitat of the spotted owl (that battle resulted in the end of logging on National Forest land), gold mines, cattle grazing, dams on rivers (which block the passage of the declining runs of Pacific salmon to their spawning grounds), brush-cutting and wetlands setbacks.

In the course of this long and continuing conflict about land-use, rich, liberal, green, high-tech Seattle, with its high proportion of college graduates, has emerged as a post-regional city, deeply resented for its political power by people who live beyond the metro area, who once thought of Seattle as their own.

While I think the relationship to nature is an important element of someone’s political views – and one that doesn’t get nearly as much attention as it should – I’m not convinced that it splits so neatly between urban/rural :: liberal/conservative. What do you think? And, as Janaki Lenin (who led me to this article) wonders, how does this play out in other parts of the world, especially now that more than half of humanity lives in cities? Why aren’t we seeing “liberals” or “environmentalists” gain more political power anywhere, given the urbanization of our species, if Raban’s argument about the relationship with nature holds?

2 thoughts on “Is the Red v Blue / Country v City political divide in the US about how we relate to Nature?

  1. Rana

    I agree it isn’t that simple, given that a number of rural people value their land quite highly (and not just as something from which to extract resources) and given that many urban people are so isolated from the world outside cities that some of their children don’t even know that carrots grow in the ground. I suspect the divide is not so much between rural and urban, but between those who see an emotive, immeasurable quality to the non-human world, and those who think primarily in terms of cost, benefit, and profit. Abstracted to lines in an accounting sheet, a pristine desert ecosystem and a parking lot look the same, even though the human experience of them is much different. And that leads to the answer of your last question – currently, in our societies, value that can be defined in abstracts and assigned a monetary equivalent holds sway, as the dominant holders of power are corporations and the politicians they fund. Other value systems do exist, but they fight an uphill battle in a world defined in large part by money and what it can buy.

  2. Madhusudan Katti

    Good points, Rana. And for a moment I thought you were an old friend, from the analog days back in India – also named Rana – dropping by my blog! I was about to write a completely different tangential response to him. Then I clicked on the link under your name to realize you were a newer friend instead, from the blogosphere diaspora. 🙂

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