Opinion: Better environmental policies for state

Various tensions — urban vs. rural, national vs. local — haunt almost every discussion about environmental policy in the United States. Recent efforts by some Kansas educational institutions reflect a path beyond those tensions, efforts that are long overdue.

To start, environmental concerns — extreme weather, soil depletion, oil extraction costs and more — affect the lives of country people far more immediately than they do those of city dwellers. Farmers and ranchers worried about the shrinking Ogallala Aquifer, rural Kansans hoping solar power can free them from urban-centered electric grids — these and others confront the need for better environmental policies every day.

Yet resistance to environmental policies is strongest in the mostly conservative, emptier parts of the country, with hardly a week going by without another story of rural people responding with frustration to even small-scale efforts to create more sustainable food or work or energy alternatives.

This is partly because the political push for sustainability in America often begins in urban centers far away from the de-populating heartland. “Environmentalism” thus becomes associated with national government programs promoted by Democratic voters in big, diverse cities far from the country, when in practice the most effective environmental policies have always been those that can be adapted to regional natural conditions by long-time, on-the-ground residents.

Nationally, the harms caused by invasive species, climate change, oil dependency and more are so large that many believe better environmental approaches must be forced down the throats of rural residents. And many conservative leaders have scare-mongered this prospect for decades, treating efforts to make the American way of life more sustainable as evil conspiracies, winning votes from rural America even as they suffer the most from these problems.

What is needed is for civic institutions and political bodies in the “middle” to connect the more homogenous residents of America’s least crowded places with environmentally attuned resources and expertise, enabling them to move toward policy adaptations on a scale that reflects both local priorities and the global seriousness of the problem.

For example, local groundwater districts in Kansas have recently been legally empowered to incentivize farmers to develop on their own more aggressive water conservation plans. This is what “middling” organizations can do: directly engage with local communities and thereby build bridges between broader perspectives on environment imperatives on the one hand and local factions that have specific, practical interests in it on the other.

In Salina, Kansas Wesleyan has launched a Community Resilience Hub, joining with the Kansas Rural Center to focus on regenerative agricultural practices and work with local farmers along Interstate-135 to build a more climate-resilient food corridor. In Wichita, both Friends and Newman universities have launched programs — in conservation science and agribusiness, respectively — that include the aim of linking environmental ethics and sustainability with the business of tending to and working on the natural world, teaching students more about the local ecosystems they are part of.

And Wichita State University has established a Heartland Environmental Justice Center, dedicated to helping poorer communities (particularly Black and Native ones) throughout the region make use of sustainable development practices, and seek compensation for how past national efforts to address environmental problems often passed them by. Since many of these communities have long seen “environmentalism” as reflecting the interests of white tourists rather than the needs of local residents, this is necessary, restorative work.

Overcoming resistance to better environmental policies throughout Kansas will not be an easy effort. But building upon these local and regional connecting initiatives will likely go further in resolving tensions than most.

— Russell Arben Fox teaches politics at Friends University in Wichita.


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