Hochschild focuses on environmental policy (and toxic pollution in particular) in order to understand the broader political dynamics of the white working-class Louisiana communities she studies. Most Louisianans reject laws that would limit pollution and guard against oil spills because they believe that environmental protection will hurt the economy. But Hochschild shows that environmental protections and economic growth are, in fact, entirely compatible. She exposes the alliance between corporate and government leaders that has encouraged citizens to falsely believe that pro-oil policies actually benefit society.
Whether they work in the oil industry or not, many Louisianans see oil as their state’s only opportunity for economic growth. Jackie Tabor, for instance, sees her family’s income as an “indirect” effect of oil because so many of the houses her contractor husband builds are for oil workers. Because of this belief that oil is the key to a good economy, most Conservative Louisianans think environmental protections will destroy the state’s economy by hurting oil companies. Louisianans’ faith in the oil industry is apparent in the Louisiana state government’s approach to economic policy. Governor Bobby Jindal gave oil companies $1.6 billion in tax incentives to come to Louisiana, but he paid for those incentives by cutting social spending. He also consistently opposed environmental protections, believing that it would undermine his attempt to bring new oil jobs to the state. This reflects the deep conservative belief that a freer market—one in which oil companies can act without government restriction—will lead to more jobs and economic growth.
But Hochschild shows that this belief is not based in fact: governments that regulate industry and invest in the public sphere actually tend to create more economic growth than governments like Louisiana’s. In Appendix C, Hochschild gives statistical evidence that environmental regulations are tied to increased job growth. She sees two causes behind this effect: first, the government has to hire workers to enforce environmental protections, which increases the number of jobs in the public sector. Secondly, regulating the oil industry would help reduce pollution, which would save the fishing jobs that are lost when commercial species are poisoned. While many red states try to redirect corporate investment from other states by giving businesses huge tax incentives, Hochschild shows that blue states—which try to spur new investment through investment in public infrastructure—are often more successful at creating jobs. In the past, Huey Long did this successfully in Louisiana by using oil revenues to build roads and fund antipoverty programs, and Hochschild cites Norway as a contemporary example of an oil-rich society that has thrived through public investment. Ultimately, even oil companies themselves prefer to move to places where the government invests in public services: for instance, Sasol complains that the Louisiana town where they plan to build a large petrochemical plant lacks the public infrastructure necessary to convince scientists and engineers to move there—ultimately, they end up cancelling most of the planned construction.
Despite the evidence Hochschild lays out, Louisianans continue to believe that oil and deregulation are the keys to saving their state’s economy, and she suggests that the oil industry and state government have worked together to foster this misconception. Although the Louisiana state government is supposed to act as a check on industry, in reality, the government and industry are allies. Many members of the state government are former oil executives, and many Louisiana environmental regulators have ties to the oil industry. As a result, the government sees itself as a helping hand to the oil industry, which explains its consistent failure to help the victims of oil-related environmental disasters, as well as the way it funnels public resources like river water to oil companies.
Furthermore, when people affected by environmental disasters (like Mike Schaff and Harold Areno) feel nostalgic for a time when their land was unpolluted, oil companies frame this nostalgia as an obstacle to economic progress. This allows industry to override citizens’ concerns by encouraging them to forget oil-related hardships, a process Hochschild calls structural amnesia. This works in part because Louisianans feel a loyalty to the oil industry that Hochschild claims is disproportionate to oil’s actual benefits. Louisianans overestimate how many of the state’s residents work in the oil industry (the real figure is somewhere under 15 percent), and they look the other way when they hear about environmental disasters because they “can’t afford to worry about” them. Gubernatorial candidate and environmental activist General Russel Honoré concludes that this alliance between oil and industry imposes a “psychological program” on unsuspecting Louisianans, causing them to worry about “jobs, jobs, jobs” but forget that oil has harmful environmental effects and that there are other industries besides oil in which they can invest. The oil industry’s psychological and political power, more than its economic promise, lead people to defend and deregulate it—the stories Louisianans believe about the economy, it seems, are actually just the stories the oil industry wants them to believe.
The Environment and the Economy ThemeTracker
The Environment and the Economy Quotes in Strangers in Their Own Land
How can a system both create pain and deflect blame for that pain?
The Arenos didn't simply remember the good old days of a clean Bayou d'Inde. They remembered against the great forgetting of industry and state government. This institutional forgetting altered the private act of mourning. And not just that. It altered the Arenos’ very identity. They had not left Bayou d'Inde. They were stayers. They didn't want to leave, and even if they had wanted to, they couldn't afford to. The polluting companies had given them no money to enable them to move. And the value of their house had now fallen, for who would want to live on Bayou d'Inde Pass Road, even in a home as beautifully kept up as theirs? The Arenos had become stay-at-home migrants. They had stayed. The environment had left.
Jackie's lesson ran counter to the deep story; one shouldn't wish too much for what seems like the next step toward the American Dream. That was grabbing. On the other hand, she had struggled hard emotionally not to grab for it.
“We need Mikes.” Don't be a Cowboy in enduring pollution, he seemed to say. Be a Cowboy fighting it.
Without a national vision based on the common good, none of us could leave a natural heritage to our children, or, as the General said, be “free.” A free market didn't make us a free people, I thought. But I had slipped way over to my side of the empathy wall again.
The “federal government” filled a mental space in Mike's mind—and the minds of all those on the right I came to know—associated with a financial sinkhole.
Louisianans are sacrificial lambs to the entire American industrial system. Left or right, we all happily use plastic combs, toothbrushes, cell phones, and cars, but we don't all pay for it with high pollution. As research for this book shows, red states pay for it more—partly through their own votes for easier regulation and partly through their exposure to a social terrain of politics, industry, television channels, and a pulpit that invites them to do so. In one way, people in blue states have their cake and cat it too, while many in red states have neither. Paradoxically, politicians on the right appeal to this sense of victimhood, even when policies such as those of former governor Jindal exacerbate the problem.