Class, Identity and Place in the Tensions between Environmental Conservation and Resource Extraction: The Politics of Copper Mining Development in Minnesota

Thursday, 19 July 2018: 13:00
Oral Presentation
Erik KOJOLA, Department of Sociology, University of Minnesota, USA
New sites and forms of resource extraction projects and infrastructure such as mountain-top removal mining and oil pipelines have sparked conflicts between, and within, the labor and environmental movements in the U.S., and created fissures in alliances around climate change and green jobs. Through a case study of controversial proposed copper mining projects in Minnesota using interviews and ethnography, I explore how and why conflicts emerge between workers and environmentalists, particularly over resource extraction and environmental conservation. I draw on theories from cultural sociology and political ecology to explore the place-based identities and class differences in how people relate to nature and perceive risks and benefits of development in order to advance scholarship on labor-environment relations by addressing understudied cultural, ideological, and discursive dynamics. I find that material interests alone do not account for union, worker, and local resident support for mining that is motivated by place-based identities, nostalgia, and feelings of resentment. While support for mining is not simply the product of corporate public relations and manipulation, industry and politicians use dominant cultural narratives to mobilize support and frame environmentalists as elite outsiders and companies as part of the community. On the other hand, environmentalists contest development that they see as a threat to pristine and sacred wilderness – emotionally and culturally important places of recreation. Conflicts over mining have broader political ramifications as the issue contributes to growing support for right-wing populism – indicative of shifts in the U.S. Bridging these divides will in part require that environmentalists recognize the emotional, cultural, and social connections of workers and communities to histories of mining that shape people’s collective identities.