I bet most Americans have no idea this natural disaster has been happening. When trouble comes to rural people—whether they’re in Kentucky, California, Montana, or Michigan—the media mostly shrug. The public as a whole is no better, as people seem to have little sympathy for these rural areas. I’ve been asked “Why do people live there, anyway?” These sentiments aren’t directed only at Appalachia. In 2017 President Donald Trump told unemployed people in rural New York that their best solution would be to move to a city. He gave them his condescending blessing, saying, “I’m going to explain: You can leave.”
But people in rural areas value their communities just as much as anyone else. Even after my parents lost nearly everything, they stayed to raise their family in Lily. My parents, and many other people where I am from, say they need night skies undimmed by city lights. They cannot breathe properly in places that lack hills and pastures. Their native topography is in their blood and bones.
Residents of rural areas aren’t the only ones who appreciate the environment, of course, but an out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality can take hold when people lose their connection to nature. If coal mining isn’t devouring the mountain in front of your house, then it’s easy to leave all the lights on. If your home isn’t being carried away by floodwaters, it’s hard to feel the consequences of climate change. Folks in rural places aren’t immune to this disconnect. They say they care about the land, yet they often elect politicians who value profit over the environment. Rural voters’ support of Trump is widespread, even though he has been designated by several environmental groups as the “worst president in history.”
This story of our lost connection to nature and the way it affects rural people is not a new one. From the moment Europeans arrived in America, they tried to tame the natural world. Once deposits of natural resources were discovered, perpetuating the idea of wild places and the people who lived there as “other” behooved big industry. Media only exacerbated the portrayal of rural people as stupid, lazy, filthy, and worthless. Throwaway people living in a throwaway place. Americans claim to love the natural world, but we often negate the people who live closest to it. Insulting phrases like the middle of nowhere and flyover country are common parlance in everyday conversations and newscasts.
Read: The education deserts of rural America
Besides being irritating, the stereotype of rural people as inferior and separate has also allowed Americans to take the effects of climate change in this area less seriously, to let the devastation slip by unnoticed. By turning a blind eye to rural people, we are turning a blind eye to climate change.
A study released in late 2018 by the American Meteorological Society showed that record wet and dry spells are occurring around the world, and that the events are connected to climate change. The study predicted that the extreme weather would only increase in the future, which means that flooding like the kind that recently hit Appalachia will continue.