Rural Women Are Leading the Conversation on Climate Justice

An interview with Mallory McDuff, author of Love Your Mother: 50 States, 50 Stories, and 50 Women United for Climate Justice

Daniel Walton May 3, 2023

In Love Your Mother: 50 States, 50 Stories and 50 Women United for Climate Justice, writer and professor Mallory McDuff does tell stories set in traditional U.S. power centers like New York City and Washington, D.C. But the bulk of the book features changemakers from lesser-known locales, places like Fort Yukon, Alaska (population 430), or Waco, Ky. (population around 2,500).

McDuff grew up in the small town of Fairhope, Ala., in a family committed to environmental stewardship; they would give up trash and driving for Lent. Now a professor of environmental education at Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, N.C., outside of Asheville, McDuff wrote her new book as a way to showcase the breadth of the country’s climate justice movement. It was also a celebration of collaborative female leadership on an issue that demands wide social mobilization, from big cities to tiny towns.

Barn Raiser spoke with McDuff about how the women she features have succeeded in rural areas, as well as how those who care about climate can engage in meaningful conversation.

Daniel Walton: So much of Love Your Mother is about the importance of building relationships. What did you learn about how rural activists in particular are creating community?

Mallory McDuff: I think a lot of the women in this book wouldn’t call themselves activists. There’s this conception of an activist as somebody who’s got a sign and is protesting something. That’s one lens. 

But I think for us to engage rural communities—and urban and suburban communities—we’re going to have to identify the values that are held close to our hearts. If we can think about this as, “How is climate change impacting what I care about?” that’s one step. 

To address your question from a different angle: Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, who is a Black marine biologist and writer, is coming out with a book next year, called What If We Get It Right?, about climate solutions. I think we often think about the apocalyptic realities of what happens if we don’t shift to renewable energy, and all those things are real. But this is also a chance for us to envision a healthier life and healthy communities, particularly in rural settings.

Walton: One of the women you feature, Idaho’s Jennifer Ladino, notes that the very words “climate change” can themselves be a “trigger phrase” among some people in conservative, rural areas. How can effective action arise in communities that aren’t willing to acknowledge the underlying cause of crises like extreme weather?

McDuff: There are communities where you can’t name the problem. But economically, perpetuating a fossil fuel-dependent economy is not viable for rural communities. It’s just not, and it’s also not healthy. Whether we say the phrase “climate change” or not, the reality is that renewables are going to overtake fossil fuels.

And farmers aren’t standing around. They want to be able to grow crops in increasingly unstable weather patterns. So whether we’re saying the phrase “climate change” or not, communities are going to have to respond.

In my own family, two summers ago, one brother was in a hurricane in Alabama, and a sister out West was locked in her house with three kids because of wildfires. Whether they say “climate change” or not, they’re living it, and those are both in rural contexts.

Walton: As the title says, the book covers all 50 states. Some we obviously think of as rural, like Kansas or Idaho. But there are rural areas all over the country, even in regions we might think of as urban, such as New England.

McDuff: One woman who comes to mind is Elizabeth Burakowski, a climate scientist working at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. She has studied the impacts of climate change on the economies of the ski industry, but more specifically the small-town ski resorts operating in more rural parts of the state. When most people think about skiing, they imagine Breckinridge or Vail, Colo. But much of her research centers on the impact of warming temperatures on winter tourism, a $12.2 billion industry in the United States that especially affects job loss in the northeastern states.

Walton: You note that national or even global change leaders often emerge from local activism. What’s a good example of a woman who made that transition?

McDuff: One of the stories that stands out to me is Anna Jane Joyner. She lives in Perdido Beach, Ala.. Her father is a very prominent evangelical pastor with followers in the millions, and her roots are in the rural South. Her work now has grown from the Southern focus and more rural focus to an organization she founded called Good Energy.

That organization is working with Hollywood filmmakers and screenwriters to help them integrate realistic, accessible and accurate storylines around climate into their films and TV shows. Films that don’t have some element of climate aren’t timely and relevant to the reality of life as we’re seeing it.

Joyner’s reality is in small-town Alabama, and she is living on the front lines of really severe hurricanes in the Gulf Coast. She’s had to evacuate at the last minute when a hurricane pummeled the area. That reality has transformed her work.

Walton: Joyner grew up in a very faith-based household, and you’ve talked about how your own climate activism is informed by your Episcopal faith. How might engaging with faith help grow the climate movement in rural areas?

McDuff: Emily Diamond, who is featured for Rhode Island, has done research showing that people’s identities other than their political party are more salient to them. My identities as a mother, as a person of faith, as an outdoors person: Research shows that those identities are actually more powerful than the fact that I’m a Democrat or that Republicans are Republicans.

In this country, climate has become so politicized that most people think about it only in terms of political identities. Those are very strong, and they do drive people’s perceptions. But Emily’s research shows that we can galvanize what people care about around other identities.

For example, many of the women in the book are parents, and many of them are driven by the desire to see a healthy life for their children. Another person that has done a lot of work in rural areas nationally, featured in the book for North Carolina, is Dayna Reggero. She’s a filmmaker, and she has gone all over the country interviewing women, in rural areas in particular, who are engaged in the climate movement. And often it’s from the place of valuing the health of their families.

Walton: Another theme from the book is the media’s tendency to elevate singular figures as emblems of the climate struggle—people like Greta Thunberg or Bill McKibben—even though change more often comes about through broad collaboration. But there’s a very human instinct to embrace heroic archetypes as a way to create interest in a story. How can climate storytellers best navigate that tension?

McDuff: To me, the way to counter that is to tell our own stories. Tell the stories of the people that we know and connect those people to movements that are happening in our region and even nationally. On a personal level, with my students, I’m constantly calling them into relationship with other students who have come before them, who are in the field now.

Students joke that they will become a story that I tell in class; I’m name-dropping all the time. And the name-dropping I’m doing is of students who are doing the work. I’ve had former students who then become internship supervisors for my students or connect them with somebody else.

I tell students, “Engage with others,” rather than think, “It’s me by myself sitting in my dorm room, what the hell am I going to do in this apocalyptic scenario?” That’s my one little thing.

Walton: The end of the book features “50 Ways to Love Your Mother,” a collection of strategies to pursue climate justice. Are there some that stand out as especially applicable for readers who are living in rural or small-town contexts?

McDuff: I think the most important action step we can start to do is to talk about it. Talk about climate and talk about what’s happening.

People at the grocery store where I shop, along with everybody else that goes to my kids’ school, we’re talking about changing weather patterns at the checkout line. And this is something that five years ago was maybe forced, if you had to talk about climate.

Talk about how things are different now. These conversations are a way to start.

A bearded man in a hat holds potted plants
Daniel Walton

Daniel Walton is a North Carolina-based journalist covering stories about the environment, sustainability and local politics. He is a contributing editor for Asheville's Mountain Xpress, and his work has also appeared in Civil Eats, Carolina Public Press, and the Asheville Citizen-Times.

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