How Green Was My Lawn

Article Taken from the New York Times. Read Original http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/21/opinion/how-green-was-my-lawn.html

 

How Green Was My Lawn

By CHRISTOPHER C. SELLERS

Stony Brook, N.Y.

FIFTY years ago this month Rachel Carson, already a best-selling writer, published “Silent Spring,” the book many credit with inspiring the modern environmental movement. Nowadays, when environmental causes are often under political siege, it bears remembering that they were once extraordinarily popular, especially where both the book and the movement were born: in the suburbs.

As modern environmentalists like to remind us, the issue is a global one: climate change, pollution and nuclear radiation know no boundaries, and Public Enemy No. 1 is often the car-centric suburban lifestyle. But anyone trying to bring new energy to the movement could learn a lesson from how activists of the 1950s and ’60s picked up on, and played off of, concerns about pollution and preservation that pervaded suburban lives and neighborhoods.

Carson’s book had deep roots in the angst and activism that stirred in the postwar Northeast suburbs, in particular a 1957 lawsuit by 13 Long Island residents over DDT spraying. In 1966, academics and a lawyer sat down in a Long Island living room with a high school teacher, students and housewives to plan the trial that would give birth to the Environmental Defense Fund.

In 1970, only eight years after “Silent Spring” appeared, Americans ranked pollution as the country’s No. 1 problem, outpolling worries about Vietnam and civil rights. And worsening pollution registered most strongly neither in rural areas nor even in cities, but in suburbs.

What drove the movement’s early suburban success? It started with activists picking up on local issues like drinking-water safety and smog, concerns that directly affected suburban dwellers but had been largely overlooked by civic leaders, from health and planning experts to homeowner associations to conservation groups.

At the same time, the movement’s early leaders didn’t see themselves as working outside the suburbs; in fact, they saw themselves as coming from traditional professional realms like medicine and science, as well as the home, into neighborly civic engagement.

They then honed a nature advocacy that was pitched not just to suburban elites, but to those in mass suburbs like Levittown, and even to those in blighted downtowns. Because they could understand the environment as an intimate part of their own lives, these suburban activists could recognize nature in places where it seemingly wasn’t — the air in slums, the soil in decrepit industrial zones — and work to protect it.

By the first Earth Day, in 1970, activists in places like Long Island and suburban Los Angeles were consolidating a popular new movement with its own distinctive agenda and name.

Today, however, climate change, perhaps the most important environmental issue of our time, rarely polls among voters’ top five concerns. One reason may be that its patently global character has enervated support at environmentalism’s suburban grass roots. But it doesn’t help that blanket condemnation of suburbs as hopelessly dependent on fossil fuels comes all too easily.

Many of today’s environmental leaders have thus steered their imaginations and energies away not just from where their own movement was born, but from where a still-growing majority of Americans actually live.

Today’s movement, then, should reframe climate change as a local issue, one in which even suburban homeowners have a vital and actionable stake.

It’s not as far-fetched as it might sound. Already, one can find suburban households, churches and homeowner associations interested in how to do things “greener,” whether it’s recycling or landscaping. The trick will be finding concerns that spark imaginations and mobilize group energies at this local level, and working from there.

True, one barrier to recapturing such civic energies and innovations is the growing fragmentation of our suburbs by class and race, which has produced a yawning “nature” gap. It’s easier for wealthier neighborhoods, interwoven with green open space, to equate nature advocacy with neighborhood defense, while more easily affording the extra costs of green buildings and organic food, than it is for poor neighborhoods, whether in the city or the suburbs.

And yet this disparity offers an avenue for a revivified, close-to-home environmental altruism. Slums and industrial zones, so often the exclusive focus of environmental justice advocates, could also attract attention from newly energized activists in the suburbs, where these types of sites are increasingly found.

Wherever today’s activists choose to take the environmental movement, if the causes it espouses are to achieve the popularity they once enjoyed, then a return to its suburban foundations is absolutely vital. Taking a page from the origins of “Silent Spring” would be a good start.

Christopher C. Sellers is an associate professor of history at Stony Brook University and the author of “Crabgrass Crucible: Suburban Nature and the Rise of Environmentalism in Twentieth-Century America.”

 

 

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