Friday, March 2, 2018

Grassroots environmentalism

October's Environmental History carried a review by Robert Gioielli of Cody Ferguson's This Is Our Land: Grassroots Environmentalism in the Late Twentieth Century (Rutgers UP, 2015). Gioielli writes that the book's case studies of local environmental movements
show the importance of the flowering of grassroots activism after the “regulatory reform revolution” of the 1970s when American citizens had access to new avenues of environmental protest via federal legislation. Far away from the large centralized environmental groups in Washington, D.C., to these activists, environmental issues were as much about the future of local communities, good governance, and justice as they were about the health of ecological systems. Ferguson also contends that these stories show how “environmental and democratic reforms were intertwined in the late twentieth century” (p. 6).
The book begins with the Northern Plains Resource Council, a group of Montana residents formed in the 1970s to prevent coal strip mining that eventually expanded to deal with other local issues. Ferguson was formerly a professional lobbyist for the council, and clearly his work with the group was in many ways the genesis for this project. Many of its founders and most dedicated members were farmers and ranchers, deeply conservative both politically and culturally, not “wild eyed and fuzzy headed” environmentalists (p. 68). Their activism was sparked by the federal North Central Power Study that called for the massive development of Northern Plains energy resources that would have had a devastating impact on their farms, local air and water quality, and local culture.
Ferguson has an abiding respect for the members of the council, and he tells their story with verve and plenty of historical context. The narrative is based on sound primary and secondary research but also a significant number of oral history interviews. These strengths continue into the other case studies. The next two chapters examine Tucson’s Southwest Environmental Service that primarily fought against air pollution caused by Arizona’s copper smelter industry. The final part of the book looks at Save Our Cumberland Mountains (SOCM), an eastern Tennessee organization that began by fighting for strip mining regulations but expanded to work on a number of regional environmental issues. These case studies are the strength of the book, with Ferguson exploring the political and social forces behind the various environmental problems. Although sometimes the narrative gets bogged down in blow-by-blow discussions of legislative and regulatory fights, in general it is exceptionally well written and fast paced.

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