Thursday, January 14, 2021

The origins of American environmentalism

The upcoming issue of Environment and History has an interesting, extended review by Thomas Le Roux (translated from the original French review in Le mouvement social) of Chad Montrie's The Myth of Silent Spring: Rethinking the Origins of American Environmentalism (U Cal Press, 2018). According to the review, the book does not try to downplay the importance of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, but rather to point out the rich history of environmentalism (and environmental regulation) long predating Carson's work, with sources in labor, public health, social justice, and other movements. An excerpt:

In the second half of the nineteenth century... local municipalities were pressed to provide public health services or access to drinking water. The fight against pollution was one of the main issues of the urbanising nineteenth century, and this is the subject of the second chapter, which exposes different types of action to protect urban environments between 1870 and 1945. In particular, women, industrial workers and racial minorities began to claim environmental justice. As unions organised, and within the context of a wider social movement during this period, the working and lower classes managed to have their voices heard in order to improve their living conditions in an insalubrious urban environment. Often pressured by radicals, socialists and reformers, a number of communities took action to address local injustices. For example, between 1897 and 1904, under the directives of the radical Mayor Jones, Toledo, Ohio inaugurated a municipal service for garbage collection, as did Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which was led by a socialist-leaning mayor after 1898. It is particularly interesting that environmental activists also found themselves fighting for better industrial hygiene to protect the health of factory workers. It is in this milieu that the socialist John R. Commons, who established several health and safety measures in Milwaukee, participated in creating the American Association for Labor Legislation. His work, alongside that of Professor Alice Hamilton, resulted in a more protective regime for industrial hygiene in Chicago and in the whole of the State of Illinois. In this urbanising world, the desire for nature was not only a privilege of the upper classes, but the contemporary push for segregation was such that numerous conflicts emerged regarding the use of forests, beaches or the rural surroundings of cities for a day’s relaxation. In the middle of natural spaces, unions and local communities created educational camps that focused on learning about natural environments for urbanites otherwise confined to their city districts or to their factories. These different actions diffused a renewed sentiment of the need for nature which was well-rooted prior to the second World War, and Montrie highlights that this need was reinforced with the federal program for conservation during the New Deal.

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