All Environmental Politics is Local: What Today’s Climate Activists Can Learn From Yesterday’s Antipollution Movement

Post by Christopher Sellers

As we approach the forty-third Earth Day, American climate activism has finally gotten feisty. Hopes have arisen that its sway can approach that of the antipollution movement of the 1960s, out of which the first Earth Day sprang.

A recent “Forward Climate” protest on February 17 drew an estimated 35–40,000 people to the mall in Washington, D.C. – the largest non-Earth Day environmental protest to happen there since the 1979 antinuclear rally after Three Mile Island. While this activism may not stop the Keystone pipeline, the Bill McKibben-led but otherwise youthful team has much more in store for the summer, from an “Earth Night” to a campaign for divestiture from top fossil fuel companies that is gathering momentum. On this new climate movement’s dilemmas and prospects, that earlier movement against pollution that was so profusely successful sheds an instructive light.

Around 1962, when Rachel Carson first published her Silent Spring, popular anti-pollution politics had no national advocacy group. The big conservation groups had shown little interest, and “environmentalism” as we know it remained only an unspoken gleam in the eyes of worried citizens. Locally, though, the worry was there, a collective angst that had percolated for a decade and more, especially around the edges of the nation’s largest cities. Already, those troubled by contaminants had begun gathering together: the thirteen plaintiffs who had launched a lawsuit against DDT on Long Island, the tens of thousands who belonged to an antismog group in Los Angeles, the hundreds of thousands who subscribed to a magazine for organic gardening.

Just over ten years later, what this antipollution movement had achieved was truly extraordinary. By 1970, even before the first Earth Day, pollution had rocketed upward in national polls, to register as America’s number one problem. Earth Day itself turned into the most populous protest event ever in American history, drawing some twenty million into the nation’s streets and parks, as well as campus meeting halls. And the political responses proved quick and far-reaching: creation of the EPA and OSHA as well as a raft of new environmental laws to quell the contamination of America’s air, land, and water.

Why was this earlier movement so successful? Top-level politicians had a hand, sure enough, but when has a senator or a president ever acted without incessant and considerable pressure from the bottom up?  Even then, most straying toxins could only be detected by scientists; and those seeking to incite this demand knew about pollution’s global extent: the DDT that showed up in Antarctic penguins, the lead found in the Greenland ice cap. But the in-your-face character of that era’s pollutants got more remarks, and was better remembered. Smog thickened the air and stung the eyeballs, just as in today’s Beijing. DDT left belly-up fish in rivers and robin carcasses on lawns. With all these harms become so obvious, it was hard not to imagine that people’s very lives were at stake – despite the long-standing reassurances of so many experts. These visceral fears lent greater portent to how much further and wider the newer threats could be conveyed. Ozone blanketed entire metropolitan regions; synthetized chemicals retained their powers to kill or harm after drifting far downstream.

Today’s climate activists have had a hard time rousing any comparable worries, in part because of the very successes of this earlier agitation. Hounded by environmentalists, a generation of regulators has ensured that smoke or fumes have become rarities in our daily lives. We neither see, smell, nor feel any of the vast amounts of carbon we emit. And its most consequent accumulations come far beyond those places where we dwell, in the upper reaches of the atmosphere.

As is often noted, climate instability has demanded very different sciences and policies than those on which this earlier movement relied. That the impacts are more vast, truly global, that so many of the policy solutions seem the job of national or international governance, does not mean that the problems of building a popular political movement are so different, however. Why we are beginning to see more actual mobilizing around the climate issue than before is that activists have begun relearning that fundamental insight of Tip O’Neill some decades back. All politics is local – even environmental politics.

For several decades now, those who would rouse public attention to the dangers of climate change have tried to impress us with just how global these dangers are. We kept learning more about its dramatic impacts at the furthest ends of the earth: scientists wrote of what they’ve witnessed at glaciers or in the oceans of Antarctica; reporters sought out polar bears, soon-to-be-submerged islands, and threatened livelihoods in ever more corners of globe. Too readily, activists have sought influence only at the higher levers of power: in international climate conferences, in Washington and state capitals, and in the courts. What local actions they imagined were not political at all but the private choice of consumers: buying a hybrid car, changing your light-bulbs.  No wonder climate change has never polled above fifth in rankings of America’s problems – and usually slides much lower.

Still scant in this literature, compared to its 1960s counterparts, are those portraits about how climate instability may – and actually has – hit home, in the very places where most Americans live. Back then, as smog and groundwater contamination turned up in many more places outside New York and Los Angeles, a slew of popular works emphasized how pollution was “everywhere.” For climate change, the conventional wisdom has long been that you can’t really show local or regional impacts; they remain too tenuous for anyone to pinpoint them with any certainty, much less to organize around them. But a glance at this earlier antipollution movement suggests how uncertainty, especially if on the wane, can actually engender activism, rather than stifling it. Leading scientists by the late fifties dismissed long-term harm from DDT or lead as highly uncertain. But over just a few years, as public pressures as well as more science buttressed suspicions about these toxins’ effects, uncertainty itself morphed into an imperative for political change.

In the US, we may be reaching a similar tipping point with those more local manifestations of humanity’s carbon-spewing binge. Already, politicians from mayors and governors to our president have acknowledged our tampering with the global climate to be at fault in many damaging turns of local weather, from recurrent droughts to “super-storms” like Sandy. We are learning about the rising vulnerabilities of our shorelines and trees, the lessening viability of established crops, and the retreat or vanishing of familiar plants and birds. As these repercussions multiply and intensify, today’s climate activists face the challenge of how to make these local casualties more visible and compelling to people they would inspire to action. Already in the Long Island where I live, there has been much talk about promoting “resiliency” in the face of climate change. Can a more offense-minded local politics of climate also be forged, one that would also have us tackle our own contributions to the problem?

The recent success of and other climate-related mobilizing in the US has itself drawn on local, community-based energies roused by the intrusions of “fracking” as well as Keystone XL, 2,000 miles of tar-toting metal tubing. This earlier movement also had its own more local roots: an anti-pollution agenda and politics that had been building over many years, especially in suburbs. That might seem paradoxical today; aren’t the American suburbs, with their deep dependence on fossil fuels, the very places environmentalists most love to hate? But if climate activists wish to extend their mobilizing beyond campuses and cities, if they truly want wider political traction, then they should seek roots for their own movement in such places, living quarters for over half of their fellow American citizens. They might begin with a point such as this: from downed trees to power outages to actual deaths, Superstorm Sandy wrought considerably more severe and lasting devastation in New York’s suburbs than in its downtown…

For a long time now, America’s climate activists, like other environmentalists, have wagered that they could escape Tip O’Neill’s injunction by forging a politics that was anything but local. If the current stir of climate agitation is to accomplish more, it needs to keep rediscovering how, even with environmental politics, ol’ Tip knew what he was talking about.

Christopher Sellers is Professor of History at Stony Brook University in New York and the author, most recently, of Crabgrass Crucible: Suburban Nature and the Rise of Environmentalism in 20th Century America.

2 Comments on “All Environmental Politics is Local: What Today’s Climate Activists Can Learn From Yesterday’s Antipollution Movement

  1. Pingback: Department of History » Blog Archive » All Environmental Politics Is Local–Today’s Climate Activism in the Light of the Earlier Antipollution Movement

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