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Making "Environmentalism" Relevant for Everyone

This Thursday marks the fortieth anniversary of the first Earth Day, the largest demonstration in U.S. history.  Millions of Americans took part on and around April 22, 1970, with events at nearly every college in the nation, in 10,000 secondary and elementary schools, not to mention community centers, parks, and places of worship.  The public outpouring catalyzed Congressional support for a raft of epochal environmental legislation.  Perhaps even more important, Earth Day participants—who were more often than not supporters of diverse causes—discovered a kinship with one another, and together began identifying themselves for the first time as “environmentalists.”

But as the modern environmental movement took shape in Earth Day’s wake, a crucial question remained unanswered.  What, precisely, constituted the environment?  Earth Day’s founder, Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, lobbied for an expansive definition of the word.  “Environment is all of America and its problems,” he explained to his audience in Denver on the first Earth Day.  “It is rats in the ghetto.  It is a hungry child in a land of affluence.  It is housing not worthy of the name; neighborhoods not fit to inhabit.”  His nascent environmentalism was largely indistinguishable from his Great Society liberalism.  Accordingly, he lobbied for the creation of thousands of federally funded conservation jobs, as well as for the reallocation of resources from waging war in Southeast Asia to cleaning up domestic pollution.  “The objective,” he concluded, “is an environment of decency, quality, and mutual respect for all other human beings and all other living creatures.”

This broad view of what environmentalism would be, one that bound it tightly to social justice initiatives, appeared elsewhere on the first Earth Day.  “Our biggest fight,” declared Mary Lou Oates of the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), “is to make middle class people see it’s not just a fight for clean air, but a fight for everyone in this country to live in a personal environment in which he can live like a human being.”  Oates had made national headlines by defecting from the McCarthy’s presidential campaign, displeased with her candidate’s uninspired approach to the problems facing the urban poor.  For her, environmental dangers such as lead paint and pollution-induced asthma ranked among the most serious of these problems, compelling her to accept the position of NWRO’s coordinator for environmental action.

Oates’s sentiment was shared by community organizer Freddie Mae Brown, whose St. Louis Metropolitan Black Survival Committee participated in the first Earth Day.  With the assistance of several local organizations and black sororities from Southern Illinois University, they wrote and performed environmental skits at the local high school and the YMCA.  One of their characters, a professor able to convince his students to help him with a popular epidemiology survey of African-American neighborhoods near industry and highways, voiced Brown’s goal:  “We would first like to inform the black community about some of the environmental insults that are unique to the black area and of some of the forces that created and maintained the conditions.  Secondly, we would like to tell the white community our definitions of environmental pollution and how ours might differ from theirs in hopes that we might create a common definition.”

Unfortunately, no such common definition would emerge in the 1970s—the “environmental decade.”  The broad environmental vision of Brown, Oates, and Nelson belong to the long prehistory of the environmental justice movement.  That this separate and often oppositional movement emerged in the 1980s testifies to the narrow definition of environment articulated by the “Big Ten” national environmental organizations, such as the Sierra Club and the Environmental Defense Fund.  Mainstream environmentalism, by and large, attended to wildlife and wild lands while overlooking the ecological threats facing people of color and the poor.

This privileged definition of environment also prevailed at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), one of the most celebrated products of the legislative climate created by Earth Day.  Historian Michelle Murphy, in her Sick Building Syndrome and the Problem of Uncertainty (Duke, 2006), details EPA scientists in the 1980s lauding “the desegregation of science by asserting that the race, sex, class, or religion of a scientist was irrelevant to the scientific method.”  At the same time, the institution ignored the grievances of environmental justice activists, denied the occupational health claims of its own employees, and flagrantly discriminated against its non-white employees.

But anniversaries should be as much about looking forward as looking back.  Thanks in large part to the intrepid work of the environmental justice movement, a broader definition of environment has returned to mainstream political discourse in the U.S.  This is nowhere as apparent as in the person of Lisa P. Jackson.  Raised in New Orleans to a mother who would lose her house in the post-Katrina flood, Jackson became, in 2006, the first African-American woman to take the helm of a state environmental agency.  Three years later, President Obama appointed her head of the EPA.  In a speech to the National Urban League last December, she contended that her inauguration, coupled with Obama’s, “has begun the process of changing the face of environmentalism in our country.”

This past January, Jackson lamented that “for too long, environmentalism has been seen as limited…an enclave for the privileged,” reflecting that “the quote-unquote ‘environment’ brings to mind sweeping vistas and wide-open landscapes.”  Echoing Nelson, Oates, and Brown, she observed, “What doesn’t usually come to mind is an apartment building….  Or, for that matter, an inner-city kid who has trouble breathing on hot days.  Or an urban business owner whose employees are getting sick.  But we know that environmental issues are as much a part of their lives as they are for anyone.”  She proceeded to name as one of her seven top priorities for the EPA the task of “expanding the conversation on environmentalism and working for environmental justice.”  In so doing, Jackson has resumed work begun, but left unfinished, forty years ago.

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