Grassroots Activism in the ‘Burbs

sellers_crabgrass-197x300Suburbia is the Rodney Dangerfield of environmental history. It gets no respect.  Cities are fascinating metropoles where cultures blend and clash, creating stories of great historical significance, while rural areas have the great appeal of being natural spaces of pastoral or wild beauty, raising perennial questions about land use and conservation.  But suburbs? Blech.

Christophers Sellers wants to change how you think about suburbs. His 2012 New York Times op-ed “How Green Was My Lawn” attempted to reorient our attention toward what he sees as the suburban foundations of environmental activism. I asked him if he’d be willing to subject his book, Crabgrass Crucible, to some scrutiny in an H-Environment roundtable, and to respond to the comments. He graciously agreed.

Below is my introduction to the roundtable, with links:

Is it possible to be inspired by the suburbs? When teaching environmental history, suburbia is often relegated to discussions of sprawl, the ubiquity of cars, and the relentless expansion of human communities outside major cities. Scholarship connecting the rise of environmental activism to suburbanization has emphasized how one was a reaction to the other.[1] The suburbs are treated as a part of the problem, with activists trying to mitigate the excesses of construction, rising populations, and the proliferation of lawns.

Christopher C. Sellers believes such narratives blind us to the ways that suburbanites of the 1950s and 1960s acted as grassroots activists in a nascent environmental movement. In his view, scholars and practitioners in a range of environmental fields are more likely to be embarrassed by the suburbs than inspired by them. And yet postwar suburbanites were the ones who turned to new ecological ways of thinking as they found their homes, communities, and bodies under threat.

In Crabgrass Crucible, Sellers makes a case for finding the roots of environmentalism in suburban nature. To him, such roots are often camouflaged by high-profile personalities and events, such as the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. They are also hidden by our common narratives of suburbanization as city-building and nature-erasing. In Sellers’s view, suburban sprawl should be perceived as part of a quest for nature, not an erasure of it. Notably on the fringes of New York and Los Angeles, one can find a suburban quest linked to civic engagement on a range of issues, including building codes and zoning, municipal services, water and air pollution, and proximity to airports and factories. With Sellers, we have a book that connects places such as Levittown, New York, and Lakewood, California to notions of grassroots activism and environmental consciousness. Not only does Sellers seek to illuminate this as an origins story, he also wants to remind readers that we should pay close attention to the nature where most people live.

I asked Andrew G. Kirk, a Professor of History at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, to comment on Crabgrass Crucible. Kirk has written extensively about the environmental movement of the postwar era, and like Sellers, he finds environment-mindedness in unexpected places. In his book Counterculture Green, for example, he uses the publication of the Whole Earth Catalog, with its blend of gadgetry, survival gear, and dreams of space colonies, to reflect on a kind of pragmatic environmentalism that celebrated human ingenuity.[2]

Our second commentator is Kara Schlichting, who earned her Ph.D. from Rutgers University in 2014 and currently teaches at Towson University. Schlichting’s research focuses on metropolitan growth in the New York City area, and she uses reclamation and waste disposal issues as a way to highlight the role of city planners in imagining urban edges. Like Sellers, she explores the relationship between grassroots activists and civic planning.

Our final commentator is Michael Rawson, Associate Professor of History at Brooklyn College and faculty member at CUNY Graduate Center. Rawson’s book, Eden on the Charles, provides an environmental perspective on the creation of Boston. He investigates the competing visions of suburban development in the nineteenth century, as residents struggled to ensure access to clean water and green spaces amidst industrial factories, growing populations, and landscape transformations.[3]

Before turning to the first set of comments, I would like to pause here and thank all the roundtable participants for taking part. In addition, I would like to remind readers that as an open-access forum, H-Environment Roundtable Reviews is available to scholars and non-scholars alike, around the world, free of charge. Please circulate.

[1] A leading example is Adam Rome, The Bulldozer in the Countryside: Suburban Sprawl and the Rise of American Environmentalism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

[2] Andrew G. Kirk, Counterculture Green: The Whole Earth Catalog and American Environmentalism (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2007).

[3] Michael J. Rawson, Eden on the Charles: The Making of Boston (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010).

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