Excerpt: Crabgrass Crucible, by Christopher C. Sellers

Crabgrass Crucible: Suburban Nature and the Rise of Environmentalism in Twentieth-Century America, by Christopher C. SellersAlthough suburb-building created major environmental problems, Christopher Sellers demonstrates that the environmental movement originated within suburbs—not just in response to unchecked urban sprawl. Drawn to the countryside as early as the late 19th century, new suburbanites turned to taming the wildness of their surroundings. They cultivated a fondness for the natural world around them, and in the decades that followed, they became sensitized to potential threats. Sellers shows how the philosophy, science, and emotions that catalyzed the environmental movement sprang directly from suburbanites’ lives and their ideas about nature, as well as the unique ecology of the neighborhoods in which they dwelt.

Fifty years ago today, on June 19, 1962, Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking book Silent Spring was first serialized in the New Yorker (the book was published in September 1962). In the following excerpt from Crabgrass Crucible: Suburban Nature and the Rise of Environmentalism in Twentieth-Century America, Sellers explains that while Carson’s work is often seen as the beginning of the modern environmental movement, in order to really understand environmentalism, we should look back even further in history.


The literary advent of suburbia in America issued from the pen of a nature seeker. Henry Bunner, a reporter and playwright who worked in New York City but resided in New Jersey, in 1896 wrote The Suburban Sage, a book-length, partly fictional paean to his life there. He himself was an avid walker who spent “many good golden hours . . . in well-tracked woodland ways and in narrow foot-lanes through the wind-swept meadow grass.” His enthusiasm traced back to a childhood in the upper reaches of Manhattan, where “streets and houses were as yet too few to frighten away that kindly old Dame Nature.” There, he remembered drinking up, “in great, big, liberal, whacking drafts,” “my inheritance in the sky and the woods and the fields, in the sun and the snow and the rain and the wind.” “Everyday’s weather” brought “delight” “to a healthful body and heart.” Then, as thirty years later, particular landscapes nourished his experiences: those “of comfortable farm-houses and substantial old-fashioned mansions standing in spacious grounds of woodland and meadow.” Such places and possibilities were very much on the minds of those characters in Bunner’s sketches who moved suburbward. They did so, generally, because they “liked country life.”[1]

Most historians of environmentalism have located the wombs of modern American “nature love” in places far from the suburban house lot. From disciplines that are among the environmental movement’s legacies, those seeking its origins have offered three main currents of explanation. First, some scholars have wheeled out universal species characteristics, a human nature that stands, in important ways, outside the eyeblink of recorded history.[2] These theories, though capturing facets of what environmentalism is, and was, pose more questions than they answer about its timing or geography. A second set of explicators, highlighting heroic leaders, situates environmentalism far more in particular moments. Led by the dueling Gifford Pinchot and John Muir, many have argued, a turn-of-the-century movement for conservation laid the foundations. Then along came Rachel Carson, and suddenly post-World War II environmentalism was born. Among the difficulties with this approach, it splices together two movements whose constituencies and agendas could hardly have been more different. And its top-down focus tends to obscure or downplay just what the more pervasive and popular roots of any environmental movement might have been.[3]

A third vein of scholarship has moved closer to an experience such as Bunner’s, by homing in on environmentalism’s more collective origins. From its role in the advent of a “risk” or “light-green” society, to its reflection of rising demands among consumers for a higher “quality of life,” to its constitution as a “new social movement,” many of these explanations nevertheless do not reach back much before World War II.[4] That they make so little reference not just to suburbs but to geography per se reflects the multiplicity of places and pathways that have led the industrialized West toward environmentalism. This book makes no pretense to encompass them all. Rather, by placing some of the most important of these origins in suburban locales that were of demonstrable centrality to its making in the United States, I show how these competing explanations may be rendered more compatible.

Between a risk society or postmaterialism described by European theorists and American scholars’ insistence on the importance of consumerism, as well as between earlier popular constituencies for conservation and later ones for environmentalism, there lay a hidden connection. In the United States, even from Bunner’s time, what nourished the nature love of the more and less scientifically qualified alike was a shared suburban experience. It was one not so much of home buying as home owning. Nor was it reducible to suburban dwellers’ relationship with “the land,” however fraught. What finally secured the breadth of environmentalism’s appeal was how nature love itself had become ever more suffused with anxieties about human health.

For this last reason, we cannot understand the prominence of some suburbs in environmentalism’s making without also situating them, and the movement itself, within a much longer and more unexpected history. Almost entirely neglected by established explanations of environmentalism are its roots in legacies of health and medical thought. Stretching back to classical times, identified largely with the Greek author Hippocrates, a sturdy intellectual tradition had tied the prevalence of disease or health to the natural features of places. Ubiquitous for centuries across Europe, this vein of thinking underwent a revival in the nineteenth-century United States. Settlers assessed the “salubrity” of frontier lands; victims of illness left their homes for spas, sea journeys, and health resorts; midcentury physicians sought to measure the bodily impacts of climate or topography, as their generation’s version of scientific medicine. The ways of thinking about health that proliferated now seem, at least to some historians, to have been proto-ecological, anticipating those fusions of ecology and human health that in the later twentieth century became fundamental to environmentalism.[5]

One locus of this proto-ecological way of thinking has gone less explored. Long before Carson ever sat down to write Silent Spring, an intertwined pursuit of nature and of physical vitality had already acquired its own collective habitat in the United States. That landscape, shared by millions after World War II, where nature could be sought and vim and vigor sustained on a daily basis, was the urban edge.


From Crabgrass Crucible: Suburban Nature and the Rise of Environmentalism in Twentieth-Century America by Christopher C. Sellers. Copyright © 2012 by the University of North Carolina Press.

Christopher C. Sellers is associate professor of history at Stony Brook University in New York. He holds a Ph.D. in American studies from Yale and an M.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; he is also on faculty at the graduate program in public health at Stony Brook University Medical Center. He is author of Hazards of the Job: From Industrial Disease to Environmental Health Science and co-editor of, among other volumes, Dangerous Trade: Histories of Industrial Hazards across a Globalizing World.

  1. [1]Henry Cuyler Bunner, “The Story of a Path,” 99-134, and “Tiemann’s to Tubby Hook,” 35-65, in Jersey Street and Jersey Lane (1896; reprint, Freeport: Books for Libraries Press, 1969), 109 (“golden hours”), 56 (“old Dame Nature”), 44 (“whacking drafts”), 43 (“my inheritance”), 39 (“comfortable farm-house”); Bunner, The Suburban Sage; Stray Notes and Comments on His Simple Life (1896; reprint, Freeport: Books for Libraries Press, 1969), 169 (“country life”).
  2. [2]Stephen Kellert and E. O. Wilson, eds., The Biophilia Hypothesis (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1993); Samuel Hays, Beauty, Health, and Permanence: Environmental Politics in the United States, 1955-1985 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985). See also Samuel Hays, A History of Environmental Politics since 1945 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000), and Thomas Dunlap, Faith in Nature: Environmentalism as a Religious Quest (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004).
  3. [3]Histories of environmentalism stressing its continuities with early-century conservation include Hal Rothman, The Greening of a Nation?: Environmentalism in the United States since 1945 (Forth Worth, Tex.: Harcourt Brace, 1998); Stephen Fox, The American Conservation Movement: John Muir and His Legacy (1981; reprint, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985); and Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind, 3rd ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982). See also Mark Harvey, A Symbol of Wilderness: Echo Park and the American Conservation Movement (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1994), though Harvey notes a suburban support base (pp. 242-43). Recent histories of conservation emphasizing its more elite urban roots include Louis Warren, The Hunter’s Game: Poachers and Conservationists in Twentieth-Century America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), and Jacoby, Crimes against Nature, though Richard Judd, Common Lands, Common People: The Origins of Conservation in Northern New England (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), offers a contrasting depiction of its earlier popular roots.
  4. [4]On “risk” society, see Ulrich Beck, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity (New Delhi: Sage, 1992), and Anthony Giddens, Runaway World: How Globalization Is Reshaping Our Lives (London: Profile, 1999). On “light-green” society, see Michael Bess, The Light-Green Society: Ecology and Technological Modernity in France, 1960-2000 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003). On the search for “quality of life,” see Hays, Beauty, Health, and Permanence; as consumerism, see Lizabeth Cohen, The Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (New York: Vintage Books, 2003); as a “new social movement,” see Claus Offe, “New Social Movements: Challenging the Boundaries of Institutional Politics,” Social Research 52 (1985): 817-68, and Ruud Koopmans, Jan Willem Duyvendeck, and Marco G. Guigni, New Social Movements in Western Europe: A Comparative Analysis (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995).
  5. [5]Conevery Bolton Valenčius, The Health of the Country: How American Settlers Understood Themselves and Their Land (New York: Basic Books, 2002); Linda Lorraine Nash, Inescapable Ecologies: A History of Environment, Disease, and Knowledge (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006); Gregg Mitman, Breathing Space: How Allergies Shape Our Lives and Landscapes (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007); Christopher Sellers, “Thoreau’s Body: Towards an Embodied Environmental History,” Environmental History 4 (1999): 486-99.