Interview: Christopher C. Sellers on the origins of American environmentalism

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. In Crabgrass Crucible: Suburban Nature and the Rise of Environmentalism in Twentieth-Century America, 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.

In the following interview, Sellers discusses the grassroots origin of the Environmental movement in suburban America.


Q: In your book, Crabgrass Crucible, you emphasize that the need for environmental health transcends most social categories like race, class, and gender. Can you describe the unifying power of the environment?

A: You’re right—environmental health issues do affect people across the customary categories of social analysis. That’s partly because pollutants themselves stray so much: sloshing through water and wafting through the air, they don’t stay confined to their points of origin. They can even infiltrate places that seem quite remote. Most fundamentally, though, the unifying power of environmental health stems from how similar our physical bodies are. Whatever our race, class, or gender, a common evolutionary heritage ensures that our physiological responses to environmental toxins turn out to be much the same.

During the post-WWII period in the United States, a new generation of pollutants proved especially mobile and persistent. Overriding a widespread segregation of neighborhoods by class as well as race, these pollutants proved capable of pervading entire suburban metropolises. Americans, especially around our largest cities, were forced to confront just how shared the burden of pollution had become.

To understand the unifying power of this kind of issue, we need to look not just at the history of pollution itself but at what people made of it.  By the early 1950s a fledgling suburban “conservation” movement had arisen, but mostly in elite suburbs. Ignoring pollution, it concentrated instead on preserving land, particularly places that were located as far from the city as you could get. As activists also embraced issues of environmental health, the movement spread. After all, whatever the size or leafiness or rural feel of their own neighborhoods, everyone’s bodies could be threatened by smog or pesticides. With this shift, as well, our modern name for their movement, “environmentalism,” was born.

Q: Pollution was once greater in more impoverished areas. Do you feel that the environmentalist movement has led to more equanimity in this regard?

A: Pollution is still greater in more impoverished areas—as advocates of environmental justice over the past few decades have steadily reminded us. These activists have certainly had their hands full; if anything, I would guess that the greatest exposures have become even more socioeconomically concentrated. In this book I apply the explicitly social analysis of environmental justice scholars and activists to the more grassroots origins for what they term “mainstream” environmentalism.

And what I found will likely surprise them in significant ways. Once you look for these grassroots, you discover that this movement, which first began calling itself “environmental” in the mid-sixties, coalesced largely through neighborhood and local-level mobilizations that the later environmental justice movement would eventually claim as unique to itself. This earlier movement made frequent references to the pollution of poorer areas.

Yet unlike today’s environmental justice advocates, it did so without much social or economic analysis to emphasize instead pollution’s ubiquity. Consequently, as our modern environmental laws and regulations took shape in the United States, they did not scrutinize the social and economic unevenness with which the overall burden of pollution was distributed. By the 1980s, the door had thereby opened for more explicit calls, and an entire, novel movement, for “environmental justice.”

Q: Your book is unique in taking the position that researchers and government programs did not start the environmentalist movement, but rather, it began with suburbanites. This seems counterintuitive. What led you to this conclusion?

A: That this position seems so counterintuitive says a lot about what’s wrong with the environmental movement today—how environmentalists as well as outside observers see its main sources of strength as emanating from the top down. It has long bothered me that so much of this movement’s history posits the chief impetus  as coming from elites and icons, be they scientists (especially card-carrying ecologists) or government officials or singular activist/writers like John Muir and Rachel Carson. Of course, histories of icons are pretty easy to research and write about, but if you don’t look for grassroots, it’s easy not to find them. And I don’t know of any other social movement in the United States whose history has been written with less interest in any grassroots. Nevertheless, the overwhelming public concern and support around 1970, especially when it came to pollution, suggests that in these formative years of the movement, far more was at work.

To zero in on what these grassroots might be, I began looking at an early manifestation of popular discontent: the 1957 trial against DDT spraying on Long Island, from which Rachel Carson drew so much. I asked what experiences led each of the thirteen plaintiffs to join the case, especially those that were more widely shared.  I did the same for a later Long Island trial against DDT, in 1967, which launched the Environmental Defense Fund (now Environmental Defense). The suburban commonalities came ever more clearly into focus. From then on out, the project became as much an “environmental history of suburbs” as one of “suburban environmentalism.”

Q: How do you think the movement’s suburban origins changed or affected its popularity?

A: Understanding that the movement had suburban origins is vital to understanding just how popular its positions became by 1970. I’ve long marveled at just how popular environmental issues were then: polls showed Americans judged pollution the nation’s number one problem, surpassing even Vietnam. These same tallies showed that those most concerned were not city-dwellers but rather suburbanites. This moment marked an historic peak in public prioritizing of an environmental issue—one that has never been equaled. National environmental groups and their leaders have devoted neither very deep nor sufficient reflection to what made their agendas so popular at this moment. Given the fitful public embrace of subsequent issues on the environmental agendas, notably climate change, they might profit from pondering just how to reconnect with their movement’s early suburban base.

Q: Why does increased home ownership in the suburbs increase environmental awareness?

A: For one thing, suburbs are teasing hybrids; they combine what, by the late nineteenth century, belonged to quite separate categories of “city” and “countryside.” Through lawns and gardens and “open space,” they dangle country-like elements before would-be and actual residents. They do so even as their urban elements—houses, roads, malls—make them harder to see as natural. I’m convinced that the growth of suburbs around our cities, especially in the twentieth century, has turned the pursuit of more natural surroundings into a major engine of metropolitan growth in the United States.

Over the past century, American encounters with these hybrid landscapes increasingly came though home ownership and also stoked environmental awareness. Home owners took charge of their own yards: cultivating lawns, shrubbery, gardens, and pets, they developed a familiarity and in many cases, a fondness for these. Local plants and animals provided youngsters, in particular, with early formative encounters with the natural world. They furnished important templates for family and communal lives, from the divvying up of yard care to the establishment of homeowner associations.

At the same time, in a landscape dominated by private property, important contradictions nudged suburb dwellers from fondness toward concern. Especially in neighborhoods consisting of many owners of small lots, each home and yard remain highly vulnerable to neighboring land uses. The promise of more healthful, rural, and aesthetically appealing surroundings could easily be undermined, whether by horticultural neglect or gas stations or factories. For these and other reasons, suburban homeownership tended to nourish not just awareness of and allegiance to local environments, but also mobilizations to defend them.

Q: What motivates people to participate in the environmentalist movement?

A: People participate when fondness and familiarity morphs into concern, which, one comes to believe, is or should be shared. I see a strong continuity between the kinds of mobilizations more recently derided as “NIMBY,” like Levittowners’ early battles against gas stations and “spot zoning,” and those mobilizations more easily identified as “environmentalist,” such as the creation of Nature Conservancy chapters, to buy and set aside farms or large estates as suburban preserves.

Leading up to 1970, intrusions of pollution provided a special impetus for participation in this era. Stinging eyes and bubbling tap water made its presence quite accessible to many people, even as scientific debates and disease trends suggested how little understood and potentially dangerous the effects might be.

Early on around both Los Angeles and Long Island, anti-pollution activism coursed somewhat separately from that for natural land and park preservation. What made for a new “environmental” movement was that activists began seeing such issues as closely related. Not only had many borne witness to both the razing of open and un-built land around their homes as well as the tainting of local air or water; both also came to be understood as involving a defense of nature. Similarly important, opportunities emerged for challenging these problems, through courtrooms as well as legislative, electoral and policy change. By the mid-sixties, new generations of professionals, academics and students were taking up the new “environmental” style of activism in a kind of civic entrepreneurship.

Q: The first environmental trial was in 1957 over the use of DDT pesticides on crops. As you note, this trial introduced many of the terms used in environmentalism today. Which terms came into common parlance as a result of that trial?

 A: At this trial you find an early articulation of many of the distinctions and arguments that Rachel Carson would parlay into Silent Spring, and that would undergird environmentalism from then on. Among the most influential was a distinction between artificial or synthetic chemicals, notably DDT, and those that were more natural or organic. Activists began relying on this distinction as short hand method for distinguishing substances they readily suspected, and those they preferred or trusted. While incorporated into ostensibly novel practices like “organic gardening,” the new lingo also affirmed many older ways of gardening and farming. This lingo would provide environmentalists with an important means of bridging issues of land presentation with concerns about human health.

The trial also highlighted suspicions about a link between the newer pollutants and chronic disease, especially cancer. Several cancers were on the increase during this period, even as the modern science for sorting out their causes was just being developed. Framing this frightening disease as an environmental matter and navigating the implications via distinctions between “synthetics” versus “organics,” medical and other testifiers at the trial were furnishing environmentalists-to-come with some powerful argumentative weapons.

This rhetoric, these ways of thinking, had been bubbling up in places like Long Island over the preceding years. The spray campaign against the gypsy moth then brought them into the public, and Rachel Carson’s, eye, via this lawsuit.

Q: Who do you think are the real heroes of the environmentalist movement?

A: I would not want to downplay the role of someone like David Brower, head of the Sierra Club over this period, or especially that of Rachel Carson, as somehow less genuinely heroic. What I see myself as doing is providing a more realistic depiction of the nature of their heroism, by bringing out the forgotten heroism of more ordinary suburban-dwellers. The roots of receptiveness to these icons’ messages run precisely there: into ordinary mundane struggles over zoning or over smog politics, and the people and groups that confronted these. Without these people realizing their common interests, and coming together to push for change, even at the local neighborhood level, there would have been no audience either for Brower’s cityward tilt of Sierra’s agenda, or Carson’s book in the early 1960s. I also point out the heroism of more intermediate level activists and authors such as Robert and Grace Murphy and Richard Lillard. And I am especially impressed by those who, in the mid-to-late sixties, joined in the mobilizations against pollution and other environmental problems in neighborhoods that were not their own. That kind of environmental altruism, as I call it, gave the first Earth Day its phenomenal impact.

Q: In your opinion, how relevant and meaningful is Earth Day? Has its impact changed over the years?

A: Certainly the first Earth Day, on April 22, 1970, seemed far fresher and exciting in its message than Earth Day has subsequently become. Like any single day of protest, that first celebration itself didn’t accomplish much of permanence, at least not immediately. Without such a massive upwelling, though, I find it hard to imagine that Congress would have passed such an impressive slew of environmental laws. Over the ensuing months and years, not just the EPA, but our modern framework for environmental regulation was born. Ironically, the first Earth Day was almost entirely confined to the United States. I think the first Earth Day is better seen as a culmination of postwar changes in where and how affluent Americans lived, in their aspirations to live in more natural surroundings, and in their frustration with the slipperiness and pervasiveness of industry-made pollutants they were unable to escape.

Its organizers have since tried to make it more of a global event. Yet it has lost interest and traction in those very suburban places that, in early years, hosted some of its most ardent celebrations. Such trends, along with the private and commercial influences on many of today’s Earth Days, suggest that politically speaking, it may have outlived its usefulness. Nonetheless, perhaps if environmentalists devote more energy and effort to re-cultivating the suburban grassroots of their movement, Earth Day could mean something more, once again.

Q: During your research, was there a story that stood out to you?

A: There are so many. I stayed on the lookout for tales that really defied the inherited stereotypes of what suburbia was about, and I found lots. There’s the story of the pet skunk in Levittown, for instance, the marauding deer in the Santa Monicas, and those opossums that invaded Pasadena.

But if there is one story that really supplied my sense of what finally crystallized environmentalism into its own separate movement, it is that series of events on Long Island in the mid-1960s that gave rise to the Environmental Defense Fund (now Environmental Defense). Upon finding that a fish kill in a Long Island lake had been caused by DDT, a young woman joined her lawyer-husband in suing the Mosquito Commission that had dumped it. They didn’t own property there, but they did it on behalf of local children they knew who swam in the lake. And they were then joined in their suit by a larger group, organized by a local high school teacher and including academic scientists as well as high school students. This coming together in a suburban living room, of individuals who otherwise had had very little to do with one another, epitomized much of what environmentalism, at its inception, was all about.

Q: You have written books about globalization and industrialization, and have both an MD and a doctorate in American Studies. Have you have found a way to tie these subjects together in this book?

A: Yes, I do see this book as tied to my other interests. This book first became writable once I clarified the international significance of my story. Post-WWII America, I found, had the freest and most cash-fueled of suburban housing markets in the West, also the first movement on behalf of “the environment” that was more popular than top-down. My book argues that these two historical phenomena are closely connected.

As for industrialization, many suburban homeowners are responding, in large part, to new turns in American industry, from its suburbanizing to its growing reliance on laboratory syntheses and petrochemicals. Nowadays, thanks to globalization, America has far less of this sort of industry than do countries that are less developed. Among the more important questions raised by this book is: will these other countries simply repeat America’s gradual and arduous reckoning with these industries’ environmental impacts? Or can they learn from what we went through?


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 Crabgrass Crucible: Suburban Nature and the Rise of Environmentalism in Twentieth-Century America and 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.