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#735 - The Environmental Movement -- Part 3: Civic Environmentalism, 10-Oct-2001

The mainstream environmental movement developed during the
1970s, building on the legacy of John Muir, Gifford Pinchot and
other early conservationists. From 1970 to 1980, the federal
government created a complex new environmental protection regime
of laws and institutions. President Nixon created the
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Congress created the
Council on Environmental Quality and passed a dozen hefty
environmental statutes.

Within the new environmental protection regime, the mainstream
environmental groups, like Natural Resources Defense Council
(NRDC) and Environmental Defense (ED, formerly Environmental
Defense Fund), saw opportunities for lawyers and scientists to
influence public policy via lawsuits, regulatory rule makings,
and the setting of scientific standards. These public interest
lawyers and scientists were idealistic, enthusiastic, and
willing to work long hours. They focused their efforts on
lobbying and standards-setting, and legitimized their operations
by creating boards of directors who were well-connected. They
raised money by direct mail appeals to a largely passive
constituency. They didn't try to build a movement that could
appeal to a majority of Americans because they genuinely
believed that an elite group of professionals playing an
"insider's" game could protect the environment. For a time,
their formula seemed to work.

The advent of Ronald Reagan in 1980 changed many things,
including the environmental protection regime in Washington.
Herblock, the cartoonist, caught the essence of the change when
he depicted President Reagan and his Secretary of Interior,
James Watt, picnicking together, their checkered tablecloth
spread over a tree stump. Behind the smiling men, as far as the
eye could see, lay rolling hills covered with nothing but tree
stumps. The caption read, "It doesn't get any better than this."

Then came George Bush the elder, Hillary and Bill Clinton, and
Newt Gingrich. Environmentalists were tolerated at best and were
labeled "ecoterrorists" at worst. As "free market" theology
swept through Washington and many state capitals, the
traditional environmental movement adjusted to the new climate,
learning to describe themselves as "friends of business"
advocating the use of market mechanisms for environmental
protection.[1, pg. 105] Many of them advocated (and still
advocate) the sale of "pollution rights" which tend to funnel
toxicants into poor communities and communities of color.

In hopes of gaining "access" to the Clinton administration,
mainstream environmentalists went to bat for corporations,
helping pass the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
Environmental Defense, National Audubon Society, National
Wildlife Federation, Natural Resources Defense Council and World
Wildlife Fund created the Environmental Coalition for NAFTA and
began promoting the free trade theology of their corporate
adversaries. Sierra Club refused to join. John Adams of NRDC
would later boast, "We [environmentalists] were one of the two
big prongs the administration had to fight. The other was labor.
We broke the back of the environmental opposition to NAFTA.
After we established our position, Clinton only had labor to
fight. We did him a big favor."[1, pg. 188]

Ultimately, however, such anti-democratic "insider" strategies
failed. As Jay Hair of National Wildlife Federation described
his relationship with the Clinton/Gore administration, "What
started out like a love affair turned out to be date rape."[1,
pg. 177]

For the past 20 years, the mainstream groups have found
themselves unable to influence national policy in any lasting
way because tweaking regulations and lobbying to amend laws -- a
strategy of "whispering in the king's ear"-- doesn't put any
lasting pressure on the king. The king may arbitrarily grant
your wishes, but just as quickly such favors can be reversed
because there's no organized constituency across the country
holding the king's feet to the fire.

Thus national environmental policy in the U.S. remains stuck
where it was in the 1970s. As Europe, Australia, New Zealand and
parts of the Third World have adopted new principles of
environmental protection, based on precautionary action,
extended producer responsibility, pollution prevention, clean
production, and zero waste (which we will describe later in this
series), the U.S. remains hamstrung by an unworkable system
based on risk assessment of one chemical at a time, and
inefficient and ineffective end-of-pipe controls.

Now, as we saw in RACHEL'S #732, the mainstream environmental
strategy of lawsuits and rulemakings has shipwrecked as the
federal courts have fallen under the sway of Big Money and
right-wing "free market" extremism.

At this point in history, can the mainstream environmental
organizations reinvent themselves to regain relevance? There are
signs that some can. World Wildlife Fund has become a leader in
international negotiations, advocating the precautionary
principle and urging the phase-out of whole classes of chemicals
(those that are persistent or bioaccumulative). Sierra Club has
begun to take environmental justice (EJ) activism seriously and
has begun talking to organized labor. Whether other mainstream
environmental groups can make the shift to modern perspectives
remains to be seen. Yet the D.C.-based mainstream groups still
receive roughly 70% of all the money available for environmental
protection.[1, pg.41]

Meanwhile, a new kind of environmentalism has now emerged, even
though it remains astonishingly underfunded.[2] It started in
Love Canal, New York and in rural Warren County, North Carolina
in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It has since spread across
the country, combining human concerns about social, economic and
environmental injustices with a focus on local places. Often it
has taken the form of a fight to stop a polluter from setting up
shop in a black or Latino community, but in some cases it has
gone considerably further, becoming a holistic approach to
community revitalization and development.

An excellent recent book from MIT Press, THE LAND THAT COULD BE
by William Shutkin, labels this new approach "civic
environmentalism."[3] As Shutkin sees it, "What ultimately
defines civic environmentalism and distinguishes it from other
forms of social action is the explicit link between
environmental problem-solving and the goal of community
building. Civic environmentalism is fundamentally about ensuring
the quality and sustainability of our communities, economically,
socially, and environmentally," Shutkin says.[3, pg. 128]

Civic environmentalism rests on six "core concepts," which are:

1. Democratic participation in decision-making. "Civic
environmentalism provides for the regular, practical
participation of all citizens in environmental decisions so that
environmental outcomes are the shared function of the many,"
Shutkin says.[3, pg. 129] For this to work, all affected
parties must be in the room (not just a few experts): corporate
executives, developers, government officials, representatives of
the not-for-profit sector, workers and residents. For such a
process to work, people need to take each other seriously,
regardless of age, race, income, gender, ethnicity, or
geography. Face to face work is essential: Without face-to-face
meetings, people tend to see their opponents as caricatures, not
as real humans. Over time, face-to-face work fosters a sense of
community, which in turns fosters more participation. This
approach validates the experience of ordinary people, allowing
experts to play their proper role as information providers and
advisors, not elite decision-makers. But for participatory
democracy to work, decisions must be made with the full,
informed consent of those affected. This concept has been tried
little in the U.S. where "democratic participation" is usually
limited to paying taxes and occasionally voting.

2. Community and regional planning. Without going into detail,
planning means deciding what kind of future your community wants
5 or 10 years hence, taking stock of the resources needed to get
there, inventorying local assets, then taking steps to achieve
the desired future and measure progress along the way. Lack of
planning has given us urban sprawl, loss of open space and
habitat for wildlife, air pollution, forsaken city centers, and
a commuter culture.

3. Environmental education aims first to allow young people to
grow up respecting their place in the natural order, so that
they will want to "fit in" with nature, not dominate and thus
destroy it. Environmental education also seeks to inform both
producers and consumers about the consequences of their economic
activities, in hopes that they will change their practices.
Environmental education can inform people about the
disproportionate burden of pollution borne by the poor and
people of color. Citizens have often provided their own form of
environmental education, alerting government and corporate
officials to unsuspected relationships between the environment
and human health. Residents and workers have recognized many
serious environmental problems long before science has revealed
cause and effect connections.

4. Industrial ecology. Shutkin uses this term instead of the
more common "clean production." The basic idea here is that
industrial processes of extraction, production, distribution,
consumption, and discard should work roughly the way ecosystems

As Shutkin says, industrial ecology (clean production) "provides
environmentalists with a compelling model of economic
development, enabling them to engage and promote economic
development and the built environment as a legitimate
environmental issue."[3, pg. 138]

Shutkin outlines a set of modern "design principles" developed
by architect William A. McDonough and published as "The Hannover

5. Environmental justice. Civic environmentalism demands that
communities provide EVERYONE a healthy place to live, work and
play. It demands that EVERYONE have a real opportunity to
participate in decisions that affect their health and their
environment, especially those who have traditionally been left
out. Justice implies environmental health and safety for all,
including workers, the poor, the dispossessed.

6. Place. Shutkin conveys the importance of place by quoting
Alan Gussow: "A place is a piece of the whole environment that
has been claimed by feelings." As poet Gary Snyder says, "Of all
the memberships we identify ourselves by (racial, ethnic,
sexual, national, class, age, religious, occupational), the one
that is most forgotten, and that has the greatest potential for
healing, is place.... People who can agree that they share a
commitment to the landscape -- even if they are otherwise locked
in struggle with each other -- have at least one deep thing to
share."[3, pg. 140]

Shutkin argues that we already possess most of the ideas and
technologies needed to achieve desirable communities. We even
appear to have the will, he says, citing poll after poll showing
that most Americans favor environmental protection and want
greater civic involvement and sense of community. What we are
lacking is examples to follow: "There are too few working models
of sustainable communities to inspire and guide us," he says.[3,
pg. 141]

Shutkin ends his book with four case studies of "civic
environmentalism" at work in the real world in the Dudley Street
neighborhood of Boston, in the Fruitvale section of Oakland,
California, in rural Douglas county, Colorado, and in Morris and
Somerset counties in New Jersey. Here the seeds of a new
environmental politics are being sewn, but much work lies ahead.

[To be continued.]

--Peter Montague


[1] Mark Dowie, LOSING GROUND (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press,
1995). ISBN 0-262-04147-2.

[2] Daniel R. Faber and Deborah McCarthy, GREEN OF ANOTHER
and Environmental Justice Research Project, Northeastern
University, 2001).

[3] William A. Shutkin, THE LAND THAT COULD BE (Cambridge,
Mass.: MIT Press, 2000). ISBN 0-262-19435-X.

[4] Available at http://repo-nt.tcc.virginia.edu/classes/tcc315/