Subscribe via RSS Feed

Tag: "environment"

A Defense of Thoreau

[ 58 ] October 28, 2015 |


Kathryn Schulz attempts to destroy Henry David Thoreau’s reputation, calling him, not without accuracy, a libertarian, anti-social crank and fraud who didn’t even live the anti-social life he was espousing, who had no feeling for the suffering of others, and who romanticized poverty. Even if we take all this as true, and none of it is entirely untrue, there are still concrete reasons why we may lionize Thoreau, not so much for his words (after all, we have mostly all read some Thoreau but for most people it’s been awhile), but for what he represented and why it resonates.

No one ever claimed Thoreau was an easy man to like and she says much about him personally that is correct. But who cares? How many artists are weirdos who you really don’t want to know? Many. Sometimes that gets romanticized and excused to where you end with defenders of Roman Polanski. That’s bad. But Thoreau was harmless at the worst. I really don’t care that the man was a crank. Hell, Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote a whole book on raising children after forcing his partner to give up all their kids to orphanages where they almost certainly died. Does that mean we shouldn’t read Émile? I don’t think that would be a good idea. On some of the more specific critiques:

But “Walden” is less a cornerstone work of environmental literature than the original cabin porn: a fantasy about rustic life divorced from the reality of living in the woods, and, especially, a fantasy about escaping the entanglements and responsibilities of living among other people.

What Schulz never mentions here, and I think this is the most important point to why he endures, is that this was happening at the same time as the Industrial Revolution. All of a sudden, our entire relationship to nature was transformed, especially in Thoreau’s home of Massachusetts. We can trace the first Americans romanticizing nature, in writing at least, to the writings of the Lowell Mill Girls, who grew up knowing nature one way on the farms and soon learned about nature in a whole other inside the factory. All of a sudden, they start talking about the need to return to nature. That’s hardly disappeared in the 150 years since Thoreau died. The return to nature has a lot to do with the sights, sounds, smells, and physical experience with modern work. Even after the factories begin declining, the beauty of the outdoors is an antidote to our sterile office environments, but to some extent, seeing the natural world this way is conditioned by people like Thoreau and John Muir laying the groundwork for us. That’s why Thoreau endures, primarily.

Some other points:

“Walden,” in consequence, is not a paean to living simply; it is a paean to living purely, with all the moral judgment that the word implies. In its first chapter, “Economy,” Thoreau lays out a program of abstinence so thoroughgoing as to make the Dalai Lama look like a Kardashian. (That chapter must be one of the highest barriers to entry in the Western canon: dry, sententious, condescending, more than eighty pages long.) Thoreau, who never wed, regarded “sensuality” as a dangerous contaminant, by which we “stain and pollute one another.” He did not smoke and avoided eating meat. He shunned alcohol, although with scarcely more horror than he shunned every beverage except water: “Think of dashing the hopes of a morning with a cup of warm coffee, or of an evening with a dish of tea! Ah, how low I fall when I am tempted by them!” Such temptations, along with the dangerous intoxicant that is music, had, he felt, caused the fall of Greece and Rome.

I cannot idolize anyone who opposes coffee (especially if the objection is that it erodes great civilizations; had the man not heard of the Enlightenment?), but Thoreau never met an appetite too innocuous to denounce. He condemned those who gathered cranberries for jam (“So butchers rake the tongues of bison out of the prairie grass”) and regarded salt as “that grossest of groceries”; if he did without it, he boasted, he could also drink less water. He advised his readers to eat just one meal a day, partly to avoid having to earn additional money for food but also because the act of eating bordered, for him, on an ethical transgression. “The fruits eaten temperately need not make us ashamed of our appetites,” he wrote, as if our appetites were otherwise disgraceful. No slouch at public shaming, Thoreau did his part to sustain that irrational equation, so robust in America, between eating habits and moral worth.

Welcome to the Transcendentalists! This sort of thing was hardly unique to Thoreau and I’m surprised Schulz doesn’t know this. This is same period and nearly the same place as the Mormons, the Shakers, the first American vegetarians, the Burned-over District, the rise of abolitionism, the temperance movement, the Seneca Falls Convention, etc., etc. Remember, the Mormons don’t drink coffee either and never have. Such stances were common. The rise of industrialization and the transportation revolution completely transformed life in the North. That led to a whole variety of new social movements, some of which seem mainstream today, but were all considered pretty freakish by a lot of people in the 1840s. Thoreau is not some unique crank operating on his own. He’s one of many people freaked out by the Industrial Revolution and engaging in an intellectual milieu expressing these changes in all sorts of unusual ways. It’s unfair to pick on Thoreau here without placing him in context.

In reality, Walden Pond in 1845 was scarcely more off the grid, relative to contemporaneous society, than Prospect Park is today. The commuter train to Boston ran along its southwest side; in summer the place swarmed with picnickers and swimmers, while in winter it was frequented by ice cutters and skaters. Thoreau could stroll from his cabin to his family home, in Concord, in twenty minutes, about as long as it takes to walk the fifteen blocks from Carnegie Hall to Grand Central Terminal. He made that walk several times a week, lured by his mother’s cookies or the chance to dine with friends. These facts he glosses over in “Walden,” despite detailing with otherwise skinflint precision his eating habits and expenditures. He also fails to mention weekly visits from his mother and sisters (who brought along more undocumented food) and downplays the fact that he routinely hosted other guests as well—sometimes as many as thirty at a time. This is the situation Thoreau summed up by saying, “For the most part it is as solitary where I live as on the prairies. It is as much Asia or Africa as New England. . . . At night there was never a traveller passed my house, or knocked at my door, more than if I were the first or last man.”

Ah, this tired old war horse. Who cares? Probably the biggest thing you can say to damn Thoreau is that he is inspirational to misanthropes today who go out into rugged nature unprepared and then die, like Timothy Treadwell or Christopher McCandless. Thoreau’s hardly the only bad influence here–if you want a racist awful crank who also could be a pretty great writer at times, see one Abbey, Edward–but far worse than their existence today is that we romanticize those people. Kudos to Werner Herzog for seeing right through Treadwell (and bringing his own fantastic weirdness to make a film about two cranks, including himself) but the Jon Krauaker book and Sean Penn film Into the Wild go way too far in seeing McCandless as a tragic, romantic figure, when he actually rejected the many people who tried to help him and was an idiot who wandered into Alaska totally unprepared for basic survival. He may have had mental problems and OK, the problem is the romanticizing. But isn’t the real story–that Thoreau really wasn’t that distant from society–counter to Schulz’s thesis about him being a misanthrope? And doesn’t it suggest a better kind of getting back to nature than Thoreau himself wrote in Walden? To me, knowing the real story is both amusing and makes him more personable. Visiting Walden Pond, as I did a few weeks ago, does so even more. This is not the wilderness and that’s actually useful. Thoreau writing about ants and loons should have more value to us than Muir writing about the Sierra Nevada. We can watch ants and loons too! We can’t necessarily go to the deepest parts of Yosemite.

But any reading of Thoreau that casts him as a champion of nature is guilty of cherry-picking his most admirable work while turning a blind eye on all the rest. The other and more damning answer to the question of why we admire him is not that we read him incompletely and inaccurately but that we read him exactly right. Although Thoreau is often regarded as a kind of cross between Emerson, John Muir, and William Lloyd Garrison, the man who emerges in “Walden” is far closer in spirit to Ayn Rand: suspicious of government, fanatical about individualism, egotistical, élitist, convinced that other people lead pathetic lives yet categorically opposed to helping them. It is not despite but because of these qualities that Thoreau makes such a convenient national hero.

This seems highly dubious to me. We don’t really make Thoreau a hero in any particularly meaningful way, and we certainly don’t read Cape Cod or The Maine Woods, where his ideas are more fully fleshed out. Thinking of him as a cross between Emerson, Muir, and Garrison is actually pretty right, and let’s not forget that the latter was also a massive crank who had contempt for most other people he actually dealt with and who people hated, and not only for his abolitionism. Yeah, I guess you can draw connections between Thoreau and Rand. You can do the same with Jefferson or any number of other American thinkers. Yes, individualism is a major strain in American culture. But we don’t read Thoreau as a hero because of that.

Overall, this is an interesting essay. And one can not like Thoreau–Schulz presents plenty of good reasons not to do so! But what Thoreau really represents is his time, a man like tens of thousands of other Northerners in the antebellum years trying to figure out solutions to a radically transformed world, a man who could say crazy things that many people disliked, and a man whose writings could have a thicket-like density spliced with great phrasing and simplicity (see his mentor Emerson on that). he also represents a modern response to industrialization, one that resonates with us today. I for one can’t wait until my next trip into the Oregon forests. Should he be a hero, assuming he is? I don’t know, probably not. But is he an interesting and influential figure for reasons that are not entirely negative? Yes. And that’s OK.


Empire of Timber

[ 43 ] October 26, 2015 |


Listen people, you have two choices. You can eat this month. Or you can buy my new book Empire of Timber: Labor Unions and the Pacific Northwest Forests, published by Cambridge University Press, at the modest price of $100. Or $80 on Kindle. Don’t ask me why. Anyway, it it available and I can only say that after working on something that long (12 years since I finished my comprehensive exams and started conceptualizing it), I’m amazed that it is out and a real thing that ended up in my hands today. No words. It will be a much, much cheaper paperback in about a year. This is the description from Cambridge:

The battles to protect ancient forests and spotted owls in the Northwest splashed across the evening news in the 1980s and early 1990s. Empire of Timber re-examines this history to demonstrate that workers used their unions to fight for a healthy workplace environment and sustainable logging practices that would allow themselves and future generations the chance to both work and play in the forests. Examining labor organizations from the Industrial Workers of the World in the 1910s to unions in the 1980s, Empire of Timber shows that conventional narratives of workers opposing environmental protection are far too simplistic and often ignore the long histories of natural resource industry workers attempting to protect their health and their futures from the impact of industrial logging. Today, when workers fear that environmental restrictions threaten their jobs, learning the history of alliances between unions and environmentalists can build those conversations in the present.

That pretty much sums it up and of course is a theme I have talked about so many times here–that workers and environmentalists are not natural enemies and that an examination of the past elucidates this point again and again.

This picture also includes a union bug timber hammer an old Carpenters union activist gave me during my research, a ponderosa pine cone from Deschutes County, Oregon, and a crack in my wall which may or may not say anything about conditions at the University of Rhode Island.

Worth mentioning as well that you can still of course buy my book from earlier this year, Out of Sight, for the “let’s steal half of Mexico to expand slavery” price of $18.46.

Palm Oil and Deforestation

[ 20 ] October 22, 2015 |


The palm oil crisis continues in southeast Asia, as the widespread transformation of ecologically complex jungles into palm oil monocultures for cooking oil continues, without any repercussions for the western corporations committing widescale extinction for their role in this.

The Indonesian government had zoned the area for agricultural use even though it lies within the Leuser Ecosystem, an area of exceptionally high conservation value due to its resident populations of endangered orangutans, tigers, rhinos, and elephants.

RAN didn’t specify what companies might source from Tualang Raya, but it noted that the three biggest buyers of palm oil from the Leuser Ecosystem region—Musim Mas Group, Wilmar International and Golden Agri-Resources—”have adopted policies that commit to halting forest destruction in their supply chains.”

“We need these buyers to take urgent action to intervene and secure the permanent protection of the priceless Leuser Ecosystem,” the group said.

This gets at the problem with voluntary supply chain management standards. They don’t work. Without government restrictions, fines, and punishments for violators, probably at the U.S. or European level since this is not going to happen at the Indonesian level in any meaningful way, the widespread ecological destruction of the rainforests will continue. It’s yet another example of how the world’s citizens need enforcement mechanisms against the wealthy and corporations up and down the supply chain to hold them operating in extra-legal ways (which includes corrupt national governments granting exemptions to their own laws) outside of national laws accountable. This is necessary for a sustainable future anywhere on the planet.

….See also, palm oil plantations and horrific wildfires.

Environmental News and Notes

[ 44 ] October 8, 2015 |


A bunch of smaller stories on environmental issues that deserve some attention:

1) With buildings collapsing in Oklahoma from the plethora of earthquakes caused by fracking, maybe someone in the state will make the connection and suggest that we need to research these earthquakes before going ahead with the procedure? Probably not.

2) I get that this essay about runners racing on the Grand Canyon trail and throwing their energy packs and water bottles on the trail and defecating around the trail has more than a little bit of the “kids get off my lawn” feel. But the issue is real enough. Are public lands designed for the kind of endurance racing, record setting, and extreme sports that a growing number of people love, even though they can cause real damage and degradation of the land? Or are they for a gentler use? Do societal norms exist on the trail or is it a dog-eat-dog world of extreme individualism? Naturally enough, these questions reflect trends in larger society, as do the sports of choice themselves.

3) Texas water use is totally sustainable. Just keep piping that water to new suburban developments.

4) I’m not sure what Gregg Easterbrook is thinking here. He’s right that we need new environmental legislation to deal with greenhouse gases. But he’s hopelessly muddled in how he thinks that’s going to happen:

But there is a compromise the political world has missed: The Democratic presidential contenders endorse the Keystone pipeline, in return for the Republican presidential contenders’ backing the E.P.A.’s effort to reduce carbon emissions from power plants.

This is a classic compromise in which each side gives something and gets something. The pipeline would help ensure American petroleum security; activists of the left should drop the silly pretense that Keystone is some kind of doomsday device. Carbon restrictions on power plants absolutely must come, and are likely to be good for everyone; activists of the right should stop fighting the future.

If the presidential contenders could shake hands on this compromise — even if any pair of two did so — the nation would benefit, and the stage might be set for constructive revisions of environmental laws following the 2016 election. Peace needs to break out on environmental protection. The presidential contenders can prove they are leaders by taking the first step.

This is super dumb. Even if we accept his Keystone argument (and doing so underplays the symbolic importance of it to popular conceptions of environmentalism; given the role of consumers and citizens in shaping American environmental policy over the last 60 years, one must take it into consideration), in what alternative universe does the Republican Party of 2016 agree to this? They are on a race to the intellectual bottom in denying climate change and hating the EPA. Such an agreement assumes that rational politics would not torpedo a given Republican’s chance to win the nomination. “Activists of the right should stop fighting the future.” Oh, OK. Because clearly the environment is the ONLY issue in which they are doing that.

For Corporations, Sticks, Not Carrots

[ 19 ] October 2, 2015 |


Before this story gets totally forgotten, I want to revisit the Volkswagen issue. For it shows something that I point out repeatedly in Out of Sight (now available for a James Blaine campaign price of $18.84 if you have not purchased it) as well as Empire of Timber. Corporations simply cannot be trusted to self-regulate. It will never work because all the incentive is there for them to cheat. They want to profit and if the government isn’t watching, they will cut corners to do so. The auto industry has shown this for decades. Only sticks will work. You have to punish corporations–and specifically corporate executives with massive fines and jail time if you want corporations to obey the law and take safety and pollution seriously. One estimate has the Volkswagen emissions leading to approximately 106 deaths in the United States. VW will be punished for this, but if we want to stop other companies and other industries from similar evasion of regulations, we simply have to beef up our regulatory powers and funding for regulatory agencies significantly. Otherwise, other versions of this will happen again and again.

Environmental Risk and Race

[ 23 ] September 28, 2015 |


I doubt any readers of LGM will be that shocked that people of color are exposed to toxic environments at rates far higher than whites. But the differential, at least in California, really is awful:

“What’s unique about this study is that we are looking at multiple hazards at once and including factors that make populations more vulnerable to the effects of pollution, such as age and disease status,” lead study lead author Lara Cushing, a Ph.D. student at Berkeley, said in a press release. “Still, it is surprising to see such a consistent and stark disparity by race when it comes to the burden of environmental health hazards. It was a bigger factor than income.”

Risk exposure for Hispanics was 6.2 times higher than whites, and 5.8 times higher for African Americans. Asians and Native American face double the environmental health hazard risks compared to whites.

“The findings indicate that people of color — especially African American and Latino Californians — are much more likely than white Californians to be exposed to both environmental and social stressors that impact health,” said Cushing. “People can’t use this environmental justice screening tool to calculate the probability that they will develop cancer or asthma, but it can and should be used by state regulators and others to focus their efforts to benefit disproportionately impacted communities.”

There’s little reason to believe that results around the country would be significantly different. Would like to see more studies along this line to know for sure.

Solar Suburbs

[ 21 ] September 24, 2015 |


Visions of rethinking suburbs to be green-friendly abound:

These examples point to the potential of what some are calling “solar suburbs.” The concept is a sweeping one—solar panels cover roofs, electric vehicles sit in garages, energy-efficient homes are outfitted with batteries to store electricity, and a smart two-way electricity system enables people to drive to work and discharge power from their electric cars at times of peak energy demand. The government of Australia has embraced this idea for a new military housing development being built near Darwin, where each home will come equipped with a 4.5 kW rooftop solar system, charging points for electric cars, and smartphone apps enabling owners to track their energy use and carbon saved.

This vision bears little resemblance to the suburbs of today — with their big, inefficient homes, two or three gasoline-powered cars in the driveway, shopping malls, and vast parking lots. But advocates say that if all goes well, advances in technology, combined with smart policy, could lower the costs of solar power, electric cars, and batteries and drive a clean energy revolution in the suburbs.

One evangelist for this revolution is David Crane, the chief executive of New Jersey-based NRG Energy, which aims to provide a complete clean-energy solution for homeowners, including electric-car charging and batteries. “Our home solar business is going to be about so much more about than just solar panels on the roof,” Crane said on a 2014 earnings call.

Analysts at the Rocky Mountain Institute, led by Amory Lovins, also see an energy revolution coming. “The technical solutions are there,” says Titiaan Palazzi, a mechanical engineer at the institute who formerly worked for smart-thermostat company Nest. “You could eventually get to suburbs or communities that are net-zero energy.”

Marc Gunther usefully notes in the linked article that this isn’t likely happening soon for the usual reasons–lack of federal investment, untested technologies, dirty energy’s monopoly over electrical grids in many states, etc. But I think more interesting is the idea that suburbs could become green, which I don’t really see. Because actually the vision of these solar suburban planners isn’t all that revolutionary or really all that green. A sentence above reads, “This vision bears little resemblance to the suburbs of today — with their big, inefficient homes, two or three gasoline-powered cars in the driveway, shopping malls, and vast parking lots.” But that’s only partially true. The homes are going to be just as big. The cars are still in the driveway. Shopping malls and vast parking lots are still part of the picture. All of the land management issues and inability to create public transportation because of a lack of density are still central to this urban model. Sure, it’s somewhat less bad for the environment, but it still leaves people living in these suburbs as committing significantly more environmental damage than the average citizen of New York City.

I’m fine with all sorts of attempts to limit our environmental impact on the planet but let’s not overstate the case. The house in the photo above might have those solar panels. But the lifestyle of people living in a single-family home of that size is not going to be available to everyone, nor is it truly sustainable.

DuPont and Teflon, Revisited

[ 17 ] August 31, 2015 |


A few weeks ago, I linked to a good in-depth discussion of how DuPont had poisoned the people of Parkersburg, West Virginia through the production of C8, the chemical making up the key component of Teflon. The Huffington Post now has a very long and in-depth piece on the same subject, which you should also read. I won’t go over the details again except to say that DuPont, like basically all chemical corporations, treat the environment, workers, and the surrounding communities with a complete lack of basic respect in its quest to maximize profit. But two points to pull out. First:

By the early 1970s, Congress was once again debating how to regulate the chemicals that now formed the fabric of American domestic life. Both houses drafted legislation that would empower the Environmental Protection Agency to study the health and environmental effects of chemicals and regulate their use. But the industry unleashed another lobbying blitz. Under the final version of the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, existing chemicals were again grandfathered in. Manufacturers did have to inform the EPA when they introduced new chemicals—but no testing was required. The resulting regulatory regime, which exists to this day, is remarkably laissez-faire. Only a handful of the 80,000-plus chemicals on the market have ever been tested for safety—meaning that we are all, in effect, guinea pigs in a vast, haphazard chemistry experiment.

This is a really key issue. Like fracking and so many other technological developments of industrial life, we have given corporations carte blanche to create profitable markets in chemicals without meaningful testing, and especially without meaningful public testing that would give people a right to know what chemicals are in their air, water, food, and workplaces. Only if disasters strike of the thalidomide level does real accountability to corporations ever take place. Meanwhile, more chemicals can be created, dumped, and forgotten about, all at continuing profit. Even here, with overwhelming evidence of how DuPont created birth defects, massive wildlife and livestock dieoffs, cancers in workers and local residents, etc., the company still have not faced real accountability. Instead it is using every known tactic of corporations to delay compensation and try to offload legal liability. This gets us to the second point.

Meanwhile, this past July, DuPont spun off its specialty chemicals division into a separate company called Chemours. The new enterprise will assume the liability for DuPont’s most polluted sites, including Washington Works—but it will only have one-quarter of DuPont’s revenue. Many people with cases pending against DuPont worry that it will use this arrangement to avoid paying damages or, at the very least, stall any resulting payouts. “I’m sure part of their theory is the longer they delay, the more people will die,” said Deitzler, the Parkersburg-based lawyer. “It’s already worked. Before we could even file cases, many of the people who’ve been affected passed on.”

Creating new companies that are underfunded in order to deal with liabilities is an old corporate trick. Dollars to donuts Chemours declares bankruptcy in the next decade that allows DuPont to escape from any meaningful compensation at all.

Meanwhile, DuPoint has moved on from C8. But to what?

Under the current regulatory system, DuPont is not required to ensure that these chemicals are free of the qualities that made C8 so toxic. While relatively little is known about these substances, most of them have very similar structures and properties to C8, and the limited information that is available reveals troubling effects. Also, while some of the replacement chemicals break down faster than C8 does, they need to be used in larger quantities to achieve the same results, a fact that has caused alarm in the scientific community. This May, 200 scientists—chemists, toxicologists, and epidemiologists among them—signed a statement urging governments to restrict the use of these chemicals because of the “risks of adverse effects on human health and the environment.”

Until that happens, these substances will continue to spread, unchecked. Not long ago, the Little Hocking water district commissioned a study to see whether any of the C8 replacements were contaminating the town’s aquifer. Researchers tested worms unearthed from Little Hocking’s well field, a scraggly meadow overlooking the vast expanse of storage tanks and smokestacks at the Washington Works plant. They found a number of C8’s chemical cousins, including C5, C6, C7, C9 and C10. Once again, local residents may have been unwittingly exposed to toxins whose ultimate effect on human health is unknown.

The weak regulatory system combines with the nation’s profit-first ideology and corporate malfeasance to ensure that nothing will change here. Maybe one of these chemicals will, 20 years from now, be found to also kill people. If the system is similar to today, another decade will pass before any kind of compensation is required and then DuPont will continue to find more ways out and local people will suffer.

Suing the EPA over the Gulf Dead Zone

[ 6 ] August 21, 2015 |


Good on the Gulf Restoration Network for suing the Environmental Protection Agency for not doing its job to regulate the fertilizers and other chemicals that have created the huge biological dead zone where the Mississippi River flows into the Gulf of Mexico. Everyone knows this is a major problem but the power of agribusiness provides a lot of incentive for the government to not crack down. This is much like how greens had to sue the U.S. Forest Service for not protecting northern spotted owl habitat under the Endangered Species Act because the agency was operating as a tool of the timber industry. If the government isn’t actually going to protect the environment, lawsuits have proven a good way for environmentalists to make change. It’s not quite as clear of a case here as it was with the spotted owl, but it’s probably the only way to actually get the government to take the problem seriously.

It’s not an easy problem for sure. But while I really respect Obama’s executive orders on coal and climate change as a good start, it would be nice if he took these agricultural issues a bit more seriously than he has through his entire administration.

The Animas Mine Waste Spill

[ 27 ] August 10, 2015 |


Colorado’s Animas River suffered a pollution episode late last week, when an EPA effort to deal with mine waste backed up behind an underground dam actually breached it instead, leading to an acid spill into a tributary of this beautiful river. The EPA screwed up here, but they are not the real problem, as Jonathan Thompson points out. Rather, the Colorado mountains have thousands of underground mines that leach heavy metals and acids and it’s very difficult for the government to create a comprehensive response to that. Sometimes some old wood timbers will fall down and create an underground dam. Eventually, the water pressure will blow away those timbers and spills will result. However, today’s mining companies and owners of some of these properties are fighting against having them declared a Superfund site, thus bringing the government to bear as strongly as possible. While that would hurt property values–and there’s little people in the Colorado mountains care about more than property values–doing so is the best move in the long run.

Let me recommend the excellent 2004 book by Gillian Klucas on Leadville
to get at these issues in a more in depth perspective.

This Day in Labor History: August 7, 1978

[ 14 ] August 7, 2015 |

On August 7, 1978, President Jimmy Carter declared a federal emergency at Love Canal, New York, in response to the discovery of massive amounts of toxins underneath a school and near a housing development for the working class who lived in the city of Niagara Falls, near Buffalo. This event was a key moment in the American working class standing up to the environmental depredations of American industry and eventually led to the creation of Superfund, the last major environmental legislation passed to address the popularly-based environmentalism of protecting people from pollution that played a major role in American politics during the 1970s.

William T. Love wanted to build a small canal intended to connect the Upper and Lower Niagara Rivers around 1900 to generate power for the community he hoped would grow there. It failed and by 1910, the partially built canal was abandoned. Industry began turning it into a waste dump. Hooker Chemical Company purchased the land in 1942 and continued using it for toxic waste. In 1953, Hooker capped the land and looked to sell it. By this time, there was 21,000 tons of toxic chemicals in the canal, including at least 12 carcinogens. The company buried the waste in barrels 20-25 feet deep and capped it with dirt, allowing grass to quickly cover it up. Hooker sold it to the school board of Niagara Falls to build the public school for a growing suburban neighborhood near the canal site. It included a caveat in the contract about what was buried there and felt itself absolved from legal liability.

This was the period of the postwar housing boom in the United States. And while the New Deal state had already led to enormous positive changes for the now upwardly mobile white working class, guaranteeing them good union contacts if they wanted them, the 8-hour day, the minimum wage, and then a variety of new benefits after World War II like federally insured home loans through the Federal Housing Administration and GI Bill (so long as you were white and building in the suburbs), little progress had been made to protect the working class from the environmental impact of industrialization. At Love Canal, housing developments for working class people–both some public housing and single-family housing–began filling some of that housing need.



Most of the early conservation movement was predicated on efficient resource use. The New Deal did take working people into account in its planning, but primarily on the farms with the creation of the Soil Conservation Service and other responses to the Dust Bowl. The giant dam projects like the Tennessee Valley Authority also sought to improve working people’s lives through large-scale regional planning, but pollution issues were an afterthought here as well. During the 1950s, the proto-environmental movement worked on pressing for more conservation of natural resources and more public planning, while building support for new national parks and trying to bring some limits onto the dam building mania that would eventually lead to the damming of Glen Canyon and the near damming of Dinosaur National Monument. Organized labor was involved in all of this, much more so than is usually acknowledged, a project I am presently researching for a future book. The CIO had a full time staffer working specifically on conservation issues through the 1955 merger with the AFL and the UAW had a full-time atomic energy staffer. But pollution, that just wasn’t really on the radar in the 1950s. In fact, as the nation geared up for the Cold War, pollution was often seen as a problem, at least in the post-Donora Fog period, but an acceptable sacrifice for preparedness and economic growth.

What this all meant is that new housing developments and public schools could be built upon toxic waste dumps and no one would bat an eye. But by the 1970s, the American working class, building on a foundation laid by the growing environmental movement, began demanding accountability from corporations over the sacrifices they suffered. Some of that was in famous cases like the Cuyahoga River catching fire in 1969 or the Santa Barbara oil spill of the same year. In the latter case, oil workers’ unions were deeply involved in demanding the companies be held accountable for pollution. The growing emphasis on thinking about the relationship between pollution and personal health by the late 1960s helped fuel this as well. The Black Lung Associations within the United Mine Workers of America was a rejection of horrific union leadership as well as the impact of coal on their bodies. Everyday people, union members or not, began trying to understand the science behind the chemicals transforming the world and how they impacted their own bodies, such as in the anti-pesticide movement. This popular epidemiology would play a major role in Love Canal, especially as residents began to notice the horrible cancers, birth defects and other diseases that affected them, especially their children. No one really knew what was happening until heavy rains led to erosion that began uncovering the barrels of toxic waste in 1976.

Lois Gibbs was the leader of the Love Canal residents. Her son suffered from a variety of healthy problems. After reporters began reporting on what was in the barrels in 1976 and the New York State Health Department declared the site an emergency on August 2, 1978, leading to Carter’s decision a few days later. But what would happen to the residents? Gibbs took the lead here against a state not wanting to do much of anything. She continued investigating, discovering the canal itself was the site of the contamination. The growing investigations discovered dioxin among many other hazardous chemicals in the soil and drinking water of the housing. The government finally relocated 800 of the 900 families nearby and compensated them for their homes. Some still remain on the site today, or at least were there during my visit to what is a very spooky place two years ago.


Lois Gibbs

Carter then responded by pushing for the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act. Popularly known as Superfund, this law mandated the cleanup of the nation’s most toxic sites. At first, a polluter tax paid for the program, creating a $3.8 billion surplus for the program by 1996 and creating a very successful agency. Unfortunately, in 1995 Congress did not extend that tax, meaning the rapid depletion of that surplus and an underfunded agency, a defeat of successful government becoming ever more common in that decade. Organized labor strongly supported the creation of Superfund, both for the jobs it could create and for the protection of working people from industrial hazards. Ultimately, Superfund and the outrage Love Canal caused did help protect Americans from these hazards. Yet disparities in toxic exposure between rich and poor still exist today, and as these things go in America, they tend to fall on racial lines, with African-American and Latino communities exposed to toxicity at much higher rates than wealthier or whiter communities.

This is the 153rd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

The Future Is Now in the Northwest

[ 38 ] August 2, 2015 |


Having started my annual summer trip to see family in the Pacific Northwest, it’s incredibly depressing to see what’s happening to the climate and thus the ecology of the place I grew up. Basically, this year has seen the California drought spread all the way up the Pacific coast into Alaska. Some of this is a lack of precipitation, but a lot of it is only slightly below average participation amounts backed with sky-high temperatures that meant no snow pack. Record heat throughout the region throughout the entirety of 2015 has stressed what little water supplies exist To add to this, with the arrival of El Niño, the winter rains should go a long way to solving the drought in southern California, but will devastate Washington and points north, with Oregon probably dryish but not terrible. All of this has combined in a single year to create what will likely be an unprecedented fire season except that it will probably be dwarfed by next year. The salmon are dying in huge numbers because water temperatures are 5-7 and even up to 13 degrees above average–a shockingly large number considering the lack of normal variation in water temperatures. This not only is an ecological disaster but an enormous cultural disasters with huge implications for regional identity, foodways, and Native American heritage.

Yes, some of this is a confluence of unique events. Drought happens. Unprecedented heat however does not happen, not when the world set its all-time heat record in 2014 and is on the way to breaking that again in 2015. This hasn’t received the attention it should in the U.S. because one of the only parts of the globe that has been colder than normal in 2015 is the northeast of the United States. But whether the Northwest is specifically fated to see vastly higher temperatures than other parts of the world or not, if this is the climate change future, it’s a grim one indeed. There will be cool years and the rain and snows will come again. But if this is the new norm for the Northwest more years than not, the cherished forests and streams and snows and rains of the region will be radically transformed in awful ways.

Page 4 of 31« First...23456...102030...Last »