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David Zwick and the Passage of an Age of Environmentalism


Effluent flowing from an International Paper Company Mill into the Androscroggin River, Maine, 1973

David Zwick, architect of the Clean Water Act of 1972, has died. His passage brings a number of thoughts to my mind.

First, the success of environmentalism was thanks not only to people like Zwick but because the great peak of environmentalism was about people. Yes, ecosystems were being devalued and used as dumping grounds. That affected lots of species. But it also affected humans. If your environmentalism is pro-human first, it’s also going to be pro-other species. There can be contradictions in that formulation, yes, but as a political strategy, making environmentalism about people is one thing that environmentalists have largely lost thinking is that important. To some extent, there are good reasons for this. Some environmental battles may not be about people. But those battles are likely to be lost, if not in the short term, then in the longer term. Clean air, clean water, cancerous substances–these are issues around which environmentalists organized successfully and created a political movement. Preservation is a harder row to hoe.

Second, Zwick was so young when he made this happen. He died at the age of 75 and so was in his late 20s when Clean Water Act was passed. This is no great insight, but building on the way that the Stoneman Douglas survivors have changed the gun debate in this country based on their own activism in a short time, it’s a reminder that young people are often natural leaders of political movements. This should be treasured, valued, and encouraged.

Third, Zwick was very close with Ralph Nader and while both accomplished a great deal during these years, they also set into place an organizing model I find really problematic. Zwick’s organization, Clean Water Action, like Nader’s PIRGs, focused their energies on door-to-door fundraising. I think this is a terrible thing to do with a young activist. You have some idealistic kid who wants to make change and you channel them to knocking on rich people’s doors and begging for money? That sounds like hell to me and I know many a young activist who gave up on this very quickly. For a long time, it brought a good bit of money into these organizations, so it wasn’t ineffective per se. But if we want to turn young people into activists, this is not the way to do it.

That said, Zwick left the world a much better place than when he arrived and he deserves a tremendous amount of credit. As the founding generation of the modern environmental movement begins to die off, we are going to have a lot of reasons to think about that movement’s complex legacy, what went right, what went wrong, and how we can turn the movement in more productive ways today.

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