Crabgrass Crucible: Suburban Nature and the Rise of Environmentalism in Twentieth-Century America by Christopher C. Sellers (review)
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Crabgrass Crucible: Suburban Nature and the Rise of Environmentalism in Twentieth-Century America. By Christopher C. Sellers. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012. Pp. 384. $42.00 cloth)

By now-common knowledge, suburbs have been the dominant residential space in the United States since the 1970s. But not so familiar is the rise of environmentalism in conjunction. While no slight to Adam Rome's 2001 epic Bulldozer in the Countryside: Suburban Sprawl and the Rise of American Environmentalism, Sellers is in sync with the new suburban history that increasingly examines suburbs through the lens of political culture and economy. From environmentalism to Black Power to modern conservatism they reveal a changing political landscape. They have not all pointed to the stereotype of suburban [End Page 119] being synonymous with conservatism or the white middle class, however. Like Rome, but also others like Robert O. Self 's analysis of Black Power in Oakland related to suburbanization (American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland, 2003), suburbs are dynamic places involving dynamic processes. That antiliberal growth rhetoric and environmentalism can be found there belies the fact that suburbia is not simply "little boxes on a hillside."

Sellers's thesis is clear: environmentalism is a grassroots ideology born in suburbs. This is not a repeat of Rome. While distancing himself from Rome, who focused on a top-down process of developers and government agencies, Sellers reveals the role suburbanites played so that "we can understand the new ideology of environmentalism as emanating less from the top down than from the bottom up" (p. 106). This is a corrective turn in suburban history whereby the making of suburban lives and viewpoints is placed squarely within their hands. Yet, claims at which direction, top down or bottom up, is more important are not always meaningful. For example, which ingredient in the baking of a cake is most important—is the two cups of flour more important than the one teaspoon of vanilla extract because of volume? All the ingredients are vital. So, rather than overturning Rome, Sellers adds nuance and places the efforts of suburbanites themselves adjacent to others.

Sellers unpacks how conservationist concerns, typically of the well-to-do, merged with concerns over pollution (smog) and contamination (of water) that crossed racial and class lines to forge modern environmentalism in the post-World War II years. To pull this off, he localizes it in suburbia by concentrating on two epitomes of sprawl: Long Island and Los Angeles. The process he unpacks is convincing. In both Long Island and Los Angeles a more general narrative of suburbs as places of nature—bequeathed to us by nineteenth-century Romantics, landscape designers, and suburbanites themselves—dominated conceptions of suburbs. Yet, connections between health and nature faded in the early decades of the twentieth century. But with sprawl and, then, pollution and contamination, a revived concern with "nature erasing" developed, as well as a view of the connection [End Page 120] of nature to health, so modern environmentalism was born.

The strength of Sellers's book is how he does, indeed, localize it within suburbs through the experiences of suburbanites themselves. He reveals how suburbanites encountered nature within suburban places that subsequently mediated how they came to understand the environment. Moreover, it was sprawl and then pollution into their places—or those nearby—that fueled their new environmental consciousness. The real treat of Sellers's book is his masterful use of oral histories with suburbanites to provide snapshot biographies ranging over class, race, and environment. Encountering these suburbanites themselves undeniably views environmentalism as "emanating" from the bottom up on the one hand and draws the reader in intimately on the other.

In a powerful concluding chapter and epilogue, Sellers shows how localization is the key to both the rise and fall of a more effective environmentalism. As globalization has increasingly led to concerns with problems "out there," be it arctic snowcaps or climate change, the loss of a focus locally, such as with suburbanites looking at their suburbs, the immediacy and perceived problems become less real and perhaps too abstract. For environmentalism to recapture the force it had...


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