- Green Picket Fences: Environmentalism in the Suburbs
The modern environmental movement was always a city kid, Christopher Sellers tells us, raised not on a farm or in a small town near the woods but instead on the metropolitan fringe in suburban America. In Crabgrass Crucible: Suburban Nature and the Rise of Environmentalism in Twentieth-Century America, Sellers explains how suburbanites played a key role in calling attention to industrial harms like smog and tainted water and how their experiences with nature close-at-hand produced some of the most basic assumptions structuring environmental activism. The environmental movement, he says, was less the work of inspirational wanderers in the wilderness or of coolly rational technocrats in the cities than it was a cause championed by the people in-between: suburban homeowners confronting immediate threats to their air, water, and land.
Sellers says his “chief argument” is that the “ideologies and coalitions that made [environmentalism] a popular force after World War II were born in those places touched most and earliest by post-war sprawl” (p. 3). But that’s far from the most compelling argument Sellers makes, and it may even be the least compelling. Environmental historians have for many years granted the suburbs a prominent place in the history of the movement. In Beauty, Health, And Permanence (1987), Samuel Hays wrote of modern environmentalism as a middle-class movement and discussed suburbanites dogged by development and pollution that “shaped much environmental concern. . . . The confrontation with environmental degradation in the city now was augmented by a confrontation with threatened degradation in the suburbs” (p. 91). More recently, Adam Rome located the origins of late-twentieth-century environmentalism in suburbia in The Bulldozer In The Countryside (2001). Sellers pays tribute to Rome’s book but suggests it treats the suburbs monochromatically, as little more than anti-nature. Rome, he writes, “simply rules out the possibility of [End Page 343] nature in suburbs, much less any authentic nature seeking” (p. 4). This is not entirely fair. Rome dedicates a whole chapter to the battle—by suburbanites—to protect open space on the edge of the city, and another chapter to the movement to “design with nature.” Rome quotes landscape designer Ian McHarg urging conservation groups to expand their agendas “to include, not only wild environments, but those dominated by man” (p. 185).
What makes Sellers’ book an important one is less the broad claim of the suburbs’ significance for environmentalism than the directions in which he takes that claim and the stories he tells along the way. Sellers begins in late 1940s and 1950s Long Island, where recently minted suburban homeowners were adjusting to new houses, new gardens, and new wildlife. The cows and chickens of rural Long Island gave way to the dogs and cats of new housing developments, and agricultural plantings and wild flora surrendered to ornamental gardens. Generally, Long Islanders worked to domesticate the nature in and around their homes. Amidst all of that taming, though, some species managed to define their own place in the suburban order, including white-tailed deer, certain nonmigratory birds, and the occasional adopted skunk. The attention that Sellers pays to particular species and overall ecosystems in suburban landscapes is novel; as he points out, unlike most works on suburbia, Crabgrass Crucible defines the suburbs not in strict human terms but as an “ecological substrate, at once built and biological” (p. 5). The suburban region is not just a place built by people but a land beneath it, the assembled world and the organic one adapting to each other.
On Long Island, the switch from a suburban ethic of taming nature to a suburban ethic of protecting nature came when city planner Robert Moses proposed a four-lane parkway running the length of Fire Island, just off Long Island’s south shore. When residents of Long Island and the New York metropolitan area protested Moses’ plans, they did so using the rhetoric of leaving the land alone...