- Environmental Activism and the Urban Crisis Baltimore, St. Louis, Chicago by Robert R. Gioielli
There are, in some estimations, only two kinds of historians: “lumpers,” or those who argue that a movement, event, concept, or individual may best be understood as a part of some other entity; and “splitters,” or those who believe that some person, idea, place, or moment should be freed from a mistaken subordination to some other thing. As a lumper, Robert R. Gioielli offers a compelling addition to calls expanding the boundaries of the modern environmental movement.
Leveraging extensive archival research and contextualized within the literature of environmental history, Gioielli’s Environmental Activism and the Urban Crisis presents a revisionary account of the environmental politics of American cities in the last decades of the twentieth century. Based on a 2008 dissertation, this monograph offers a critique of advocates and historians, both of whom have tended to distinguish between a “mainstream” environmental movement often concerned with wilderness, landscapes, and non-human species; and a second political project more connected to the lived experience of urban residents. The first movement has received significant scholarly attention and political organizing, while the second has been demarcated as separate from the mainstream of American history and political experience. Anthropocentric, urban-centered health concerns are regularly described not as environmentalism, but as “environmental justice.” Most issues having to do with disproportionately negative environmental effects on disempowered or minority groups are demoted into this catch-all.
Gioelli intends both to understand and to challenge this distinction, while highlighting case studies demonstrating how twentieth-century urban activism should now be understood as a component of a rising environmental consciousness. It is an essentially historio-graphic argument of lumping, “serv[ing] as a corrective by explicitly bringing the history of activism by poor, disadvantaged, and minority urban groups against environmental inequalities under the broad conceptual umbrella of environmentalism” (6). Gioielli wishes to value [End Page 94] these groups in their own right, but also rein-vigorate mainstream environmentalism itself with a “big tent” approach to understand its implications, variations, and reverberations. Adding previously “uncounted environmentalists” to our understanding of the late twentieth-century increases the importance of this subject, and could help inoculate present-day activism against accusations of being a “movement of movie stars and limousine liberals,” people who “care more about exotic wild animals than real people, out of touch and self-consumed” (167). The ambitious ultimate goal of the book is to help “rebuild American environmentalism as an inclusive and, ideally, more effective movement” (174).
The three case studies on St. Louis, Baltimore, and Chicago—parts of which have appeared in print elsewhere—are wrapped inside two broader chapters offering national context. The compact first chapter is a surprisingly fast-paced and broad overview of twentieth-century urban history, reading like a textbook survey of politics and planning that ranges from Lewis Mumford to the Black Panther Party. This background assists the later chapters. The Chicago case, for example, offers an engrossing re-telling of Chicago’s well-known Alinskyite neighborhood organizing, focusing this time on the air pollution and freeway concerns of the short-lived Citizen Action Program.
Newly relevant in the wake of the Flint disaster, an account of St. Louis’s struggles with lead poisoning situates that activism within both civil rights and growing environmental consciousness, and exemplifies an ongoing theme within the book: “the importance of technical and expert knowledge to urban environmentalism” (39). By the 1970s, urban activists were skilled and experienced organizers. But mainstream environmentalism often depended on a different rhetoric of scientific expertise and the technical measurement of invisible pollutants. Bridging that gap is key, and this chapter admirably balances the stories of organizer Ivory Perry with Washington University of St. Louis scientist Barry Commoner, while setting their political stories against the social reality of the real estate market and the lived experience of public housing residents. For many, lead poisoning “was a potent reminder of the broader injustice...