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  • (Re)Writing Histories of Environmentalism in Alabama
  • Ellen Griffith Spears (bio)

Southern environmental historians have long championed the need for greater attention to southern landscapes in environmental history, a field that focused much of its early scholarship on locales in New England and the American West.1 More recently, southern environmental history as a field has grown more robust.2 However, a similar need exists for more thorough and detailed explorations of environmentalism in the U.S. South. For, despite—or perhaps because of—the region's hospitality to polluting industries and the resistance of southern legislatures and municipalities to passing strong environmental laws, the U.S. South is the scene of far more environmental activism than has been acknowledged in most histories of this sprawling and diverse social movement.

In a 2007 essay, environmental historian Paul Sutter noted that the broader field of environmental history derived its impetus from the emergent movement. Sutter suggested that the dearth of southern environmental histories is related to a weak environmental [End Page 171] movement in the South. "In a disproportionately poor and rural region renowned for being friendly to migrating industries and slow to regulate environmental impacts," Sutter wrote, "southern environmentalists have had a hard time getting traction."3

Getting traction often has been tough. However, in contrast to conventional wisdom, environmentalists have been quite active in southern states in the post-1960s period, informing and at times pushing national priorities and policy. Limited regulatory progress in southern states has not been due to lack of trying. Southern activists have worked vigorously—both independently and in concert with national environmental organizations—to promote reform. And, they have won some important victories. More of their stories need to be told.

Excellent book-length studies of environmentalism in the U.S. South do exist; indeed, the literature is expanding in both breadth and depth. Mark Hersey's reconsideration of George Washington Carver, My Work is That of Conservation (2011) takes the story back to the Progressive Era and places the famous African American agro-chemist squarely in the history of conservation.4 Histories of activism include biographical accounts of other outstanding reformers, many of them women; witness Jack Davis's An Everglades' Providence (2009), the definitive work on Marjory Stoneman Douglas's long campaign—she was president of Friends of the Everglades until age 100—to save the Florida swamplands from destruction.5 Sociologist Robert Bullard's 1990 classic, Dumping in Dixie, broke open the field of environmental justice scholarship. In that book and a growing body of work, Bullard and others have exposed the [End Page 172] disproportionate stockpiling of hazardous waste in and near African American neighborhoods in the South and chronicled resistance to that pattern. The record also contains a growing number of narrative accounts by historians and journalists about environmental struggles in particular locales, addressing race, gender, and class, as well as geography.6 The Appalachian region has enjoyed particular attention, as has Louisiana's toxic strip between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.7

Still, a need exists for synthesizing histories of environmentalism in southern contexts, not least to understand how critical historical [End Page 173] studies of the region might illuminate the current status of and prospects for environmental reform. The characterization of the South as a place where environmental activism is lacking or ineffective reflects the continued construction of the South as anti-modern, backward, rural, and unsophisticated.8 Studies of environmentalism at the state level in conservative locales may take on particular salience as environmentalists across the country seek to make headway in an unpredictable era of hostility to environmental protection in Washington. A brief review of key environmental battles in one Deep South state reveals no shortage of stories to tell.


a quick sketch of environmental activism in alabama reveals more successes than historians—and perhaps than activists themselves—may have assumed. Landmark litigation over air pollution in the state during the 1970s, for example, yielded a change in national policy regarding accountability of military installations—which have a strong presence in the state and the region—to the nation's environmental laws. Toxic tort cases over the environmental health impact of chemical...


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