Did the environmental movement start in the suburbs? (Book Review)

Crabgrass Crucible
© Crabgrass Crucible

We get a lot of books sent to us for review and don't get to all of them. I assign them to my students at Ryerson School of Interior Design, and have built a website with hundreds of reviews. All follow a format of introduction, discussion of the relevance to sustainable design, and opinion. This year there have been some wonderfully written reviews of books that I had not read but now will; On Earth Day it seemed appropriate to publish this one by Emily Wunder.

Crabgrass Crucible – Suburban Nature & the Rise of Environmentalism in Twentieth-Century America

Christopher C. Sellers

While there is no shortage of literature detailing the socio-political implications of suburban sprawl, Christopher Sellers’ work is unique in drawing a positive correlation between suburbia, and a most unlikely concept – environmentalism. In his most recent work, and building on his previous works detailing the political intricacies of environmental protectionism, Sellers suggests that it was the political and social outrage of the suburban community in the 1950’s and 1960’s that gave rise to the modern environmentalist framework. Sellers argues that contemporary environmentalism can trace its roots to the preservationist attitudes of American suburbanites attempting to protect and preserve their natural world, however constructed it may have been. Beginning in the post-war era, Sellers details changing demographics as individuals migrated from city-centers to a liminal boundary between the alienating rural and the increasingly industrialized urban. It is here, he claims, that affluent individuals found ways to integrate with nature through a paradoxical synthesis of domestication and preservation.

Partly anecdotal and partly social psychology, Sellers’ work succeeds at establishing an organic, and admittedly compelling, grass-roots beginning to concerns about nature preservation. He examines specific cases that demonstrate the powerful sentiments amongst suburbanites to protect their constructed habitats against the encroaching threats of both the urban industrial and the rural agricultural. From lobbying against the use of DDT to instituting “fresh air” initiatives to combat against smog, suburbia is presented, by Sellers, as the last outpost of naturalism. Complementing his work is a plethora of quantitative data in the forms of charts, maps and statistics demonstrating how the social milieu of suburban environmentalism is reflected in the demography.

Relevance

The importance of Sellers’ work cannot be overstated. As designers it is imperative for us to recognize not only the practical implications of Sellers’ claims but also, and perhaps more importantly, recognize how Crabgrass Crucible can change how we, as designers, think about the spaces that we create, and those we create them for. Practically speaking, Sellers offers insight into contemporary environmentalism and the concerns that they may harbour. This may prove hugely valuable as we attempt to conceptualize ways to incorporate not only sustainability, but also integration between the organic and the inorganic, into our design philosophies. I would suggest that Sellers goes further, however, and suggests that it is not sufficient to create merely a contrived sense of nature, true sustainability must take into account the direct and indirect consequences of a designed space, from inception to completion. Sellers’ concretizes this attitude with his discussion of DDT and hexavalent chromium, invisible but highly impactful byproducts of careless industry.

The ability of Sellers’ work to change social attitudes towards nature is also important. He demonstrates that those newly constructed suburbanites were intent of defending what they saw as the last vestige of civilized nature – their environmental vigour came from a newly established sense of ownership in their “crabgrass” habitats. This shows that functional space, whether a residence or office building, can allow people to achieve this same kind of attitude towards the natural world, a sense of invested reciprocity in its defense and protection. As designers we cannot ignore the long-lasting, and often unforeseen consequences of our work and the powerful psychological attitudes they may illicit, from nostalgia to unity with nature – both sources of power in Sellers’ work.

Opinion

What is so uniquely insightful about Sellers’ work is precisely what makes it such an enjoyable read, its ability to trace a hugely important socio-political movement like environmentalism to its grass-roots origins through anecdotes and organic concerns of real people. I think it is important to recognize that the social zeitgeist, even amongst the social elite, can have a monumental impact on social and political action…that resonates and is adopted at all levels of the socio-economic spectrum. In as many ways as Sellers’ work is humbling it also challenges presumptions about the origins of one of the most important geopolitical issues facing humanity today – preservation of the natural world and regulating threats against it.

Most who confront this work, I suggest, would be equally surprised to learn of the imperative role suburbanites played in planting the seeds of modern environmental thought. Although, in reflection, it is precisely here, in the transitional space between the untamed natural and the highly industrialized urban that such a movement would find its greatest foothold for positive action. As a designer, I commend Sellers’ work for demonstrating that design can operate in much the same “space” as suburbia did in the 1950’s, blurring the lines between raw materials and the natural world while incorporating, at a fundamental level, sustainability as a driving imperative. We, as designers, can create spaces that remind individuals of the natural world that we occupy and Sellers provides the paradigmatic framework from which designers can create in, rather than on, the natural world.

More at Crabgrass Crucible

Crabgrass Crucible – Suburban Nature & the Rise of Environmentalism in Twentieth-Century America
Christopher C. Sellers
2012 University of North Carolina Press
ISBN 978-0807835432

Emily Wunder is completing her third year at Ryerson School of Interior Design. She hails from St. Mary's, Ontario.

Tags: Book Reviews | Sustainable Development

WHAT'S HOT ON FACEBOOK