Posts Tagged ‘Chad Montrie’

Book on Working People’s Environmentalism in the US

September 16, 2017

Chad Montrie, A People’s History of Environmentalism in the United States (London: Continuum 2011)

I found this yesterday in the £3 bookshop on Bristol’s Park Street. It’s clearly inspired by Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, which told the story of the US as it affected ordinary working, blue-collar Americans and other marginalized groups, like Blacks and the indigenous peoples. It challenged the dominant, right-wing narrative of how America was founded by rich, White, and immensely wise Founding Fathers as a uniquely just society. Zinn has since passed away, but his book inspired Colin Firth’s and Anthony Arnove’s collection of radical British historical texts, The People Speak: Democracy Is Not A Spectator Sport. Contemporary scholarship has superseded some of Zinn’s work, paradoxically showing that in some areas such as ethnic minorities, his opinions were too moderate. But the Republicans still utterly despise him and his book. Looking at one right-wing website I found a list of books its readers hated and considered harmful to America. Zinn’s was one of them.

This book on working Americans and the environmental movement is particularly urgent now that Trump is set on trying to complete the destruction of both. I haven’t done more than glance at the book, but there’s a summary of the book’s contents by Kathryn Morse of Middlebury College on the back cover. This states that it’s

An engaging, critical synthesis of 20 years of new scholarship in environmental and labour history, this book tells a new story of the emergence and power of environmentalism as a movement forged by common people in defence of their lives and livelihoods. Countering previous arguments that environmentalism began in post-World War II middle-class suburbs, Montrie redefines environmentalism as a grass-roots, working class response to industrialization and urbanization dating from the early 19th century.

From the start, this movement included workers’ resistance to elite attempts to control nature both for profit and for upper-class leisure. Montrie narrates the growth of working-class environmentalism and its successes and failures from the textile mills of New England, to the Chicago streets around Hull House, to automobile plants of New England, to the coal mines of Appalachia, and to the agricultural fields of California, with other stops along the way. This detailed by accessible book offers a forceful new interpretation of American environmentalism and rewrite the narrative of the modern environmental movement.

The Republicans and the corporate backers fear and despise the Green movement, denouncing it as a strategy for introducing redistributive taxation and Socialism by the back door. They hate the way Greens recommend that rich, polluting industries should be taxed, and clean, non-polluting energy sources – like solar, wind and wave energy – should be developed to replace fossil fuels. These have got to go, as the Republicans and Libertarians are funded and bought by the Koch brothers and other oil and fossil fuel magnates.

And when the Republicans and the corporate paymasters aren’t foaming at the mouth about environmentalist ‘socialism’, they’re claiming that it’s another form of Nazism, because the Nazis were very keen on protecting the German environment. Well, they were, and this had been a major part of the German racist, volkisch movement since the 19th century. But this doesn’t mean that environmental per se is simply Nazism under another form. Where it appeared in Britain and America, it was an attempt by working people and the authorities to protect the environment and allow ordinary people to live clean, healthier lives and enjoy the beauty of the countryside in which their ancestors had lived and worked.

Hitler would have liked the Nazis to have been a party of the working class, but he hated organized labour. The first thing the Nazis did when they seized power was smash the German trade unions. But as this book shows, after the War American trade unions played a major part in the Green movement in the US. Which also explains why the Republicans go bug-eyed about the Greens and Socialism. The environmental movement and its connections to organized labour and the American working people marked a challenge to capitalism and the power of big corporations, not just to exploit the environment, but also to exploit the blue-collar, working women and men, who claimed their rights at work and to enjoy America’s great scenic beauty.

Another strand of their ideological attack on the environmental movement is to claim that it’s pagan, and so Christians should have nothing to do with it. It is true that much modern, Neopaganism is centred on the worship of the earth mother, and that pagans have been particularly environmentally conscious since the emergence of Green movement in the 1960s. But Christian writers were describing the beauty of the natural worlds and the wonders of its creatures as evidence of God’s providential handiwork from at least the Middle Ages onwards, and I’ve seen absolutely nothing to suggest that caring for the environment in itself is at all antichristian. Indeed, some theologians have pointed to Jean Calvin’s belief that as God has given human stewardship of the Earth, they have a duty and responsibility to protect the environment.

I haven’t really had time to read the book properly yet, but I will have to. Trump and the big corporations which control him are a real, present threat to the environment, working people, and indeed the future of the Earth and humanity, just as the Tories and their paymasters are over this side of the Pond. We have to protect both in order to create a better future and preserve the planet.

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