Publication Date

Fall 2016


This article investigates the relationship between American political culture and grassroots environmentalism in the 1970s. To do so, it examines how the white working class residents of Love Canal, New York, claimed health and a healthy environment as rights of citizenship. To date, the Canal has remained a sore spot for environmental scholarship; this article demonstrates how the analytic difficulties posed by the Canal stem from the cross-currents of American political culture in the late 1970s. Canal residents put their local experience into several larger frames of reference: the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, the plight of Cuban and Vietnamese refugees, and a culture of skepticism towards government and medical authority. Residents’ use of these frameworks illustrates two broader points about American political culture in the late 1970s. First, the claim to health as a right rather than a privilege, articulated by health radicals throughout the 1960s, had by the late 1970s been decoupled from its origins in left-liberal struggles. Second, the cross-currents of localism, nativism, racism, and anti-authoritarianism characteristic of the reactionary populism of urban working-class whites could, quite logically for their proponents, co-exist with co-exist with rights-based claims to health and a healthy environment. Love Canal demands that we embed our narratives about the development of environmental politics within a broader story about deregulation, the rise of the New Right, and the political and economic marginalization of the working class in the United States.


Journal of Social History





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