The year 2021 marks the 40thth anniversary of the Center for Health, Environment & Justice. The Love Canal community’s efforts in 1978 successfully won the relocation of 900 working class families away from a leaking toxic waste dump and awoke a nation to the hazards of toxic chemicals in our environment. Overcoming powerful resistance from government and a multi-billion dollar company, Occidental Petroleum, this grassroots effort demonstrated how ordinary people can gain power through joining together to win their struggle. Love Canal sparked a new nationwide social justice movement concerned with links between health problems and the environment. Hand-in-hand with these concerns are questions about the rights of corporations to increase their profits through decisions that sacrifice the health of innocent families and the environment.
The Meaning of Environmentalism Has Expanded—A New Grassroots Environmental Health Movement
Traditional environmentalism in America has centered, in general, around protecting the natural environment through laws and regulations. Newer grassroots efforts, however, are as much about protecting public health as the environment. These efforts value the basic human right to have clean air, water, food and soil along with preserving our nation’s natural resources. The grassroots leadership believes systemic change comes from the bottom up—people plus organization equals strength—the strength to influence policy and win protection of these basic rights, and the strength to counteract the money and pressure corporations bring to bear on elected representatives to oppose or weaken protective laws. As a result, the grassroots strategy is to build a stronghold at the local and state levels that can trickle up to influence federal-level representatives and national policies.
Another distinction between the two movements is their contrasting approaches on achieving the same overarching goals of protecting the environment and public health:
Traditional environmentalism is focused on regulations and regulatory controls. It therefore inevitably winds up debating how many parts per million of chemical X can be in wastewater that is released into a river without killing off downstream fish populations?
Today’s grassroots efforts are focused on prevention. Grassroots leaders are asking “Why do we allow chemical X in wastewater to be discharged into our rivers when non-toxic alternatives exist?”
Neither approach is right or wrong, or is superior to the other. The overarching goal of protecting the environment and all living things is the same for both segments of the environmental movement. When operating on a parallel path, the two approaches together can make significant progress in protecting the environment and public health.
Who Represents the Grassroots Environmental Health Movement Today?
The grassroots environmental movement has a long history of success. One of its most important achievements has been building a broad and diversified base of support that includes: Workers, people of color, faith-based organizations, rural and urban families, and indigenous peoples living in today’s society whose lives have been affected by environmental issues. Parent-teacher organizations, doctors, nurses, and other health professionals working to transform the health care industry’s disposal of potentially harmful substances; people who make their living fishing or depend upon fish as a primary food in their diets and other people from all walks of life.