New book profiles "ordinary" environmental crusaders

What transforms ordinary citizens farmers and housewives, teachers and soccer moms into environmental crusaders? A new book profiles scores of activists who made the leap from victims to leaders.

provided by Smith College

In the post-industrial era almost any citizen can name an environmental danger in his or her community, pointing a finger at hazards ranging from industrial waste to untreated sewage. Some accept these dangers as inevitable. But many people do speak out. It takes a lot to fight City Hall or Acme Chemical or Consolidated Nuclear. How do people find the time or the resources or the courage?

A remarkable number of today's heroes are ordinary citizens, says Myron (Mickey) Peretz Glazer and Penina Migdal Glazer, professors of sociology and history at Smith and Hampshire Colleges respectively.

"Once these citizens come to believe that the health and safety of their communities are in danger, they are willing to take great risks to pursue their cause," asserts Mickey Glazer. "They are willing to face ostracism, economic sacrifices and even threats of violence."

The Glazers draw their conclusions from work on "The Environmental Crusaders: Confronting Disaster and Mobilizing Community" (Penn State Univ. Press, 1998), the result of five years spent interviewing 140 activists, public interest group members, journalists, union leaders, and corporate and government employees in the United States, Israel, and the former Czechoslovakia. The Glazers wanted to find out how the courage of ordinary people helps to build a more accountable and democratic society.

"When it comes to courage, our greatest role models may well be our own neighbors," Mickey Glazer claims, offering as evidence the following figures from the book:


Tom Bailie, a farmer in eastern Washington State, owned land abutting the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, the facility that made the plutonium used in the Nagasaki bomb. In the 1980s, concerned by growing numbers of deformed animals and a regional epidemic of cancer and other illnesses, he began a crusade against the health and safety problems at the Hanford nuclear bomb facility. He joined with other "downwinders," public interest groups and local journalists to prod public officials to remedial action and to challenge the official claim that everything was under control. In 1991, the Department of Energy acknowledged serious problems of radiation contamination and authorized a full-scale cleanup and more stringent safety standards. Bailie continues to press for compensation for victims.

Florence Robinson, a teacher in Alsen, Louisiana, a small, predominantly African-American community outside of Baton Rouge, began experiencing bouts of dizziness and nausea in the late 1980s. When she realized that her neighbors were also suffering, she began looking into the release of neurotoxins into the air by local petrochemical companies. She worked closely with her neighbors to create awareness of the environmental danger and to build an active movement. They forged national connections to fight environmental racism. With no previous advocacy experience, she became an important participant in conferences throughout the country, testified four times before Congress, and later served on the National Commission on Super-fund.

Penny Newman moved to Glen Avon, California, with her family in the early 1970s, knowing nothing of the nearby Stringfellow Acid Pits, a depository for industrial and toxic wastes. As president of the local PTA, Newman followed up when heavy rains flooded the pits, sending contaminated water cascading through the local elementary school. She and other parents linked this environmental disaster to the many cases of asthma, skin rashes, and headaches mothers were seeing in their children. A shy housewife, Newman was transformed by her experience in battling the acid pits a campaign that involved picketing, protests, media campaigns and lawsuits, ending in a major settlement against the state of California into a successful leader on a range of environmental issues whose influence continues to permeate an entire region of the country.


Are Bailie, Robinson and Newman anomalies, or can anyone become an environmental crusader?

"What sets successful reformers apart is both their passion at the outset and their ability to sustain the fight over years and decades," the Glazers claim. Like the activists they profiled in their earlier, highly acclaimed book, The Whistleblowers: Exposing Corruption in Government and Industry, these reformers, once they get involved in the battle, refuse to back off.

"If they retreat," Mickey Glazer explains, "they feel they have given up and let others down. For some people, a lengthy struggle is too stressful, but for true environmental crusaders it is galvanizing. They strengthen their resolve by building a sense of community solidarity."

While acknowledging that not everyone is cut out for the crusader role, the Glazers reject recent claims that civic responsibility is declining in America. Are more people retreating into private life as they become alienated from their societies?

"Quite possibly," Penina Glazer responds. "But at the same time, our research shows that there are literally hundreds of thousands of people and thousands of environmental groups who believe that change is possible through responsible collective action.

"Their organizations may not have charters, constitutions or fancy offices. But when the need arises, there are grass-roots environmental crusaders throughout the country, in every community under attack, organizing and saying 'We can do something together.'"

  Contact: Laurie Fenlason (413) 585-2190; email; Web