Review of Richard S. Newman’s “Love Canal: A Toxic History from Colonial Times to the Present”

51JsKqEmLTL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_By Elizabeth D. Blum, Troy University
Read original article and the authors’ response via H-net Roundtable here.

We face challenging times for environmentalism. In just the first few weeks of the new Trump Administration, the president nominated a man who has been actively hostile to the EPA to be its head; removed climate change information from the White House website; authorized the completion of the Dakota Access pipeline and swept aside orders for an EIS on the area; overturned rulings protecting waterways from coal mining debris; and froze federal science grants. Aides have intimated that the destruction of the entire EPA itself may be forthcoming as well. States and other government agencies, emboldened by Trump’s attack on science, have followed suit. The House of Representatives has put forward measures to sell off public lands (later withdrawn) and pushed for fewer protections on parks. Michigan announced plans to drill at one of its state parks.

As an environmental historian, I’ve been particularly concerned about all these issues, anxiously following the news, Twitter, and Facebook feeds to stay up to date, and attending protests in an effort to have my voice heard. In addition, my research has taken on new significance to me. It feels more important, as if I can contribute by increasing knowledge and understanding about environmental beliefs and attitudes. Yet, certainly, I understand that I must present my work as objectively as I can, showing environmental activism with all its subtleties and complexities. Otherwise, how can we learn how we got here? I hope this discussion of Richard Newman’s book, Love Canal: A Toxic History from Colonial Times to the Present (Oxford, 2016) helps engage these important issues in a difficult time for environmentalism. As a related issue, I’m also very interested in how Newman sees his book within the established historiography. Did he intend to forge new paths – a course I see charted in its discussion of activists and gender in particular?

Published prior to the Trump electoral college victory, Newman’s Love Canal clearly sees the events at Love Canal and especially the activists through rose-colored glasses. The book brought many of the issues surrounding environmental advocacy and the historian’s craft into sharp relief for me. Let me say, first, that I have also written a book on Love Canal, entitled Love Canal Revisited (Kansas, 2008). As I noted in a forthcoming review in Reviews in American History, the beginnings of Newman’s book and my own are quite similar. Using “path dependent” theory, Newman describes a “very long history of environmental protest along the Niagara Frontier” and notes that “generations of industrial dreamers laid down a history of land use that led almost inexorably to the establishment of toxic burial grounds [at Love Canal] in the 20th century” (9). Although I have severe problems with the belief that anything in history is inevitable, my book, eight years before Newman, walks through the 300 years prior to Love Canal and found that the area “has long been a site of environmental use (and overuse) … a place where human being exploit others [as well as a place of] … the empowerment of marginalized populations” (3).

Beyond that, my work and Newman’s diverge. Where I document conflict between groups, Newman’s book presents a much more unified, enlightened group of activists. Newman’s activists press for environmental change imbedded with critiques of capitalism and industrialization, racial injustice, and its global implications. This view distorts the complexity of historical events within the environmental movement. Part of the problem arises from Newman’s loose use of terminology. He often uses “resident” and “activist” interchangeably, even when neither is correct. Note the following quotes dealing with people at Love Canal and the meaning of their activism (italics are mine). According to Newman, after “initially seeking evacuation, area activists soon found themselves engaged in a much bigger battle over the meaning of both a toxic past and the future of American environmentalism” (4). Then, “increasingly conscious of the historical forces that shaped their struggle, Love Canal residents began asking tough questions about their environment and its place in a world nearly overrun by industrial waste” (10). Later, a “flier noted that Love Canal residents desired something called environmental ‘justice’” (119). And, “Love Canal activists were soon talking openly about environmental ethics, national hazardous waste policies, and environmental stewardship… [they argued that] environmental health was very nearly an American right” (123-4).

Language is important in this case. Obviously, not all the residents of the Love Canal area morphed into activists. Some residents openly or quietly stood against the work to remove residents from Love Canal. In addition, not all activists lived in the neighborhood. Love Canal saw an influx of non-residents as activists, notably with the Ecumenical Task Force. “Activists,” as well, hardly presented monolithic views or purpose of enlightened 21st century environmentalists. The Ecumenical Task Force falls closest to Newman’s description of the “activists/residents”: they certainly connected the hazardous waste problems with other social justice issues as well as nationwide environmental problems. Yet they bickered with the LCHA frequently over goals, language, tactics, and methods. Divisions ran rampant through the LCHA as well: prominent leader Lois Gibbs’s actions caused several groups to break away in protest. And what is an “activist”? Newman often makes it sound like the entire neighborhood actively protested, when only a few dozen led and organized. Now, certainly, more came to the occasional town hall or marched in parades, but are these the “activists” Newman discusses? Did all of them come to these same enlightened conclusions? The historical record reflects that many of residents held very socially exclusionary and even racist views. Only one resident, Lois Gibbs, continued to be active in the national environmental movement after Love Canal (Luella Kenny continued to assist the local area through the health fund). Although Gibbs has had a tremendous impact on grassroots organizing, it would be inaccurate to ascribe her views and level of commitment to the neighborhood as a whole. Most of the thousands of residents worked toward their own removal, left, and went on with their lives as much as they could.


Protest about the Love Canal contamination by a resident, ca. 1978 or so. Source: EPA historical website.

Love Canal’s views of the activists generally and from a gendered perspective present issues regarding connections to the established historiography. Newman ahistorically sees these “activists” as creating “a new identity [that]… reframed the very nature of American environmentalism” (124). Prior to the late 1970s, Newman states, environmentalism focused “only on saving nature, or pristine landscapes, out there in the great non-human beyond” (11). That changed with Love Canal, “for the people in this infamous neighborhood were among the first to argue that their streets, sewers, homes, and yards comprised a threatened, and threatening, landscape” (11). Obviously, to construct this argument, Newman discards and ignores significant contributions by numerous historians detailing activism of both white and black women in urban reform beginning in the Progressive Era as well as mid-century anti-nuclear protest.

His gendered analysis of the activists, in particular, lacks a connection with previous scholarship. In one chapter, he notes that environmental activism broke with “ingrained notions of appropriate public behavior and political comportment” for neighborhood men (129). “Many Love Canal men,” Newman asserts, “had to reimagine themselves as both activists and dissidents … [I]t may not have been the most comfortable identity to assume—skip work for a protest meeting?—but it was a necessary one” (129). In fact, union activity yielded familiarity with protest for white working class male residents of the neighborhood. Many of the prominent Love Canal women remembered their fathers and husbands joining union protests and pickets during their time at work to protest for safer conditions. The picket of the remedial construction site, one of the LCHA’s earliest protests, grew partially out of men’s familiarity with this tactic. In addition, the unions often supported the LCHA and other activists, since their goals of worker health and safety coincided. Other male activists (particularly with the Ecumenical Task Force) had deep experience with social justice issues prior to getting involved at Love Canal. They had participated in anti-war, anti-nuclear, and student protests and hardly had to “reimagine” themselves to be activists.

Similar problems arise from his discussion of the women at Love Canal. Newman notes that women at Love Canal “ironically” (133) used maternalism to promote their ideas, yet to Newman, “these maternalist conceptions of activism proved to be only a stepping stone… [later,] women embraced social movement politics with a vengeance. It is hard not to see the influence of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique percolating through Love Canal women’s evolving notions of protest. (Lois Gibbs’ autobiography begins allusively with a chapter entitled ‘The Problem at Love Canal,’ perhaps a nod to Friedan’s iconic chapter … ‘The Problem That Has No Name’)” (133). Going along with this tenuous proto-feminist hero theme, Newman also quotes journalist David Shribman without comment or critique as saying “Love Canal women refused to give in to the stress, anxiety, and outright disappointment that often accompany activist struggles” (133).

The women active at Love Canal consciously chose, used, and manipulated maternalistic rhetoric to their advantage, but they also believed it. To call this choice of language “ironic” ignores the significant historiography of women’s activism and maternalism, as well as the words and ideas of the women themselves. Rather than see themselves as feminists (although we might), many Love Canal women saw their activism as anti-feminist. They used their language to promote the role and value of a mother and wife to feminists who, in their view, denigrated these roles. New Right anti-feminism rather than Betty Friedan connected many female residents to their activism. Is Newman implying here either a “hierarchy” of rhetoric (feminism being more “advanced” than maternalism; or environmental justice over NIMBY) or that women who use and develop maternalist arguments as rhetoric in environmental struggles are less worthy of our attention?

History has dealt with the concept of imposing standards of heroism on past actors before, notably with slavery. In 2001, for example, Michael Johnson authored a dramatic reinterpretation of Denmark Vesey. Known by most historians as the leader of one of the largest slave rebellions in American history, Johnson instead presented him as simply one of many slaves possibly framed by whites to spread fear of violence. This new interpretation won over some pretty distinguished historians, forcing them to rethink how historians presented slavery. Winthrop Jordan noted that scholars should “stop requiring slaves to have behaved in ways that we now think would be heroic.” Philip Morgan succinctly noted that historians want to “highlight ‘freedom fighters,’ as if entitlement to human dignity depended on a readiness to engage in violent struggle. The assumption is that only through a willingness to sacrifice life could slaves prove their worthiness for emancipation” (Jon Wiener, Historians In Trouble, 130-31). Environmental historians should demand the same from our scholarship.

Overall, Newman’s history of Love Canal adds some important components to the story of Love Canal, including a history of Hooker Chemical prior to Love Canal. His presentation of the Love Canal crisis, however, is far less useful. Seen through rosecolored glasses and intent on proving the activists as positive heroes, the book seems to come theoretically from an earlier era of promoting consensus and minimizing conflict. His desire to transform the Love Canal story into a triumphant narrative of unified activists marching toward enlightenment about national environmental injustice cannot be supported by the evidence. It may be tempting in this age to glorify those who stand on the front lines of environmental activism, but historians should present their narratives in all their complexity or little will be learned from it.


This review is one of several on Love Canal from H-Environment Roundtable Reviews, Volume 7, No. 3 (2017)
Roundtable Review Editor: Michael Egan

Elizabeth (Scout) Blum is a professor of history at Troy University in Alabama. Her first book, Love Canal Revisited, focused on the gender, race, and class implications of that environmental struggle. She is currently working on a book about messages presented to children about nature in popular culture sources.