Civil movement

How coal miners and factory workers helped found the environmental movement

Rachel Carson, a scientist and writer from rural Pennsylvania, published Silent Spring 60 years ago. Many credit this book, which meticulously documented the harm DDT pesticides were inflicting on wildlife, farm animals and humans as early as the 1950s, with launching the modern environmental movement.

Carson has collected stories from across the United States to highlight the dangers of indiscriminate pesticide use and the threats contaminated land poses to life. She would fight accusations of chemical industry alarmism for the rest of her life. But Silent Spring struck a chord with an audience increasingly skeptical of the ethics and efficiency of industrial society.

Carson’s critique of comfortable business-government relations echoed the concept of the power elite popularized by New Left intellectual C. Wright Mills a few years earlier. In Mills’ assessment, American society was dominated by bureaucracies that included both large corporations but also organized workers.

Environmentalists inspired by Carson railed against these vested interests. They were dropouts and opponents of the established system, or at least strangers to it. In 1990, Richard White, an American environmental historian, asked the question “are you an environmentalist or do you work for a living?” White’s essay took aim at the environmental claims of white-collar workers who opposed manual workers employed in polluting industries.

More recent studies have built on White’s ideas, revealing knowledge and respect for nature among these workers. The researchers pointed out that these communities have generally suffered the most from pollution and industrial accidents. In The Myth of Silent Spring, social historian Chad Montrie told the story of the much more diverse coalitions that shaped American environmentalism.

Silent Spring was an immediate commercial success upon its release in September 1962.

Labor environmentalism

Montrie highlighted the role of auto, petroleum, chemical and mining unions in campaigning for environmental improvement since the early 1960s, when Carson’s book was making waves. The United Auto Workers supported campaigns for fresh air and clean water in American cities such as Detroit, Michigan, while the United Farm Workers shared Carson’s opposition to pesticides poisoning their members in the fields of California.

Montrie also highlighted the role of civil rights activists in shaping demands for environmental justice among poor and working-class black Americans. It inspired campaigns against lead poisoning in cities like St Louis, Missouri and for cleaner air quality in Gary, Indiana. These groups worked with those who most resembled the received image of Carson-inspired environmentalists.

My ongoing research into community and professional experiences of energy transitions in the UK has revealed something similar. I recorded testimonies from middle-class environmentalists who joined protests such as the Friends of the Earth campaign in 1971 against Schweppes’ non-returnable bottle policy. Many of these people found their campaign comrades on college campuses, in left-leaning bookstores and whole-food stores. These places have also become important recruiting grounds for the anti-nuclear movement. Activists from this milieu organized protests against the construction of the Torness nuclear power station in East Lothian, Scotland, in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

These concerns rarely concerned university graduates alone. The Torness campaign has benefited from the support of farmers who have helped activists occupying the site of the power station. They also provided the spectacle of a cavalcade of tractors driving through central Edinburgh in support of the protest.

An example of working class agitation for environmental action can be found in the archives of the Scottish Trades Union Congress. At the annual meeting of the trade union confederation in 1972, WB Blairford of the Electricians Union proposed an anti-pollution resolution which set out an agenda for class environmentalism. He said that while environmentalism was seen as a “largely academic and middle-class trend”, it was “vital that the interests of working people are fully represented in this important debate”.

It highlighted foundry workers suffering from occupational diseases, asbestos exposure among factory workers, and the hazardous conditions endured by coal miners, as well as contemporary studies of pollution near steel mills in Durham and Hampshire Cement Works to claim that “it is the workers who have suffered the most from the pollution at home”.

A black and white photo of coal miners in a queue.
Workers in polluting industries have led environmental reforms.
Everett Collection/Shutterstock

Nor were these sentiments limited to conference resolutions. In a case of industrial action which would affect UK policy on nuclear waste disposal, the National Union of Seamen refused to co-operate with the dumping of radioactive material at sea in the early 1980s.

Extractors versus extractivism

These are formative trends in the modern environmentalism of English-speaking societies and deindustrializing economies. It makes sense to understand a movement shaped by the popularity of Silent Spring. But it neglects many communities that bear the brunt of environmental crises like climate change.

A more combative activism emerged in the activities of trade unionists and indigenous groups in Latin America. Ecuador has seen movements opposed to the oil industry develop broader criticisms extractivism: a rejection of any economic model based on the extraction of resources wrongly acquired by colonialism.

This rejects the old socialist argument for economic development through national ownership of oil and minerals, and finds common cause with activists from more recently formed groups like Extinction Rebellion. The fruitfulness of any potential collaboration is unknown. Extinction Rebellion has previously rejected political alignments.

These debates and others like them will determine the future of environmentalism. Already, there are glimmers of what is possible. Visitors to Glasgow at the latest UN climate change summit may have seen Greta Thunberg marching with striking garbage collectors and activists from islands threatened by rising sea levels and landscapes scarred by oil and mineral extraction.