Rome (History/Penn State Univ.) offers a piquant interpretation of the links between the mass migration to suburbia and the rise of the environmental movement.
Working like a bloodhound, the author follows the trail of the environmental costs of tract housing, explaining how they became translated into environmental issues and then became part of the public agenda. Writing with real momentum (and a whiff of the lecture hall), Rome details how the booming postwar mass-consumption economy became an environmental disaster area. He argues clearly and persuasively that, as suburban developments started falling apart like old jalopies, environmental movements took shape bit by bit. Building in sensitive areas (such as floodplains or wetlands) produced flooding, wholesale land-clearing produced erosion, and septic problems spurred even the government to act. Each degradation found expression in a citizen’s group and, as open space disappeared right before our eyes, a wilderness and outdoors movement took shape. The machine in the garden, from oil spills to Silent Spring, prompted an environmentalism with aesthetic and social concerns. Rome also demonstrates how a taste for cleanliness, comfort, and convenience has slowed progress, and how the Wise Use movement gets fuel from environmental regulations that puncture the dream of home and land ownership (a notion built into the nation’s economic and political structure following the Depression’s class bitterness). Though Rome thumps his chest over what he considers his original ideas concerning the narrow self-interests of homeowners, the sharing of some environmentalist and conservationist goals, and the environmentally conscious behavior of a few government agencies, these are pretty well-established opinions. The final indignity of it all, Rome sadly relates, is that suburbia continues its unabated growth today, with all the old players in the suburban-industrial complex still in command, and still wrecking the landscape.
A snappy scholarly work that captures a momentous shift in American environmental thinking, made exciting by the fire of Rome’s passionate critique of suburbia.