The Lessons of Love Canal

In 1978 in Love Canal, N.Y., Lois Gibbs forged a new model for environmental activism focused on the human cost of environmental destruction and grassroots leaders’ power to combat it.

She went on to create the Center for Health, Environment, & Justice (CHEJ), which now shares that model with 300 community organizations fighting to put people and planet first.

Almost forty years later, we’re at another crossroads in the fight for climate justice. The stakes have never been higher. And the lessons of Love Canal may be more relevant than ever.

The good news is that a burgeoning multiracial, working-class movement for climate justice has taken on corporate polluters and government enablers, with Native-led water protection campaigns capturing worldwide attention.

But the Trump administration is rolling back years of progress and trying to pit climate activists against environmental justice activists, calling efforts to stem climate change a “waste of your money” while hawking corporate-friendly, window-dressing cleanups.

So, though the climate justice movement has never been sharper or broader, the federal terrain is also rockier than ever. Here’s where the lessons of Love Canal come in.

The Urgency Starts at Home

When Gibbs discovered her community had been all but built on a toxic waste dump, she connected the dots to her children’s health problems and started knocking on neighbors’ doors.

Together, they formed a collective picture of the devastation that included asthma, seizures, kidney failure, and other potentially deadly conditions. The issue could hardly get more personal or urgent, which is what drove the Love Canal parents to demand relocation and cleanup – and transformed Gibbs forever.

It’s these kinds of intimate intersections – between the health of our planet, the health of our communities, and the health of our families – that propel fights with the power to last and politicize new activists.

The facts and science of climate change and environmental calamity couldn’t be more important. And they’re becoming less and less abstract. A key part of our work as climate justice organizers is drawing out the connections between people’s lived experience of the crisis and the systems that are driving it.

Take the example of New Jersey Organizing Project’s work with Hurricane Sandy survivors, or PUSH Buffalo’s work to fight climate change, build housing, and create good jobs at the same time. It’s through those connections that we’ll continue broadening our movement.

Frontline Communities Lead the Way

No roadmap led the way from industrial New York State to national headlines, toe-to-toe encounters with government scientists, direct pressure on President Jimmy Carter, and groundbreaking environmental legislation.

Love Canal is the case of a working-class community setting its own agenda and taking charge – and leading through improvisation. They formed a homeowners’ association. They conducted their own epidemiological research. They developed policy chops for pressing officials on their demands, from local cleanup and relocation to the creation of Superfund.

Poor communities, communities of color, and Native nations continue to bear the brunt of the climate crisis. As with Love Canal, it’s their voices that will lead the way out of the crisis.

Increasingly, the frontline communities that make up People’s Action are taking their place at the forefront of the climate justice movement, from Flint to the Dakota Access Pipeline to Fair Economy Illinois helped win $750 million for low-income solar programs last year. We need even more of this. The climate justice fight won’t be won without the leadership of communities on the frontline of the climate crisis.

On one hand, that’s a matter of good politics. Frontline communities represent a set of constituencies the movement needs in terms of numbers and leadership in order to score victories in legislatures and the ballot box. But it’s also a matter of good policy.

People who experience the full force of the climate crisis understand it in a way that think tank analysts just can’t. That represents much-needed expertise. (For one perspective, see One America’s discussion of the carbon tax debate in Washington state.)

These communities have a direct line to the lessons of Love Canal. In the wake of that fight, Gibbs formed CHEJ, which works with 300 community groups nationwide, offering the kinds of tools the Love Canal neighbors had to improvise. That includes the expertise of a staff scientist and help using data to shape the conversation. It also includes Gibbs’ vision and coaching to help emerging groups to build out their organizing and run winning campaigns that take on corporate polluters.

Grounding the Fight Locally, Reaching Nationally

The problem of corporate environmental degradation didn’t begin or end at Love Canal. Neither did Lois Gibbs and the Love Canal neighbors. Their local fight propelled federal change, including the creation of Superfund, with a local model of cleanup informing federal legislation requiring corporate accountability.

If pipeline corporations and other polluters don’t stop at state lines, neither can we. Only by creating a nationwide web of powerful local groups will we be able to challenge corporate polluters and dirty energy companies.

Without that reach, we risk running NIMBY-type campaigns where we shut down contamination in one community, only to have it shifted to another. This is especially true of the south, where corporations carry out much of their dirty work.

But national organizations can’t just parachute in. Trust and history of collaboration are key. Fortunately, People’s Action member groups and the People and Planet First team on our national staff have been building people-led climate movements from the ground up for years.

Together with the community groups that Gibbs and her colleagues at CHEJ have been nurturing – spanning the country, with reach in the south, rural areas, and the working-class communities and communities of color – we will forge the path toward climate justice.

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