New York City

Can Mark Hertsgaard’s “Green Goes Grassroots” [July 31/Aug. 7] dig deeper? I was surprised at his assertion that poor people and people of color are not concerned about ozone depletion, toxic gas and polluted water. In fact, the call for environmental justice is truly a movement that has sprung from the grassroots–from concerned parents of students at Marsh Fork Elementary in Sundial, West Virginia, where a massive silo, sludge dam and mountain-top coal removal refinery near the school blackens the lungs of their children; from cancer-ridden African-American families in Dickson, Tennessee, who discovered that the source of their illnesses was a landfill contaminating the family well; and from low-income residents of Fort Ord, California, who are fed up with the routine burning of Army munitions that release toxic gases. The struggles of these communities and others will be highlighted this fall when grassroots environmental groups from San Jose, California, to Newark, New Jersey, and Whitesville, West Virginia, will take a very close look at the devastating impact of toxic contamination on people of color and poor communities.

Caravans packed with grassroots activists, health researchers, environmental scientists and public policy experts will tour communities in the Northeast, the South and on the West Coast, where citizens are suffering serious health effects from toxic pollution. Organizers representing more than seventy EJ groups are collaborating in a solution-oriented campaign that will reveal just how engaged these communities are in the fight for their collective health. Readers can find out about the Environmental Justice for All Tour at I must say, however, that it is surprising they didn’t learn about it in your cover story.

VIRGINIA GIORDANO National director, Environmental Justice for All Tour ’06

San Francisco

I write to correct two misimpressions in Mark Hertsgaard’s thoughtful story about environmentalism. First, the Sierra Club-Steelworkers Union Alliance has received more than $500,000 from foundations that look to us to be a key driver of progressive change. While I intended to make the point that this was insufficient to carry out our robust plans, I did not want to imply that we are waiting to launch our efforts. Second, we are painfully aware of the issues raised by race and class for our movement, and we are confronting these challenges and failures at the grassroots level–where it counts the most–through our growing environmental justice program, which works with local leaders to support communities of color.

Executive director, Sierra Club

Santa Fe

A distinction needs to be made between professional and grassroots environmentalism. Citizens should support the work of some full-time activists representing their interests. The ones who get support will generally already be the leaders on the issue in the community. Professionalism is different. Professionalism describes what was a deliberately and unapologetically designed, funded and implemented strategy begun in the early 1980s by a group of large foundations loosely grouped as the EGA (Environmental Grantmakers Association). At the outset EGA’s orientation was political. The model of the DC insider was prioritized, along with newly emerging ideas of spin resulting in competition among “grantees” for things like who could promise to raise enough money to buy the biggest full-page ad. It was the era of the consultant and the pollster. There was a strong link to the Democrats, and soon the newly professionalized environmental movement became essentially an organizing branch of the party, thereby fulfilling what was probably the original intent.

The Nation should be careful not to think that comparing the relative successes and failures of these groups constitutes a look at the environmental movement. The grassroots environmental movement still exists, as it has from before the money blew through. It is based on the trust that ordinary people have in one another to stand up when pushed too far. Frequently it is years before such people come in contact with the strata sampled in this article. Sometimes never.


Salt Lake City

Thank you for “Green Goes Grassroots,” which mentions Salt Lake City’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Our city has cut these emissions by more than 21 percent–and we saved taxpayers’ money (see These results are replicable by every government entity–federal, state and local. Many of the measures we have undertaken are also available to businesses and individuals. Informed action is all it takes.

Unfortunately, informed action on global warming is hard to find at the federal level. Fortunately, in cities all over the country mayors are leading the charge. Mayors committing to major cuts in fossil fuel emissions know that many corporations large and small, as well as several nations, are significantly reducing global-warming pollution through two basic strategies: greater efficiency and the use of clean, renewable energy sources.

One small correction: The conference at which Jerome Ringo spoke in June was the New Cities Project meeting, not the National Conference of Mayors. The New Cities Project ( is a network for mayors dedicated to developing “high road” policies for American cities. The project brings together research resources, policy innovations and leaders to create progressive cities of shared prosperity, environmental responsibility, sound management and democratic accountability.

Mayor, Salt Lake City

East Quogue, NY

I am amazed that Mark Hertsgaard doesn’t see the contradiction between identifying global warming as “the single gravest threat to our collective future” and his proposed solution: to drive “the next great wave of economic growth in this country.” Global warming is the end result of cheap oil, overconsumption and untrammeled economic growth. A continuation of growth, even an Apollo Alliance (“massive green jobs and development,” “green energy technology,” “3 million new jobs”), is a 45-degree change when we need a 180-degree turnaround.

Moreover, the Apollo Alliance promotion of the oxymoron “clean coal” and revival of the auto industry will only add to the top-heavy CO2 budget now destroying the earth. If this isn’t the “technical-fix solutions” that Hertsgaard decries, nothing is. So much for a new, enlightened environmentalism.

Hertsgaard and his sources talk of “political power,” a new environmental majority and facing issues of “race and class.” Well, you can’t have any of these without a message, and an honest workable one, not one that panders to the American expectation that our way of life just needs some tweaking here and there. The message is that we need huge changes, many of which will cause dislocation and hardship, which will be far worse if we continue to believe the myth of continued economic growth.

It is the poor and the disempowered who need to be honestly informed about both the inequity and the unsustainability of our present capitalist growth model. Any movement that doesn’t level with them doesn’t deserve to gain power.



San Francisco

Thanks to these and all the other folks who responded to this article; it’s nice to see that so many people care about the direction of the environmental movement.

First, a general mea culpa: Some readers complained that I did not spend enough time discussing this or that subset of the movement, e.g., corporate campaigners, evangelicals, the networks on environmental health and holistic solutions. I plead guilty; one would need a book to profile the environmental movement fully, which is (mainly) a sign of its strength.

To specifics: Virginia Giordano is misreading my article if she thinks it downplays environmental justice, and to buttress her mistaken belief she misquotes Jerome Ringo, the African-American chair of the National Wildlife Federation. Ringo says that poor, nonwhite people traditionally have cared little about ozone depletion (which my own reporting has also found), but he does not say they don’t care about toxic pollution, nor do I imply that. As for the Environmental Justice for All marches this fall, had I heard about them, I would have mentioned them. In any case, good luck.

The professionalization of the movement criticized by Charlotte Talberth is a real concern–one I discussed in the article. But I re-emphasize here that much of the important activism is done by grassroots volunteers, for whom such work is a passion, not a profession.

Finally, Lorna Salzman’s condemnation of economic growth touches on one of the most profound but vexing challenges facing environmentalists. She is correct that traditional economic growth has been environmentally destructive, and it is also true that much of what conventional voices now describe as green economics is in fact not very green. But until capitalism is replaced or fundamentally reformed, economic growth is the means by which poor and working-class people around the world make a living. To me, this suggests that for now the imperative is to insist on genuinely green forms of economic growth, by which I mean economic activity that either reduces current and future environmental damage (via investments in energy efficiency, noncarbon energy sources, mass transit systems, green buildings, etc.) or that remediates existing damage (e.g., reforestation or ocean cleanup). Active, vigilant government regulation is essential in either case. And techno-fixes, though useful, are not silver bullets; we must also stop runaway consumerism.

But we must begin these tasks from where we are, not where we wish we were. It may be true that the Apollo Project’s reforms represent a 45-degree shift when we need a 180-degree reversal, but Apollo is only a first step. We’ll have better luck if we start with a 45-degree shift and show people it can work on both economic and environmental fronts before urging them to go further. The lecturing tone Salzman prefers–warning Americans of inevitable dislocation and hardship if they don’t get rid of capitalism–is, I believe, part of why so many people have tuned environmentalists out, at a time when enviros need to be heard more than ever.