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The first wealth is health, according to Emerson. Among health’s riches is its political potential. Few know this better than environmentalists. In her debut...

The first wealth is health, according to Emerson. Among health’s riches is its political potential. Few know this better than environmentalists. In her debut book, The Wild and the Toxic: American Environmentalism and the Politics of Health (UNC Press, 2019), historian Jennifer Thomson revisits canonical figures and events from the environmental movement in the United States and finds everywhere talk of health. At its best, viewing the environment through the lens of health encouraged decentralized organizing and a sense of collective responsibility. At its worst it supported technocracy and uninspired paeans to green consumerism. With shrewd analysis, Thomson gives the movement its own check-up as she reassess the careers and political imaginations of many of the its luminaries, including David Brower, Wendell Berry, Dave Foreman, and Bill McKibben. Dispensing with the habit of thinking of environmentalism as responding only and ever to itself, Thomson sets its history within the larger context of American political development. So the book is full of unexpected historical crossovers, such as Love Canal residents responding to the Mariel boatlife or the OPEC embargo-era U.S. oil industry championing the Gaia hypothesis. Few books on environmentalism’s past are a better guide for envisioning its future.

Jennifer Thomson is Assistant Professor of History at Bucknell History. She also hosts the radio program Bucknell: Occupied, which airs Thursday at 6:00 pm on WVBU.


Brian Hamilton is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Wisconsin–Madison where he is researching African American environmental history in the nineteenth-century Cotton South. He is also an editor of the digital environmental magazine and podcast Edge Effects.