The Wild and the Toxic

American Environmentalism and the Politics of Health

By Jennifer Thomson

216 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 2 halftones

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-5199-6
    Published: May 2019
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-5164-4
    Published: May 2019
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-1-4696-5165-1
    Published: March 2019
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-5487-2
    Published: March 2019

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Awards & distinctions

A 2019 Choice Outstanding Academic Title

Health figures centrally in late twentieth-century environmental activism. There are many competing claims about the health of ecosystems, the health of the planet, and the health of humans, yet there is little agreement among the likes of D.C. lobbyists, grassroots organizers, eco-anarchist collectives, and science-based advocacy organizations about whose health matters most, or what health even means. In this book, Jennifer Thomson untangles the complex web of political, social, and intellectual developments that gave rise to the multiplicity of claims and concerns about environmental health.

Thomson traces four strands of activism from the 1970s to the present: the environmental lobby, environmental justice groups, radical environmentalism and bioregionalism, and climate justice activism. By focusing on health, environmentalists were empowered to intervene in the rise of neoliberalism, the erosion of the regulatory state, and the decimation of mass-based progressive politics. Yet, as this book reveals, an individualist definition of health ultimately won out over more communal understandings. Considering this turn from collective solidarity toward individual health helps explain the near paralysis of collective action in the face of planetary disaster.

About the Author

Jennifer Thomson is associate professor of history at Bucknell University.
For more information about Jennifer Thomson, visit the Author Page.


“With this book Thomson reminds readers of the current condition of the environment . . . [A] valuable book.”--Choice

“Full of surprising details from stories that are well-known to environmental historians as well as those not as well-studied. . . . Thomson’s carefully researched book is thoroughly provocative and the implications are many in the politically contested moment we live in now.”--Reviews in American History

“A concise, pointed, and sometimes provocative intervention into the history of environmentalism. . . . Thomson’s analysis is trenchant and convincing, and her book breaks new ground in its investigation of environmentalism and the discourse of health. . . . Incisive and well written, it is essential reading for historians and social scientists trying to understand the complex discourse that shapes our understanding of human and environmental health today.”--Journal of Social History

"Sophisticated and adept, this is the first book-length investigation of the role of health in postwar environmentalism."--Elena Conis, University of California, Berkeley

"This book provides a fundamental reinterpretation of the American environmental movement on both a conceptual and a historiographical level and has the potential to make major, and in some ways ground-shifting, contributions to environmental studies."--Robert Gioielli, University of Cincinnati Blue Ash College

Multimedia & Links


Thomson talks to Brian Hamilton for the New Books Network podcast. (05/17/2019, running time 46:05)