These are tough times for environmentalists, what with the Bush administration’s frontal assault on environmental policy, drastic funding cuts and layoffs in state environmental programs, and the aftermath of a war in Iraq fought, in the opinion of many, over our nation’s undying addiction to oil. It’s thus fitting, if somewhat disheartening, that along come two books whose central message is that it’s not easy being green, no matter what the circumstances.

Bronx Ecology
By Allen Hershkowitz
Island Press,
200 pages, 2002

Allen Hershkowitz’s Bronx Ecology: Blueprint for a New Environmentalism and Lis Harris’s Tilting at Mills: Green Dreams, Dirty Dealings, and the Corporate Squeeze are companion accounts of what happens when an environmentalist, armed with missionary zeal and more than a dash of ego, meets the gritty political reality of New York’s ecologically devastated South Bronx. The environmentalist in question is Allen Hershkowitz, who, as a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, spent the 1980s advocating for tougher laws to deal with the country’s mounting solid waste problems.

Then one day in 1992, a new solution dawned on him. He would build the Bronx Community Paper Company, a state-of-the-art paper-recycling mill, on an abandoned, polluted rail yard in the rough-and-tumble Mott Haven/Port Morris section of the Bronx. The facility would not only provide 600 permanent jobs in an area with unemployment rates as high as 75 percent, but would also be a model of “green” development, transforming a 30-acre brownfield site into a low-emission, high-efficiency recycling plant that would help deal with the 10,000 tons of waste paper produced every day by residents and businesses in New York City.

To sell his vision, Hershkowitz needed a community partner to provide credibility and help grease the necessary wheels. That entity was the Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association, a nonprofit developer in the South Bronx, which quickly embraced a partnership with Hershkowitz. With Banana Kelly on board, NRDC moved forward aggressively with the project, retaining Maya Lin, the famed architect of the Vietnam War Memorial, to design the facility and enlisting the support of then-President Clinton, who praised the project in his 1996 book, Between Hope and History.

A sketch of the never-built Bronx
Community Paper Plant.

But if the story sounds too good to be true, that’s because it was. The South Bronx Clean Air Coalition, an ad hoc community group, challenged the paper-plant proposal, claiming that pollution from the facility would exacerbate the area’s already poor air quality, another entry in a long catalog of environmental injustices. The coalition had other plans for the site, including reviving the long-defunct rail yard as a bustling inter-modal transportation center.

In 1997, after several years of litigation, a New York appeals court ruled that NRDC and Banana Kelly could proceed with the project. The legal victory, however, was not sufficient to salvage the proposed plant. Mounting costs, fraying relationships between Banana Kelly, NRDC, and their backers, and other problems sunk the endeavor in 2000. NRDC vowed never again to try to play the role of developer; Banana Kelly became the subject of intense media scrutiny as the shady financial dealings of its high-profile director, Yolanda Rivera, and her deputies came to light; and Hershkowitz’s lofty vision lay in shambles.

Hershkowitz, ever the technocrat, is a better analyzer than storyteller, and thus his account of the debacle reads more like a sustainable-development handbook than a human-interest story. Bronx Ecology does a good job of spelling out the technical and public policy issues underlying the mill proposal, such as industrial ecology (IE). IE is a new model for development that, as its name implies, unites environmental and economic goals by advancing a set of design and production methods that mimic the reuse and replenishing functions of natural systems, resulting in the prevention — rather then the mere control — of pollution and waste. Concepts like IE can be complex, and Hershkowitz does the reader a service by exploring them in a way that is at once thorough and easily understood. Adding to the book’s readability is his own genuine and infectious enthusiasm for the more technical subject matter.

Tilting at Mills
By Lis Harris
Houghton Mifflin, 241
pages, 2003

Harris, a Columbia writing professor and former New Yorker contributor, is a good storyteller — to a fault. She’s too fawning in her appraisal of Hershkowitz and his NRDC colleagues (save for one, an African-American staffer who Harris takes to task for her conflicting allegiances to NRDC, on the one hand, and the community groups, on the other). She lays the blame for the project’s collapse entirely at the doorstep of community groups and the paper mill’s financiers, portrayed as preternaturally inept and rapaciously greedy, respectively. But Harris is too facile in her analysis of community politics and the challenge of urban redevelopment; this story is not reducible to a simple morality tale. There are too many variables in play, from complex financial arrangements and long-standing strife between stakeholder groups, to arcane regulations and uncertain environmental risks.

What Hershkowitz’s and Harris’s accounts have in common is that they both fall short in helping the reader understand the larger meaning of the South Bronx tale, which is nothing less than the story of U.S. environmentalism at the beginning of the 21st century. Despite the movement’s proud tradition and many successes, American environmentalism needs a new vision, especially given today’s political climate. As the paper-mill story suggests, environmentalists have learned that they must expand their focus beyond their core, upper-middle class, white constituency and its concern for parks and wilderness to include people of color, the poor, and the inner city. At the same time, environmentalists are beginning to realize that they must do more than simply stop unwanted development, or point out when someone else is doing something wrong. As NRDC tried to do with the South Bronx effort, environmentalists should actively pursue strategies that deliver not only environmental benefits but also jobs and community dollars.

No small feat. As the paper-mill saga shows, trying to bring together communities and cultures, environmental restoration and jobs, is a tall order, even when the initial idea is a good one. For their part, environmentalists at present simply aren’t well adapted to working with diverse constituencies, much less playing the part of industrial developer. The result can be missteps, miscommunication, and mistrust of the kind that befell Hershkowitz and his partners. Most community residents, meanwhile, are too quick to respond to new development proposals with “not in my backyard” reflexes, with the result that even the best of proposals can fall prey to misguided claims or dissembling.

Undertaking a project as ambitious as the South Bronx paper mill might well have been quixotic, as the title of Harris’s book suggests. But transforming two centuries’ worth of industrial development, and the environmental movement bent on thwarting it, won’t happen overnight. Like natural systems, the process will be slow, incremental, and non-linear — a series of failures and mistakes and small successes over time. Such is the nature of evolution, and of social change, which starts with a vision and gets harder from there. But it can be done. It must be done. The future of the South Bronx, if not the planet, depends on it.