Pivo on May and May, 'Spearheading Environmental Change: The Legacy of Indiana Congressman Floyd J. Fithian'

Jill P. May, Robert E. May
Vyta Pivo

Jill P. May, Robert E. May. Spearheading Environmental Change: The Legacy of Indiana Congressman Floyd J. Fithian. West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press, 2022. xvii + 253 pp. $99.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-61249-737-2; $34.99 (paper), ISBN 978-1-61249-738-9

Reviewed by Vyta Pivo (University of Michigan) Published on H-Environment (October, 2022) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=58091

Vyta Pivo on Jill P. May and Robert E. May, Spearheading Environmental Change: The Legacy of Indiana Congressman Floyd J. Fithian

A man holds a baby in one hand and a sword in the other. Two figures kneel by his feet, pleading him to not kill or mutilate the innocent child. This terrifying newspaper comic adorns the cover of Jill P. May and Robert E. May’s new environmental biography, Spearheading Environmental Change: The Legacy of Indiana Congressman Floyd J. Fithian. The image references the Judgment of Solomon story from the Hebrew Bible, where Solomon proposes to resolve an argument between two women who both claimed to be the mother of the child, by splitting the baby in half. The small text integrated into the comic narrates that the two women in this case are “the environmentalists” and “the industry,” while Solomon is Indiana Congressman Floyd J. Fithian. The comic dramatically states, “It’s the baby that counts.”

The book’s cover conveys the drama of preserving the Indiana dunes, a fifteen-mile stretch of the southern shore of Lake Michigan, complete with sandy formations, wetlands, prairies, meandering rivers, and forests. The preservation of this ecologically rich landscape was a significant battle between conservationists on the one hand and oil industrialists on the other. The territory was also a major battleground for Floyd J. Fithian, who worked with both political parties to move environmental policies forward. He too was torn between the two sides: on the one hand, Fithian grew up on a farm in rural Nebraska and was shaped by his parents’ experiences of the Great Depression and the economic reprieve his family received through New Deal programs. Fithian therefore subscribed to anthropocentric views of the preservation of nature, putting humans’ well-being first. On the other hand, Fithian had served in the navy and later earned his PhD in history, eventually teaching at Purdue University. His global and historical perspective on agriculture, with the Soviet experience specifically in focus, taught him the dangers of overworking fragile landscapes and peoples.

Spearheading Environmental Change consists of five parts that cover Fithian’s life and career: the journey from Nebraska to Capitol Hill, his work on saving the Indiana Dunes and creating the first urban national park, navigating political controversies of dam construction, and balancing the ideals of environmentalists and the needs of farmers and industry at large. The book employs archival documents from Purdue University, including personal papers and newspaper clippings, as well as interviews with family, friends, and former colleagues. Spearheading Environmental Change was written by the academic power couple Jill P. May and Robert E. May, Fithian’s colleagues at Purdue.

From the get-go, the authors proclaim that this is not a conventional biography but instead an environmental history within a biographical framework. In other words, Fithian’s career is part of a broader constellation of environmental politics of pesticides, excessive federal dam construction, national parks, big oil, and nuclear energy. And while the broader environmental history, including a reference to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), appears throughout the book, the text overall comes across as a more traditional biography. Even though Fithian’s professional trajectory offers us a glimpse into the relationship between local and national politics, the closed-door dealings between Democrats and Republicans, the place of environmental debate in Congress, and even gerrymandering, our frame of reference is always Fithian. And his background as a white, middle/upper-class Midwestern man poses serious limits for engaging with the complexities of environmental politics and history during the second half of the twentieth century.

At times, Spearheading Environmental Change reads like a familiar narrative of the American Dream: Fithian came from a background of limited means, worked hard, and in the end succeeded in creating an illustrious career with significant political clout. Aspiring to preserve “unspoiled wilderness” for younger generations, he worked with both sides of the isle to save the natural riches of Indiana. The authors are not always celebratory of Fithian and his career: they critically discuss his inability to resolve the conflict between Indiana and Illinois regarding a shared river basin. But even in discussions of pressing public issues, the book misses the lived experiences of people beyond Fithian and his family. Even his constituents make only a rare appearance through newspaper quotes, further cementing that it is Fithian’s life story rather than experiences of the broader public that is the center of the narrative.

Readers might also notice that the book does not discuss the nexus between the civil rights movement and the environmental movement that emerged from it. Recent scholarship on the subject emphasizes that we cannot think about environmental conservation without engaging with questions about racial capitalism and social justice. Intersectional environmental activist Leah Thomas has argued, for example, that white politicians embrace the environmentalist agenda while failing to care for social issues like affordable housing, food insecurity, employment, and other spheres of life that ensure mutual human and nonhuman survival. In the end, environmental issues are fundamentally social ones. So, where did Fithian land on that? What was his stance on social reform? The authors at times mention Fithian’s interaction with communities of color, but it is rarely the focus of discussion. And when the book details the effects of hazardous waste spillage and ensuing Environmental Protection Agency groundwater policy, the reader is left wondering about the experiences of communities of color who were and continue to be most affected by such environmental calamities.

The book’s greatest contribution is its exposure of how environmental policy is a deeply flawed process, with different competing and even contradictory interests struggling for domination. On the one hand, environmentalists aspire to preserve landscapes and curb industry infringement. On the other, farmers and industrialists want to continue their businesses and create jobs. Spearheading Environmental Change reveals how the negotiations between the different sides result in problematic conciliatory politics. The latter fail to embrace a more radical agenda, pushed forth by social activists. The nexus between policymaking and activism is a pressing one today, particularly in relation to Indigenous land theft, extractive capitalism, and reparations. And then there is the issue of the rights of the environment itself. How are fish, trees, and other living beings represented in such apparently human-driven processes? How might we write biographies of them? And, finally, how can environmental histories contain and balance the many human and beyond-human actors? While the book’s introductory cartoon suggested it’s the baby—that is, the dunes—that counts, we must draw in additional figures that are part of but typically erased from environmental histories.

Citation: Vyta Pivo. Review of May, Jill P.; May, Robert E., Spearheading Environmental Change: The Legacy of Indiana Congressman Floyd J. Fithian. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. October, 2022. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=58091

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.