Skip navigation

Steve Lerner

Steve Lerner is the author of Eco-Pioneers: Practical Visionaries Solving Today’s Environmental Problems (1998) and Diamond: A Struggle for Environmental Justice in Louisiana’s Chemical Corridor (2006), both published by the MIT Press.

Titles by This Author

The Front Lines of Toxic Chemical Exposure in the United States

Across the United States, thousands of people, most of them in low-income or minority communities, live next to heavily polluting industrial sites. Many of them reach a point at which they say “Enough is enough.” After living for years with poisoned air and water, contaminated soil, and pollution-related health problems, they start to take action--organizing, speaking up, documenting the effects of pollution on their neighborhoods.

In Sacrifice Zones, Steve Lerner tells the stories of twelve communities, from Brooklyn to Pensacola, that rose up to fight the industries and military bases causing disproportionately high levels of chemical pollution. He calls these low-income neighborhoods “sacrifice zones.” And he argues that residents of these sacrifice zones, tainted with chemical pollutants, need additional regulatory protections.

Sacrifice Zones goes beyond the disheartening statistics and gives us the voices of the residents themselves, offering compelling portraits of accidental activists who have become grassroots leaders in the struggle for environmental justice and details the successful tactics they have used on the fenceline with heavy industry.

A Struggle for Environmental Justice in Louisiana's Chemical Corridor

For years, the residents of Diamond, Louisiana, lived with an inescapable acrid, metallic smell—the "toxic bouquet" of pollution—and a mysterious chemical fog that seeped into their houses. They looked out on the massive Norco Industrial Complex: a maze of pipelines, stacks topped by flares burning off excess gas, and huge oil tankers moving up the Mississippi. They experienced headaches, stinging eyes, allergies, asthma, and other respiratory problems, skin disorders, and cancers that they were convinced were caused by their proximity to heavy industry. Periodic industrial explosions damaged their houses and killed some of their neighbors. Their small, African-American, mixed-income neighborhood was sandwiched between two giant Shell Oil plants in Louisiana's notorious Chemical Corridor. When the residents of Diamond demanded that Shell relocate them, their chances of success seemed slim: a community with little political clout was taking on the second-largest oil company in the world. And yet, after effective grassroots organizing, unremitting fenceline protests, seemingly endless negotiations with Shell officials, and intense media coverage, the people of Diamond finally got what they wanted: money from Shell to help them relocate out of harm's way. In this book, Steve Lerner tells their story.

Around the United States, struggles for environmental justice such as the one in Diamond are the new front lines of both the civil rights and the environmental movements, and Diamond is in many ways a classic environmental-justice story: a minority neighborhood, faced with a polluting industry in its midst, fights back. But Diamond is also the history of a black community that goes back to the days of slavery. In 1811, Diamond (then the Trepagnier Plantation) was the center of the largest slave rebellion in United States history. Descendants of these slaves were among the participants in the modern-day Diamond relocation campaign.

Steve Lerner talks to the people of Diamond, and lets them tell their story in their own words. He talks also to the residents of a nearby white neighborhood—many of whom work for Shell and have fewer complaints about the plants—and to environmental activists and Shell officials. His account of Diamond's 30-year ordeal puts a human face on the struggle for environmental justice in the United States.

Practical Visionaries Solving Today's Environmental Problems

Following the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Steve Lerner spent four years searching out people he came to call "eco-pioneers"—the modern pathfinders who are working in the American pragmatic tradition to reduce the pace of environmental degradation. In this book, Lerner puts a human face on Earth Summit rhetoric, finding out what sustainable development actually looks like in the United States. He provides case studies of eco-pioneers who are inventing sustainable ways to log forests, grow food, save plant species, run cattle, build houses, clean up cities, redesign rural communities, generate power, conserve water, protect rivers and wildlife, treat hazardous waste, reuse materials, and reduce both consumption and waste. Together they are creating ways of living and working that many analysts believe are essential to an ecologically sustainable future.