Razing Kids: Youth, Environment, and the Postwar American West

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Pacific Historical Review

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Razing Kids: Youth, Environment, and the Postwar American West is an ambitious, well-written, and well-researched study of relationships, imagined and actual, between the environment and children from roughly 1940 to 1990. Although it only partially delivers on being more than the sum of its parts, those parts are very impressive.

The monograph’s five main chapters are, as Sanders puts it, “five case studies”: the dense housing projects that arose during the war; the experiences of and discourses concerning children affected by nuclear testing in the Cold War Era; the War on Poverty’s Youth Conservation Corps; the concomitant movement of “flower children” to utopian places; and the contrasting roles of the children of migrant farm workers and progressive baby boomers in movements concerned with food production and consumption late in the century.

Sanders aspires to link these diverse chapters by unpacking the pun in the book’s title, namely that so many people of the postwar American West were both fixated on raising happy and healthy youth even though familial prosperity “seemed to require razing, or at least neglecting, the environments and health of some youth so that others could thrive” (p. 7). “Utopian provincialism” was an uneasy bedfellow with “environmental inequality” (p. 15). More broadly, Sanders suggests that postwar youth served as “an indicator species” for anxious adults, a term that seems apt.

The case studies could more fully and clearly establish and analyze the ways in which mainstream environmentalism perpetuated and disguised class and race privilege. Was the gap between the child-centered rhetoric used to justify instant communities such as Vanport, Oregon, and their slipshod reality an illustration of class tension and bias or simply another case of improvising to win the war? The chapter on the Youth Conservation Corps certainly illustrates “the high level of constructive idealism and hubris among planners in the period,” and the chapter has some fine material on the strained relationships between urban youth and their reluctant host communities (p. 161). But the author might have connected these developments more closely to environmental racism, for example. The book’s last chapter best supports its more ambitious arguments, as Sanders shows how a concern for the health of farmworkers’ children in food production in the 1960s inexorably morphed into a self-interested focus on the nature of food consumed by upper-middle-class urban children, though even here it would be helpful to know more about whether or not many historical actors noted this irony.

But if the book’s themes are disparate, the prose is engaging and clear, the chapters well organized, the research impressive. The author’s focus on the intersection of youth and environmentalism sheds new light and insights on familiar topics, such as the Summer of Love, and enriches diverse fields of study, including western history, environmental history, and the history of the family.


© 2021 by the Pacific Coast Branch, American Historical Association

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