Something was wrong in Lowndes County, Alabama. Sewage was backing up into people’s yards, and the county was threatening to arrest residents who lacked a proper septic system. But buying and installing a new septic system was cost prohibitive for many residents of this rural county, where the systems are prone to failure because of the soil’s high clay content.
Environmental activist Catherine Coleman Flowers brought senators, activists, media and other public figures to her home county to show them the conditions people lived in. She wanted to bring awareness and funding to people who couldn’t “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” because they didn’t have any boots to begin with, she writes in Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret. Flowers pressured the state to stop criminalizing poverty, and as awareness grew, she was able to coordinate new septic systems and sometimes even new homes for people in need.
In Waste, Flowers recounts a lifetime of advocacy that has culminated in the battle for one Alabama county. Flowers was raised by Civil Rights activists, with others in and out of her home, and so advocacy has been a theme throughout her life. And though Lowndes County is at the heart of her work, Flowers writes about similar conditions across the United States.
Known as “the Erin Brockovich of sewage,” Flowers shares many insights into America’s need for environmental justice. “I believe we will find solutions if we can direct the energies of academics, business, government, and philanthropy toward finding them," she writes, "and that’s where public policy comes in: to make this issue a priority, set standards for how we will live in the United States, and provide incentives for innovative solutions.”
Her direct, easy-to-follow prose offers a plain look at the challenges that face many people in poverty and the value of activism. The lessons she takes from seeking wastewater solutions may inspire advocates nationwide.