Organized environmentalism began with the conservation movement in the late 19th cent., which urged the establishment of state and national parks and forests, wildlife refuges, and national monuments intended to preserve noteworthy natural features. Early conservationists included President Theodore Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot, and John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club. Conservationists organized the National Parks and Conservation Association, the Audubon Society, the Izaak Walton League, and other groups still active. After World War II increasing encroachment on wilderness land evoked the continued resistance of conservationists, who succeeded in blocking a number of projects in the 1950s and 1960s, including the proposed Bridge Canyon Dam that would have backed up the waters of the Colorado River into the Grand Canyon National Park.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the public was becoming aware that conservation of wilderness and wildlife was but one aspect of protecting an endangered environment. Concern about air pollution, water pollution, solid waste disposal, dwindling energy resources, radiation, pesticide poisoning (particularly as described in Rachel Carson's influential Silent Spring, 1962), noise pollution, and other environmental problems engaged a broadening number of sympathizers and gave rise to what became known as the "new environmentalism." Public support for these issues culminated in the Earth Day demonstrations of 1970.
The new movement had a broader goal—to preserve life on the planet. The more radical groups believe that continued industrial development is incompatible with environmentalism. Other groups, notably Greenpeace, which advocated direct action to preserve endangered species, often clashed violently with opponents. Less militant organizations called for sustainable development and the need to balance environmentalism with economic development.
The environmental movement generated extensive legislation, notably the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), signed into law in 1970, which established an Environmental Protection Agency and a Council on Environmental Quality; the Clean Air Acts of 1970 and 1990; the Water Pollution Control Act, as amended in 1972; other laws regulating noise, pesticides, toxic substances, and ocean dumping; and laws to protect endangered species, wilderness, and wild and scenic rivers. NEPA requires all federal agencies to file impact statements assessing the environmental consequences of proposed projects such as highways, jet runways, bridges, dams, and nuclear power plants. Moreover, the new laws provide for pollution research, standard setting, monitoring, and enforcement. Citizens are empowered to sue both private industry and government agencies for violating antipollution standards. Subsequent legislation includes the Safe Drinking Water Act (1974), the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (1976), and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, commonly known as the Superfund Act (1980). In the 1980s under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush many acts were allowed to expire and the scope of environmental protection was curtailed.
Several environmental organizations, among them the National Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund, specialize in bringing lawsuits. Other environmentalist groups, such as the National Wildlife Federation, World Wildlife Fund, Friends of the Earth, the Nature Conservancy, and the Wilderness Society, disseminate information, participate in public hearings, lobby, stage demonstrations, and purchase land for preservation. A smaller group, including Wildlife Conservation International and the Worldwide Fund for Nature, conduct research on endangered species and ecosystems. More radical organizations, such Greenpeace, Earth First!, and the Earth Liberation Front, have more directly opposed actions they regard as environmentally harmful. While Greenpeace is devoted to nonviolent confrontation, the underground Earth Liberation Front engages in the clandestine destruction of property, the release of caged or penned animals, and other acts of sabotage.
On an international level, concern for the environment was the subject of a UN conference in Stockholm in 1972, attended by 114 nations. Out of this meeting developed the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (1992).
For a general introduction, see C. Merchant, The Columbia Guide to American Environmental History (2002). See also R. J. Dubos, So Human an Animal (1970); R. M. Chute, Environmental Insight (1971); Environmental Action Association, Earth Tool Kit, ed. by S. Love (1971); P. R. Ehrlich, comp., Man and the Ecosphere (1971); Population, Resources, Environment (with A. H. Ehrlich, 2d ed. 1972), and Human Ecology (with others, 1973); J. L. Sax, Defending the Environment (1972); G. J. Marco et al., ed., Silent Spring Revisited (1987); D. A. Dunnette and R. J. O'Brien, ed., The Science of Global Change (1992); P. Shabecoff, A New Name for Peace (1997).
An environmentalist is a person who may advocate the sustainable management of resources and stewardship of the natural environment through changes in public policy or individual behavior. In various ways (for example, grassroots activism and protests), environmentalists and environmental organizations seek to give the natural world a stronger voice in human affairs.
Though opinions vary, environmentalism may be seen as a spectrum; from the reformist to the radical (See also: Dark Greens, Light Greens and Bright Greens below).
In Europe, King Edward I of England banned the burning of sea-coal by proclamation in London in 1272, after its smoke had become a problem. But the fuel was so common in England that this earliest of names for it was acquired because it could be carted away from some shores by the wheelbarrow. Air pollution would continue to be a problem there, especially later during the industrial revolution, and extending into the recent past with the Great Smog of 1952.
In Europe, it was the Industrial Revolution that gave rise to modern environmental pollution as it is generally understood today. The emergence of great factories and consumption of immense quantities of coal and other fossil fuels gave rise to unprecedented air pollution and the large volume of industrial chemical discharges added to the growing load of untreated human waste. The first large-scale, modern environmental laws came in the form of the British Alkali Acts, passed in 1863, to regulate the deleterious air pollution (gaseous hydrochloric acid) given off by the Leblanc process, used to produce soda ash. Environmentalism grew out of the amenity movement, which was a reaction to industrialization, the growth of cities, and worsening air and water pollution.
In the United States, the beginnings of an environmental movement can be traced as far back as 1739, when Benjamin Franklin and other Philadelphia residents, citing "public rights," petitioned the Pennsylvania Assembly to stop waste dumping and remove tanneries from Philadelphia's commercial district. The US movement expanded in the 1800s, out of concerns for protecting the natural resources of the West, with individuals such as John Muir and Henry David Thoreau making key philosophical contributions. Thoreau was interested in peoples' relationship with nature and studied this by living close to nature in a simple life. He published his experiences in the book Walden, which argues that people should become intimately close with nature. Muir came to believe in nature's inherent right, especially after spending time hiking in Yosemite Valley and studying both the ecology and geology. He successfully lobbied congress to form Yosemite National Park and went on to set up the Sierra Club. The conservationist principles as well as the belief in an inherent right of nature were to become the bedrock of modern environmentalism.
In the 20th century environmental ideas continued to grow in popularity and recognition. Efforts were starting to be made to save some wildlife, particularly the American Bison. The death of the last Passenger Pigeon as well as the endangerment of the American Bison helped to focus the minds of conservationists and popularize their concerns. Notably in 1916 the National Park Service was founded by President Woodrow Wilson.
In 1949 A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold was published. It explained Leopold’s belief that humankind should have moral respect for the environment and that it is unethical to harm it. The book is sometimes called the most influential book on conservation.
In 1962, Houghton Mifflin published Silent Spring by American biologist Rachel Carson. The book cataloged the environmental impacts of the indiscriminate spraying of DDT in the US and questioned the logic of releasing large amounts of chemicals into the environment without fully understanding their effects on ecology or human health. The book suggested that DDT and other pesticides may cause cancer and that their agricultural use was a threat to wildlife, particularly birds. The resulting public concern lead to the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 which subsequently banned the agricultural use of DDT in the US in 1972. The limited use of DDT in disease vector control continues to this day in certain parts of the world and remains controversial. The book's legacy was to produce a far greater awareness of environmental issues and interest into how people affect the environment. With this new interest in environment came interest in problems such as air pollution and oil spills, and environmental interest grew. New pressure groups formed, notably Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth.
In the 1970s the Chipko movement was formed in India; influenced by Mahatma Gandhi, they set up peaceful resistance to deforestation by literally hugging trees (leading to the term "tree huggers"). Their peaceful methods of protest and slogan "ecology is permanent economy" were very influential.
By the mid 1970s many felt that people were on the edge of environmental catastrophe. The Back-to-the-land movement started to form and ideas of environmental ethics joined with anti-Vietnam War sentiments and other political issues. These individuals lived outside normal society and started to take on some of the more radical environmental theories such as deep ecology. Around this time more mainstream environmentalism was starting to show force with the signing of the Endangered Species Act in 1973 and the formation of CITES in 1975.
In 1979 former NASA scientist James Lovelock published Gaia: A new look at life on Earth, which put forth the Gaia Hypothesis, that life on Earth can be understood as a single organism. This became an important part of the Deep Green ideology. Throughout the rest of the history of environmentalism there has been debate and argument between more radical followers of this Deep Green ideology and more mainstream environmentalists.
The Environmental movement (a term that sometimes includes the conservation and green movements) is a diverse scientific, social, and political movement. In general terms, environmentalists advocate the sustainable management of resources, and the protection (and restoration, when necessary) of the natural environment through changes in public policy and individual behavior. In its recognition of humanity as a participant in ecosystems, the movement is centered around ecology, health, and human rights. Additionally, throughout history, the movement has been incorporated into religion. The movement is represented by a range of organizations, from the large to grassroots, but a younger demographic than is common in other social movements (see green seniors). Due to its large membership, varying and strong beliefs, the movement is not entirely united. Indeed, some argue that an environmental ethic of at least some sort is so urgently needed in all quarters that the broader the better. Conversely, disunity can be a weakness in the face of strong opposition from unsympathetic political and industrial forces.
Free market environmentalism is a theory that argues that the free market, property rights, and tort law provide the best tools to preserve the health and sustainability of the environment. This is in sharp contrast to the most common modern approach of looking to legislative government intervention to prevent destruction of the environment. It considers environmental stewardship to be natural, as well as the expulsion of pollutors and other aggressors through individual and class action.
Environmental preservation, chiefly in the United States, is viewed as the strict setting aside of natural resources to prevent damage caused by contact with humans or by certain human activities, such as logging, mining, hunting, and fishing. It is different from conservation; conservation allows for some degree of industrial development, albeit it within sustainable limits. Regulations and laws may be enacted for the preservation of natural resources.
Elsewhere in the world the terms preservation and conservation may be less contested and are often used interchangeably.
Light Greens see protecting the environment first and foremost as a personal responsibility. They fall in on the reformist end of the spectrum introduced above, but light Greens do not emphasize environmentalism as a distinct political ideology, or even seek fundamental political reform. Instead they often focus on environmentalism as a lifestyle choice. The motto "Green is the new black." sums up this way of thinking, for many.
In contrast, dark greens believe that environmental problems are an inherent part of industrialized capitalism, and seek radical political change. As discussed earlier, 'dark greens' tend to believe that dominant political ideologies (sometimes referred to as industrialism) are corrupt and inevitably lead to consumerism, alienation from nature and resource depletion. Dark Greens claim that this is caused by the emphasis on growth that exists within all existing ideologies, a tendency referred to as ‘growth mania’. The dark green brand of environmentalism is associated with ideas of Deep Ecology, Post-materialism, Holism, the Gaia Theory of James Lovelock and the work of Fritjof Capra. The division between light and dark greens was visible in the fighting between Fundi and Realo factions of the German Green Party.
More recently, a third group may be said to have emerged in the form of Bright Greens. This group believes that radical changes are needed in the economic and political operation of society in order to make it sustainable, but that better designs, new technologies and more widely distributed social innovations are the means to make those changes-- and that we can neither shop nor protest our way to sustainability. As Ross Robertson writes, "[B]right green environmentalism is less about the problems and limitations we need to overcome than the “tools, models, and ideas” that already exist for overcoming them. It forgoes the bleakness of protest and dissent for the energizing confidence of constructive solutions.
Some US environmental organizations, among them the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund, specialize in bringing lawsuits (a tactic seen as particularly useful in that country). Other groups, such as the US-based National Wildlife Federation, the Nature Conservancy, and The Wilderness Society, and global groups like the World Wide Fund for Nature and Friends of the Earth, disseminate information, participate in public hearings, lobby, stage demonstrations, and may purchase land for preservation. Smaller groups, including Wildlife Conservation International, conduct research on endangered species and ecosystems. More radical organizations, such as Greenpeace, Earth First!, and the Earth Liberation Front, have more directly opposed actions they regard as environmentally harmful. While Greenpeace is devoted to nonviolent confrontation as a means of bearing witness to environmental wrongs and bringing issues into the public realm for debate, the underground Earth Liberation Front engages in the clandestine destruction of property, the release of caged or penned animals, and other criminal acts. Such tactics are regarded as unusual within the movement, however.
On an international level, concern for the environment was the subject of a UN conference in Stockholm in 1972, attended by 114 nations. Out of this meeting developed UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) and the follow-up United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 1992. Other international organizations in support of environmental policies development include the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (NAFTA), the European Environment Agency (EEA), and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).