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Although the term environmentalism was not used until much later, the roots of environmental movements date back to the 1800s, when demands for cleaner water and air and the protection of wilderness became common. Industrialization and colonialism sparked the first environmentalist voices. Though goals and intentions of the countless organizations vary, environmental movements as a whole remain an important aspect of modern society.
Environmental, or green, movements appeared around the globe during the second half of the twentieth century as people agitated in reaction to local problems, affected the policies and organization of national governments (including the origin of environmental departments in almost every nation), and helped to create national and international laws, international bodies, and important treaties. Few other popular movements spread so far, had such complex ramifications, and lasted so long with the promise of continuing influence.
To present green or environmental movements as a recent phenomenon, arising during the years after World War II, however, would be misleading. They had their roots in the conservation movement that began a century earlier. Many voices had demanded clean water and air, parks and open space, the humane treatment of animals and the protection of bird species, the preservation of wilderness, and the provision of outdoor recreation. Communities in many places began to see their welfare as being connected with the health of their land, their forests, their waters, and their clean air. Although people did not yet use the term environmentalism, the actions of people to protect their valued habitats, to protest against developments that threatened to destroy them, and to search for ways to live in harmony with nature constituted an effort that has come to be known by that term.
People voiced those concerns during the late eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries when the Industrial Revolution was polluting and otherwise harming the landscape of the Western world, and colonialism was making depredations on the natural resources of the rest of the world. For example, deforestation altered small islands in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans so rapidly that European scientists who were sent out by the colonial powers noted exhaustion of timber and desiccation of climates and called for restorative action. Pierre Poivre, a French botanist, warned in 1763 that the removal of forests would cause loss of rainfall and recommended the reforestation of island colonies. Both France and Britain soon established forest reserves in their colonies, including British India. Unfortunately reserves often meant that local people were excluded from their own forests, and this exclusion produced outbreaks of resistance during the 1800s. Some European environmentalists raised their voices loudly against mistreatment of indigenous peoples. A few of these environmentalists were feminists, and some, such as the surgeon Edward Green Balfour, were willing to alarm their superiors with advocacy of not only conservation, but also anticolonialism.
The rapid sweep of resource exploitation across the North American continent aroused a few opposing voices. The artist George Catlin in 1832 advocated that a section of the Great Plains be set aside as a national park to preserve bison herds and their native American Indian hunters. Writers William Wordsworth in England and Henry David Thoreau in the United States maintained that the authentic human self can best be realized in contact with wild nature. The Scottish-American writer John Muir became an advocate for wilderness and found many people agreeing with him. The first national park, Yellowstone, was designated in the United States in 1872, starting a movement to reserve natural areas that spread around the world. Australia declared a national park outside Sydney in 1879; Canada established Banff National Park in 1885; and South Africa in 1898 set aside an area that later became Kruger National Park. Eventually more than 110 countries established 1,200 national parks.
Through the public relations provided by many writers, including Muir, the conservation movement grew rapidly and produced many organizations. Muir’s group, the Sierra Club, backed nature preservation of many kinds, successfully urging the creation of national parks and providing opportunities for its members to hike and camp in them. The Audubon Society followed in 1905, gaining protection for birds and including women leaders who convinced their peers that it was better fashion not to wear feathers in their hats. Stephen Tyng Mather, first director of the U.S. National Park Service, organized the National Parks Association in 1919 to provide support for the work of his agency. Groups appeared internationally; the World Wildlife Fund supported projects to preserve wildlife and wildlife habitats in many nations.
Voices for Sustainable Use
Not all conservationists argued for keeping natural areas in a pristine state. Some, often connected with governments, pointed out the importance of keeping reserves, especially forests, as a continuing source for needed resources such as timber. France established the Administration of Water and Forests as early as 1801, and Prussia established the Forest Service not long afterward. In 1864 the U.S. ambassador to Italy, George Perkins Marsh, published Man and Nature, a book warning that human-caused destruction of forests, soils, and other resources threatened to impoverish societies everywhere. Marsh maintained that many of the changes that humans make in the natural environment, whether accompanied by good intentions or by disregard of the consequences, damage the environment’s usefulness to humans. His influence was felt in the United States, Europe, and beyond, and helped to inform the movement for conservation of natural resources. In the United States that movement was exemplified by the founding of the American Forestry Association in 1875. Gifford Pinchot, who became the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service in 1905 under President Theodore Roosevelt (himself a conservationist), was a leading advocate of sustainable forest management. Pinchot had been informed by his study in French schools of forestry and by the work of Dietrich Brandis and the Forest Department in British India.
Conservationism during the early twentieth century was largely the work of committed individuals, energetic but relatively small organizations, and government land-management agencies in several countries. It was concerned with the preservation of forests, soils, water, wildlife, and outstanding natural places and the prevention of pollution in local areas, particularly in urban centers. During the years after World War II, however, more ominous and more widespread environmental problems forced themselves on the notice of people around the world to such an extent that the problems represented an environmental crisis. These problems could rarely be solved by local efforts alone: the spread of fallout from nuclear weapons testing and from accidents in nuclear power facilities, air pollution that crossed national frontiers and caused acid precipitation, persistent pesticides that lost their effectiveness even as they were applied ever more widely (and were detected in the fat of Antarctic penguins), supposedly inert chemicals that proved to attack the ozone layer, and greenhouse gases generated by countless human activities that apparently raise the temperature of the Earth. In the face of these problems, and the wider public awareness that they aroused, the conservation movement was transformed into environmental movements. The constitution of the first environmental organization under United Nations auspices, the International Union for the Protection of Nature, in 1949 defined its purpose as the preservation of the entire world biotic community. This organization became the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) in 1956.
The Emergence of Environmentalism
Environmentalism as a popular social movement emerged during the 1960s. It is often said to have begun in response to the American biologist Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring, which warned of the dangers of persistent pesticides such as DDT. That book dealt with only one environmental issue but found a wider international readership than any previous book on an environmental subject. Environmentalism was expressed in the first Earth Day (22 April 1970), an event primarily in the United States, although it later received international observance. By 2000 the membership of environmental organizations reached 14 million in the United States, 5 million in Britain and Germany, and 1 million in the Netherlands.
The first major international conference devoted to environmental issues was held in 1972: the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, Sweden. This conference included representatives of 113 nations, 19 intergovernmental agencies, and 134 nongovernmental organizations. It marked a new awareness among nations that many environmental problems are worldwide in scope. Representatives of industrialized and developing countries attended and discussed the issues that divided those two groups. Unlike its successor conference in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, the conference in Stockholm in 1972 was not an “Earth summit.” The only heads of state present were the host, Sweden’s Prime Minister Olaf Palme, and Indira Gandhi of India, who served as an articulate spokesperson for views shared by developing countries. Some representatives of developing nations noted that environmentalist views were most vocal in the industrialized world—in the very nations that had reached their economic pinnacles by using natural resources from around the Earth and producing the major proportion of the planet’s pollution. Would measures for conservation of resources and reduction of pollution limit the development of poorer countries while leaving the richer countries in relative affluence? Gandhi maintained that poverty and need are the greatest polluters and that the basic conflict is not between conservation and development but rather between environment and the reckless exploitation of humankind and nature in the name of economic expansion. She insisted that discussion of environmental problems be linked to issues posed by human needs. The Stockholm conference authorized the creation of the United Nations Environment Programme, headquartered in Nairobi, Kenya, which was given the responsibility of coordinating United Nations efforts on the environment worldwide. For example, the United Nations Environment Programme took a role in facilitating negotiation of the 1987 Montreal Protocol for the protection of the Earth’s ozone layer.
Environmental movements won legislative victories in a number of nations, creating laws to curb air and water pollution and to protect wilderness and endangered species. Most nations established governmental environmental agencies. In the United States the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 required governmental agencies and businesses to subject development plans to environmental review.
Environmentalist political movements, which often emerged in the form of “Green” parties, appeared in Europe and elsewhere beginning during the 1970s. The German party, “Die Grunen” (“The Greens”), adopted a platform emphasizing environmental values, antinuclear activism, economic rights for workers, and participatory democracy, gaining support from groups other than environmentalists and winning enough representation in Parliament to wield a critical margin between left and right and to participate in coalition governments. Similar parties in other European countries generally polled under 10 percent of the vote. In the United States the Green Party received national attention during the presidential election of 2000 when its candidate, the consumer advocate Ralph Nader, may have garnered enough popular votes in some states to deprive Democratic candidate Al Gore, a moderate environmentalist and the author of the book, Earth in the Balance, of the electoral margin he needed for victory against George W. Bush.
Movements for environmental responsibility in business, investment, and commerce gained visibility, although the results were mixed. A movement for responsible business practices was urged by economists such as Herman Daly and Paul Hawken. Their “natural capitalism” advocated consideration of the total effect of businesses and industries in terms of social and environmental justice, and the sustainability of the resources used, not just the financial “bottom line.” Many corporations adopted green measures, although it was often hard to tell whether their efforts were genuine, or simply advertising ploys intended to appeal to buyers who wanted to make good environmental decisions.
Elements of environmental movements did not content themselves with seeking reform in governmental actions or international agreements, which seemed to them to be slow and inadequate. The Environmental Justice Movement organized protests reacting to the fact that many environmental hazards, such as toxic waste dumps and polluting industries, were located in neighborhoods inhabited by the poor and racial minorities. Protesters took direct action against environmentally damaging exploits such as the clearcutting of ancient forests. In 1993, for example, Canadian citizens blocked roads being used by logging trucks of the MacMillan Bloedel Company to carry huge old-growth trees cut from the forests surrounding Clayoquot Sound on Vancouver Island. Police arrested 932 protesters, who were convicted and fined from $250 to $3,000 for defying a court injunction banning demonstrations. An eventual agreement, however, won protection for a large portion of the forests. Nonetheless, clear-cutting continued outside the protected areas by the Weyerhauser Company, MacMillan Blodel’s successor, and was confronted by new environmental protests.
One of the most famous environmental protests was the Chipko movement, which began near Himalayan villages in north India in March 1973 when peasants stopped loggers from cutting down trees by threatening to hug (chipko) the trees and place their bodies in the path of the axes—civil disobedience inspired by the nonviolent methods of Indian nationalist Mohandas Gandhi. The trees were valuable to villagers for fuel, fodder, small timber, and protection against flooding. Many demonstrators were women, who are the wood gatherers there. Similar protests occurred elsewhere in India and met with some success. In Malaysia the Penan people of Sarawak carried out a series of direct actions, including blocking roads, to protest the destruction of their rainforest homeland by commercial loggers.
Those people who have demonstrated concern for the relationship of humans to nature have often suffered for that concern. Wangari Maathai, who began the Green Belt Movement in Kenya to enable the planting and caring for trees by women and children, was beaten and imprisoned. Subsequently, she received the 1994 Nobel Prize for her environmental work. The poet and playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed by the dictatorship of Nigeria in 1995 for organizing a movement against oil drilling that produced air and water pollution in the lands of his Ogoni tribe without compensation. Judi Bari, a leader of the 1990 Redwood Summer protests against the logging of giant redwood trees in California, was maimed by a bomb placed under her car seat in an attempt to kill her. Chico Mendes, who organized the seringueiros (rubber tappers in the Amazon rainforest of Brazil) to defend the forest and their livelihood against illegal clearing, was murdered in 1988 by the agents of rich landowners whose financial interests in forest removal he threatened. The American Catholic nun, Sister Dorothy Mae Stang, a naturalized Brazilian citizen who had worked for thirty years on behalf of the rural poor and the environment of the Amazon basin, was shot to death at the order of landowners in 2005. Appropriately, she often wore a T-shirt with the motto: “The death of the forest is the end of our life.”
One of the most striking developments in the early twenty-first century is the emergence of climate change, and specifically global warming, as the most prominent issue among those on the agenda of the environmental movement. This is the result of a growing consensus among climate scientists that the average temperature of the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans has risen to a level unprecedented in recent history, to a large extent due to the release of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases as a result of human activities, which shows every sign of a continued increase. The consensus has been confirmed in a series of reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a large evaluative group of scientists under the auspices of the United Nations. The possible results of this increase include losses of polar and glacial ice, rising sea level and loss of coastal land, droughts and floods in some areas, increasing energy in storms including hurricanes, impacts on agriculture, and changes in range and abundance of animals and plants. The 2007 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded jointly to the IPCC and Al Gore, former vice president of the United States, for their work in disseminating knowledge about human-caused climate change and laying foundations for actions necessary to counteract it. Among the measures urged by environmental groups are restrictions on releases of carbon dioxide from sources in industry and transportation, and support for international agreements to accomplish that purpose.
Environmental movements in recent history have proved to be extraordinarily complex, including myriads of organizations, formal and informal. Their goals have been disparate, but they share the overall goal of making the Earth a better, safer, and cleaner place for its living inhabitants, human and nonhuman. Such movements have met with many successes and many failures, and their ultimate effects are still uncertain. But they are certainly among the most far-reaching and intrinsically important movements of the modern world.
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