Environmental movement in the United States

Environmental movement in the United States

In the United States today, the organized environmental movement is represented by a wide range of organizations sometimes called non-governmental organizations or NGOs. These organizations exist on local, national, and international scales. Environmental NGOs vary widely in political views and in the amount they seek to influence the environmental policy of the United States and other governments. The environmental movement today consists of both large national groups and also many smaller local groups with local concerns. Some resemble the old U.S. conservation movement - whose modern expression is the Nature Conservancy, Audubon Society and National Geographic Society - American organizations with a worldwide influence.

cope of the movement

The largest and most influential environmental organizations in the United States, according to Andrew Rowell are the so called Group of Ten: Defenders of Wildlife ,Environmental Defense Fund, National Audubon Society, National Wildlife Federation, Natural Resources Defense Council, Friends of the Earth, Izaak Walton League, Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society and the World Wide Fund for Nature [No Man's Garden Botkins]

* The Conservation movement which began in the late 1800s The early conservation movement included fisheries and wildlife management, water, soil conservation and sustainable forestry, today it includes sustainable yield of natural resources, preservation of wilderness areas and biodiversity
* The modern Environmental movement, which began in the 1960s with concern about air and water pollution, became broader in scope to including all landscapes and human activities. See List of environmental issues.
* Environmental health movement dating at least to Progressive Era urban reforms including clean water supply, more efficient removal of raw sewage and reduction in crowded and unsanitary living conditions. Today Environmental health is more related to nutrition, preventive medicine, aging well and other concerns specific to the human body's well-being.
* Sustainability movement which started in the 1980s focused on Gaia theory, value of Earth and other interrelations between human sciences and human responsibilities. Its spinoff Deep Ecology was more spiritual but often claimed to be science.
* Environmental justice is a movement that began in the U.S. in the 1980s and seeks an end to environmental racism. Often, low-income and minority communities are located close to highways, garbage dumps, and factories, where they are exposed to greater pollution and environmental health risk than the rest of the population. The Environmental Justice movement seeks to link "social" and "ecological" environmental concerns, while at the same time keeping environmentalists conscious of the dynamics in their own movement, i.e. racism, sexism, homophobia, classicism, and other malaises of dominant culture.

As public awareness and the environmental sciences have improved in recent years, environmental issues have broadened to include key concepts such as "sustainability" and also new emerging concerns such as ozone depletion, global warming, acid rain, and biogenetic pollution.

Environmental movements often interact or are linked with other social movements, e.g. for peace, human rights, and animal rights; and against nuclear weapons and/or nuclear power, endemic diseases, poverty, hunger, etc.

Some US colleges are now going green by signing the "President's Climate Commitment," a document that a college President can sign to enable said colleges to practice environmentalism by switching to solar power, etc. [http://www.presidentsclimatecommitment.org/]


Early European settlers to the United States brought from Europe the concept of the commons. In the colonial era, access to natural resources was allocated by individual towns, disputes over fisheries or land use were resolved at the local level. Changing technologies however, strained traditional ways of resolving disputes of resource use and local governments had limited control over powerful special interests. For example the damming of rivers for mills cut off upriver towns from fisheries. Logging and clearing of forest in watersheds harmed local fisheries downstream. In New England many farmers became uneasy as they noticed clearing of forest changed stream flows and a decrease in bird population which helped control insects pests. These concerns become widely know with the publication of Man and Nature (1864) by George Perkins Marsh

Conservation movement

Conservation first became a national issue during the progressive era's conservation movement. The early national conservation movement shifted emphasis to scientific management which favored larger enterprises and control began to shift from local governments to the states and the federal government.(Judd) Some writers credit sportsman, hunters and fisherman with the increasing influence of the conservation movement. In the 1870s sportsman magazines such as American Sportsmen, Forest and Stream, and Field and Stream are seen as leading to the growth of the conservation movement.(Reiger) This conservation movement also urged the establishment of state and national parks and forests, wildlife refuges, and national monuments intended to preserve noteworthy natural features.

Influential conservationists included President Theodore Roosevelt, George Bird Grinnell, Gifford Pinchot prominent sportsmen founded the Boone and Crockett Club, the Izaak Walton League and John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club in 1892. Conservationists organized the National Parks Conservation Association, the Audubon Society, and other groups that still remain 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.

The Inter-American Conference on the Conservation of Renewable Natural Resources met in 1948 as a collection of nearly 200 scientists from all over the Americans forming the trusteeship principle that:

"No generation can exclusively own the renewable resources by which it lives. We hold the commonwealth in trust for prosperity, and to lessen or destroy it is to commit treason against the future" [ "New York Times", Sept 18, 1948 in Fairchild, W.B. (1949) "Renewable Resources: A World Dilemma: Recent Publications on Conservation", "Geographical Review" 39 (1) pp. 86 - 98] (Sound familiar? Look at the definition from the Brundtland Commission of sustainable development in 1987).

Beginning of the modern movement

During the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, several events occurred which raised the public awareness of harm to the environment caused by man. In 1954, the 23 man crew of the Japanese fishing vessel Lucky Dragon was exposed to radioactive fallout from a hydrogen bomb test at Bikini Atoll, in 1969, an ecological catastrophic oil spill from an offshore well in California's Santa Barbara Channel, Barry Commoner's protest against nuclear testing, Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring, Paul R. Ehrlich's The Population Bomb all added anxiety about the environment. Pictures of Earth from space emphasized that the earth was small and fragile.

As the public become more aware of environmental issues, 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. That public support for environmental concerns was wide-spread became clear in the Earth Day demonstrations of 1970.

Unlike the Progressive Era's conservation movement, which was largely elitist consisting of largely of wealthy, political powerful men the modern environmental movement was a social movement with more popular support. The environmental movement borrowed tactics from both the successful civil rights movement and the protests against the Vietnam war.

Wilderness preservation

In the modern wilderness preservation movement, important philosophical roles are played by the writings of John Muir who had been activist in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Along with Muir perhaps most influential in the modern movement is Henry David Thoreau who published Walden in 1854. Also important was forester and ecologist Aldo Leopold, one of the founders of the Wilderness Society in 1935, who wrote a classic of nature observation and ethical philosophy, "A Sand County Almanac", published in 1949. Other philosophical foundations were established by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Thomas Jefferson.

Federal legislation in the 1970s

Prior to the 1970s the protection of basic air and water supplies was a matter mainly left to each state. During the '70s, responsibility for clean air and water to shifted to the federal government. Growing concerns, both environmental and economic, from cites and towns as well as sportsman and other local groups senators such as Maine's Edmund S. Muskie generated extensive legislation, notably the Clean Air Act of 1970. Other legislation included National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), signed into law in 1970, which established an United States Environmental Protection Agency and a Council on Environmental Quality; ; the Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1972; the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the Safe Drinking Water Act (1974), the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (1976), the Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1977, which became known as the Clean Water Act, and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, commonly known as the Superfund Act (1980). These laws regulated toxic substances, pesticides, and ocean dumping; and protected wildlife, wilderness, and wild and scenic rivers. Moreover, the new laws provide for pollution research, standard setting, monitoring, and enforcement.

The creation of these laws led to a major shift in the environmental movement. Groups such as the Sierra Club shifted focus from local issues to becoming a lobby in Washington and new groups, for example, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Environmental Defense, arose to influence politics as well. (Larson)

Renewed focus on local action

In the 1980s President Ronald Reagan sought to curtail scope of environmental protection taking steps such as appointing James G. Watt who was called one of the most "blatantly anti-environmental political appointees". The major environmental groups responded with mass mailings which led to increased membership and donations. The large environmental organization increasingly relied on ties within Washington DC to advance their environmental agenda. At the same time membership in environmental groups became more suburban and urban. Groups such as animal rights, and the gun control lobby became linked with environmentalism while sportsman, farmers and ranchers were no longer influential in the movement.When industry groups lobbied to weaken regulation and a backlash against environmental regulations, the so called wise use movement gained importance and influence. The wise use movement and anti-environmental groups were able to portray environmentalist as out of touch with main-stream values. (Larson)


In 2004, with the environmental movement seemingly stalled, some environmentalists started questioning whether "environmentalism" was even a useful political framework. According to a controversial essay titled " [http://www.thebreakthrough.org/images/Death_of_Environmentalism.pdf The Death of Environmentalism ] " (Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, 2004) American environmentalism has been remarkably successful in protecting the air, water, and large stretches of wilderness in North America and Europe, but these environmentalists have stagnated as a vital force for cultural and political change.

Shellenberger and Nordhaus wrote, "Today environmentalism is just another special interest. Evidence for this can be found in its concepts, its proposals, and its reasoning. What stands out is how arbitrary environmental leaders are about what gets counted and what doesn't as 'environmental.' Most of the movement's leading thinkers, funders, and advocates do not question their most basic assumptions about who we are, what we stand for, and what it is that we should be doing." Their essay was followed by a speech in San Francisco called "Is Environmentalism Dead?" by former Sierra Club President, Adam Werbach, who argued for the evolution of environmentalism into a more expansive, relevant and powerful progressive politics. Werbach endorsed building an environmental movement that is more relevant to average Americans, and controversially chose to lead Wal-Mart's effort to take sustainability mainstream.

These "post-environmental movement" thinkers argue that the ecological crises the human species faces in the 21st century are qualitatively different from the problems the environmental movement was created to address in the 1960s and 1970s. Climate change and habitat destruction, they argue, are global, more complex, and demand far deeper transformations of the economy, the culture and political life. The consequence of environmentalism's outdated and arbitrary definition, they argue, is political irrelevancy.

These "politically neutral" groups tend to avoid global conflicts and view the settlement of inter-human conflict as separate from regard for nature - in direct contradiction to the ecology movement and peace movement which have increasingly close links: While Green Parties and Greenpeace, and groups like the ACTivist Magazine for example, regard ecology, biodiversity and an end to non-human extinction as absolutely basic to peace, the local groups may not, and may see a high degree of global competition and conflict as justifiable if it lets them preserve their own local uniqueness. This seems selfish to some. However, such groups tend not to "burn out" and to sustain for long periods, even generations, protecting the same local treasures. The Water Keepers Alliance is a good example of such a group that sticks to local questions.

Local groups increasingly find that they benefit from collaboration, e.g. on consensus decision making methods, or making simultaneous policy, or relying on common legal resources, or even sometimes a common glossary. However, the differences between the various groups that make up the modern environmental movement tend to outweigh such similarities, and they rarely co-operate directly except on a few major global questions. In a notable exception, over 1,000 local groups from around the country united for a single day of action as part of the Step It Up 2007 campaign for real solutions to global warming.

Groups such as The Bioregional Revolution are calling on the need to bridge these differences, as the converging problems of the 21st century they claim compel us to unite and to take decisive action. They promote bioregionalism, permaculture, and local economies as solutions to these problems, overpopulation, global warming, global epidemics, and water scarcity, but most notably to "peak oil"--the prediction that we are likely to reach a maximum in global oil production which could spell drastic changes in many aspects of our everyday lives.

Environmental rights

Many environmental lawsuits turn on the question of who has standing; are the legal issues limited to property owners, or does the general public have a right to intervene? Christopher D. Stone's 1972 essay, "Should trees have standing?" seriously addressed the question of whether natural objects themselves should have legal rights, including the right to participate in lawsuits. Stone suggested that there was nothing absurd in this view, and noted that many entities now regarded as having legal rights were, in the past, regarded as "things" that were regarded as legally rightless; for example, aliens, children and women. His essay is sometimes regarded as an example of the fallacy of hypostatization.

One of the earliest lawsuits to establish that citizens may sue for environmental and aesthetic harms was Scenic Hudson Preservation Conference v. Federal Power Commission, decided in 1965 by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. The case helped halt the construction of a power plant on Storm King Mountain in New York State. See also United States environmental law and David Sive, an attorney who was involved in the case.

Role of science

Conservation biology is an important and rapidly developing field.

One way to avoid the stigma of an "ism" was to evolve early anti-nuclear groups into the more scientific Green Parties, sprout new NGOs such as Greenpeace and Earth Action, and devoted groups to protecting global biodiversity and preventing global warming and climate change. But in the process, much of the emotional appeal, and many of the original aesthetic goals were lost - these groups have well-defined ethical and political views, backed by hard science.

Criticisms of the Environmental Movement

Some people are skeptical of the environmental movement and feel that it is more deeply rooted in politics than science. Although there have been serious debates about climate change and effects of some pesticides and herbicides that mimic animal sex steroids, science has shown that some of the claims of environmentalists have credence.

Claims made by environmentalists may be perceived as veiled attacks on industry and globalization rather than legitimate environmental concerns. Detractors note that a significant number of environmental theories and predictions have been inaccurate and suggest that the regulations recommended by environmentalists will more likely harm society rather than help nature.


Specific examples include when Rachel Carson, in her book "Silent Spring", suggested that the pesticide DDT caused cancer and drastically harmed ecosystems. DDT is highly toxic to aquatic life, including crayfish, daphnids, sea shrimp and many species of fish. However, DDT might be useful in controlling malaria.

Prominent novelist and Harvard Medical School graduate Michael Crichton appeared before the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works to address such concerns and recommended the employment of double-blind experimentation in environmental research. Crichton suggested that because environmental issues are so political in nature, policy makers need neutral, conclusive data to base their decisions on, rather than conjecture and rhetoric, and double-blind experiments are the most efficient way to achieve that aim.

A consistent theme acknowledged by both supporters and critics (though more commonly vocalized by critics) of the environmental movement is that we know very little about the Earth we live in. Most fields of environmental studies are relatively new, and therefore what research we have is limited and does not date far enough back for us to completely understand long-term environmental trends. This has led a number of environmentalists to support the use of the precautionary principle in policy making, which ultimately asserts that we don’t know how certain actions may affect the environment, and because there is reason to believe they may cause more harm than good we should refrain from such actions.



In the December 1994 Wild Forest Review, Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair wrote "The mainstream environmental movement was elitist, highly paid, detached from the people, indifferent to the working class, and a firm ally of big government.…The environmental movement is now accurately perceived as just another well-financed and cynical special interest group, its rancid infrastructure supported by Democratic Party operatives and millions in grants from corporate foundations.”

Wilderness myth

Writer William Cronon criticizes the modern environmental movement for having a romantic idealizations of wilderness. Cronon writes "wilderness serves as the unexamined foundation on which so many of the quasi-religious values of modern environmentalism rest." Cronon claims that "to the extent that we live in an urban-industrial civilization but at the same time pretend to ourselves that our real home is in the wilderness, to just that extent we give ourselves permission to evade responsibility for the lives we actually lead."

Similarly Michael Pollan has argued that the wilderness ethic leads people to dismiss areas whose wildness is less than absolute. In his book Second Nature, Pollan writes that "once a landscape is no longer 'virgin' it is typically written off as fallen, lost to nature, irredeemable."

Debates within the movement

Within the environmental movement an ideological debate has taken place between those with an ecocentric view point and an anthropocentric view point. The anthropocentric view has been seen as the conservationist approach to the environment with nature viewed, at least in part, as resource to be used by man. In contrast to the conservationist approach the ecocentric view, associated with John Muir, Henry David Thoreau and William Wordworth sometimes referred to as the preservationist movement. This approach sees nature in a more spiritual way. Many environmental historians consider the split between John Muir and Gifford Pinchot. During the preservation / conservation debate the term preservationist become to be seen as a pejorative term.

While the ecocentric view focused on biodiversity and wilderness protection the anthropocentric view focus on urban pollution and social justice. Some environmental writers, for example William Cronon have criticized the ecocentric view as have a dualist view as man being separate from nature. Critics of the anthropocentric view point contend that the environmental movement has been taken over by so called leftist with an agenda beyond environmental protection.

Several books after the middle of the twentieth century contributed to the rise of American environmentalism (as distinct from the longer-established conservation movement), especially among college and university students and the more literate public. One was the publication of the first textbook on ecology, "Fundamentals of Ecology," by Eugene Odum and Howard Odum, in 1953. Another was the appearance of the best-seller "Silent Spring" by Rachel Carson, in 1962. Her book brought about a whole new interpretation on pesticides by exposing their harmful effects in nature. From this book many began referring to Carson as the "mother of the environmental movement". Another influential development was a 1965 lawsuit, Scenic Hudson Preservation Conference v. Federal Power Commission, opposing the construction of a power plant on Storm King Mountain, which is said to have given birth to modern United States environmental law. The wide popularity of "The Whole Earth Catalogs", starting in 1968, was quite influential among the younger, hands-on, activist generation of the 1960s and 1970s. Recently, in addition to opposing environmental degradation and protecting wilderness, an increased focus on coexisting with natural biodiversity has appeared, a strain that is apparent in the movement for sustainable agriculture and in the concept of Reconciliation Ecology.

Environmentalism and politics

Environmentalists became much more influential in American politics after the creation or strengthening of numerous U.S. environmental laws, including the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act and the formation of the US Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA in 1970. These successes were followed by the enactment of a whole series of laws regulating waste (Resource Conservation and Recovery Act), toxic substances (Toxic Substances Control Act), pesticides (FIFRA: Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act), clean-up of polluted sites (Superfund), protection of endangered species (Endangered Species Act), and more.

Fewer environmental laws have been passed in the last decade as corporations and other conservative interests have increased their influence over American politics.fact|date=May 2008 Corporate cooperation against environmental lobbyists has been organized by the Wise Use group.fact|date=May 2008 At the same time, many environmentalists have been turning toward other means of persuasion, such as working with business, community, and other partners to promote sustainable development.

Much environmental activism is directed towards conservation,fact|date=May 2008 as well as the prevention or elimination of pollution. However, conservation movements, ecology movements, peace movements, green parties, green- and eco-anarchists often subscribe to very different ideologies, while supporting the same goals as those who call themselves “environmentalists”. To outsiders, these groups or factions can appear to be indistinguishable.

As human population and industrial activity continue to increase, environmentalists often find themselves in serious conflict with those who believe that human and industrial activities should not be overly regulated or restricted, such as some libertarians.

Environmentalists often clash with others, particularly “corporate interests,” over issues of the management of natural resources, like in the case of the atmosphere as a “carbon dump”, the focus of climate change, and global warming controversy. They usually seek to protect commonly owned or unowned resources for future generations.

Those who take issue with new untested technologies are more precisely known, especially in Europe, as political ecologists. They usually seek, in contrast, to preserve the integrity of existing ecologies and ecoregions, and in general are more pessimistic about human “management”.fact|date=May 2008

Radical environmentalism

While most environmentalists are mainstream and peaceful, a small minority are more radical in their approach. Adherents of radical environmentalism and ecological anarchism are involved in direct action campaigns to protect the environment. Some campaigns have employed controversial tactics including sabotage, blockades, and arson, while most use peaceful protests such as marches, tree-sitting, and the like. There is substantial debate within the environmental movement as to the acceptability of these tactics, but almost all environmentalists condemn violent actions that can harm humans.



*Samuel P. Hayes, "Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency" (Harvard University Press, 1959).
*Roderick Nash, "Wilderness and the American Mind," third edition (1967; New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982). ISBN 0-300-02910-1
*Douglas H. Strong, "Dreamers & Defenders: American Conservationists" (1971; Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1988) ISBN 0-8032-9156-6
*Stephen Fox, "John Muir and His Legacy: The American Conservation Movement" (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1981). ISBN 0-316-29110-2
*Robert Gottlieb, "Forcing the Spring: The Transformation of the American Environmental Movement" (Washington, DC: Island Press, 1993). ISBN 1-55963-123-6
*Philip Shabecoff, "A Fierce Green Fire: The American Environmental Movement", Island Press, Revised Edition, 2003, ISBN 1559634375
*Richard W. Judd, "Common Lands and Common People: The Origins of Conservation in Northern New England" (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997).
*John McCormick, "The Global Environmental Movement" (London: John Wiley, 1995).
*American Sportsmen and the Origins of Conservation By John F. Reiger
* [http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2006/0605.larson.htmlThe Emerging Environmental Majority by Christina Larson]
* [http://harvardforest.fas.harvard.edu/publications/pdfs/Berlik_JBiogeography_2002.pdf The Illusion of Preservation. Harvard Forestry]
* [http://www.sacbee.com/static/live/news/projects/denial/index.html State of Denial]
* [http://news.research.ohiou.edu/perspectives/index.php?item=325&page=116 The Unlikely Environmentalists]

ee also

* Anti-nuclear movement in the United States
* Environmentalism (Critique of George W. Bush's politics)
* Environmental skepticism
* Eco-terrorism
* Free-market environmentalism
* Green collar
* Political ecology
* Radical environmentalism

External links

* [http://grist.org/ Grist Magazine] - Environmental news, analysis, and humor
* [http://www.worldchanging.com Worldchanging] - Leading online magazine about environmental sustainability
* [http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/cgi-local/DHI/dhi.cgi?id=dv2-13 "Dictionary of the History of Ideas":] Environment
* [http://environment.harvard.edu/religion/main.html Essays on environmental teachings of major religions]
* [http://www.ti.org/enviros.html The State of the Environmental Movement Thoreau Institute]

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