Skip to main content
Select source:



"In wildness is the preservation of the world," wrote Henry David Thoreau, a nineteenth-century New England writer who became a founding figure of today's environmental movement. His life and work ushered in a uniquely American perspective on nature, a philosophy that made an unprecedented defense of the value of wilderness. In so doing, he diverged dramatically from long-standing philosophical traditions that place human interests above the actions of the natural world.

Historical Roots: Running out of Wilderness, Running into Opposition

Thoreau (18171862) showed that a sense of wonder and inspiration could be found in "raw" nature, which human beings had traditionally regarded as chaotic, foreboding, or downright dangerous. He relied on personal experience, monitoring seasonal changes in the plant and animal life around him, writing accounts of his trips to the mountains and rivers of Maine, and spending extended periods of time living in a primitive cabin on Walden Pond in Massachusetts. He made no apologies for flouting society's conventions. Instead, he offered his eccentric lifestyle as an example of how an appreciation of the natural world could enhance human existence. Nor was he afraid to challenge society's rules, outlining the virtues of "civil disobedience" in a famous essay about a night he spent in jail over a matter of conscience.

The natural world of Thoreau's day needed little defending, in spite of the polluting factories of the industrialized northeast United States. The rest of North America contained vast amounts of unclaimed, unsettled land. Wilderness might be daunting, but it appeared to be inexhaustible, and our technology at the time did not seem to have the potential to exhaust it.

It was a century after Thoreau's death that the passion he embodied would evolve into a much more aggressive form of action. This evolution formed a response to the immense economic growth in North America during the period following World War II. People sought bigger houses and more cars, causing cities and road systems to sprawl across the landscape. The accumulation of material wealth exacted a price on the natural world, a toll that became increasingly visible during the 1950s.

By the 1960s, environmental degradation was becoming obvious even to those who did not pay much attention to the natural world. The air and water in many places had become badly polluted, often by industrial wastes as well as by the garbage generated by rapidly growing urban centers. In 1966 some eighty New Yorkers died when warm summer air raised the city's smog levels past what many people could tolerate. A year later an offshore oil rig in California fouled beaches with millions of gallons of spilled oil. In 1969 the Cuyahoga River near Cleveland, Ohio, spontaneously burst into flames, so choked had it become with unstable chemical effluents.

Likewise boaters on Lake Erie had been encountering huge patches of floating algae, which were being fed by large volumes of industrial and agricultural runoff, especially phosphorus. The algae, in turn, robbed the lake bottom of oxygen, rendering the water incapable of sustaining fish life. In the early 1960s, scientists began measuring phosphorus levels dozens of times higher than a typical, unpolluted lake. Their findingscoupled with the evidence of dead fish piling up on Erie shoresmade for strident news stories citing local residents and politicians who declared the lake to be "dying." In a foreshadowing of public outcries to come, a Cleveland car dealer named David Blaushild collected one million signatures on a petition to save the lake. He submitted the document to the Ohio governor's office in 1965, setting in motion a vigorous international campaign.

The 1960s: Silence and Shouting

In 1962 American biologist Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, an account of the environmental damage that had been caused by widespread use of the pesticide DDT. Like Thoreau, Carson was regarded by many critics as little more than a philosophical and scientific crank. But Carson's book put forth serious charges in scientific detail. The use of DDT had been hailed for saving millions of lives in Europe by killing insects that spread typhus and malaria. At the same time, she pointed out, residual amounts of this chemical were also killing beneficial insects such as honeybees, as well as fish, birds, and other animals.

By portraying the environmental consequences of this pesticide, Carson unleashed a fierce controversy. Representatives of chemical and agricultural industries tried to discredit her work, insisting that the impact of DDT was not as significant as she suggested. Others defended Carson, arguing that the long-term harm DDT caused to the natural world outweighed any short-term benefits to human beings. Gradually, other scientists mustered evidence to echo the conclusions of Silent Spring. Within a decade the U.S. governmentwhich had originally hailed the advent of DDT in the 1940sbanned its use.

Carson's book, and the legislation that emerged as a result, reflected the tenor of a turbulent decade. The iconic image of the 1960s is that of a young person carrying a protest sign, a sight that seemed to symbolize the coming of age for a populous, rebellious, and affluent generation whose members began to be born immediately after the end of World War II in 1946. Although this image is a stereotype, many individuals and organizations lodged a wide range of public grievances with the authorities of the day. Such protests cultivated new attitudes toward civil rights, women's rights, foreign policy, and military affairs, as well as toward the environment. Many of these topics were already being debated by political leaders and social commentators. Carson's work appeared just as the calls for change were growing louder.

Some tentative federal measures to address environment had already been implemented. The 1948 Federal Water Pollution Control Act sparked the beginning of active House and Senate Public Works Committee interest in this issue. Similarly, an Air Pollution Control Act went into effect in 1955. But a much more dynamic process began with a White House Conservation Conference in 1962. This event drew together officials from all levels of government to consider matters of conservation, natural resources, and public health. The next few years would see the passage of a much more specific Clean Air Act, the Wilderness Act, the Solid Waste Disposal Act, the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the creation of the National Wildlife Refuge System.

This parade of legislation did not unfold smoothly, however. Even as protesters urged the passage of each new law, vested interests mounted their own opposition. Battles that began in the street moved into the courts and occasionally spilled back into the streets. Some of the most contentious disputes dealt with air quality, spawning grassroots movements in major urban centers. Dubbed the "Breathers' Lobby" by the Wall Street Journal, these groups included GASP in Los Angeles, the Metropolitan Washington Coalition on Clean Air, and the Delaware Clean Air Coalition. One of their most memorable moments came during the first Earth Day in 1970, when protesters marched through downtown Pittsburgh in gas masks carrying a coffin to demonstrate against the poor quality of that city's air.

The Rise of Rights

The physical state of the world was beginning to emerge as a primary consideration for the protest movements of the 1960s. While a task like cleaning up a dirty river might seem to be relatively straightforward, Rachel Carson and other biologists were furnishing the public with graphic evidence of a much greater challenge. Their steadily advancing knowledge of the science of ecology was shedding light on the intricate web of biological connections that sustains any living environment. Even when outright pollution was not evident, human activities could damage this web in many different ways.

This perspective came to the fore in 1966, when the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced plans for two dams on the Colorado River that would flood more than 100 miles of the Grand Canyon. Since the 1930s, dam building had been deemed to be a laudable sign of progress, bringing power into isolated rural communities and meeting the ever-increasing demand for electricity in cities. Compared with alternatives such as coal-burning generating stations, hydroelectric dams were a source of energy with few environmental consequences. Although flooded valleys were among those consequences, floods were often cast in a positive light: the resulting artificial lakes offered new recreational uses. On the other hand, the Grand Canyon was not just another valley, but a sentimental favorite of casual tourists and die-hard naturalists alike. The proposal sparked unprecedented environmental ire.

At the head of this backlash was the Sierra Club, the country's oldest conservation organization. Founded in 1892, it had played a major role in shaping policies on forestry practice and the emerging national parks system at the beginning of the twentieth century. For several decades it had remained a much more passive organization, but the Grand Canyon controversy revived its active stance. David Brower, who had been the club's executive director for fourteen years, made the issue a major focus. He took out newspaper advertisements outlining the dam proposal, complete with coupons and instructions for lodging complaints with appropriate members of government. The Sierra Club ordered two movies to be made, printed up bumper stickers and pamphlets, and reprinted its own colorful coffee table book on the Grand Canyon. By 1967 the New York Times had dubbed the organization's members "gangbusters of the conservation movement." The fracas led one senator to conclude, "Hell hath no fury like a conservationist aroused."

That fury became swiftly evident. Mail, telegrams, and phone calls flooded government offices, so much so that the Internal Revenue Service revoked the Sierra Club's tax exempt status because of its substantial lobbying efforts. That move only further galvanized public opinion, which would swell the club's membership from 39,000 in 1966 to 67,000 by 1968. By then the dam proposal had been irrevocably defeated, but much more than that had been accomplished. Dams could no longer be built without questions being asked; they had lost their unshakable status in public opinion. Rivers, too, had rights.

Giving the Earth Its Due

The notion of "environmental rights" was sometimes characterized as a citizen's right to a clean environment. Regardless of the specific wording, this perspective fueled efforts to give these issues a different kind of legal standing. Lawyers and ecologists found themselves working together through the Environmental Defense Fund, a body created in 1967. Its founders had successfully defeated a bid by the massive power utility Consolidated Edison to store water in a huge mountain reservoir on the Hudson River, where it could be released to provide hydroelectricity at times of excess demand. Opponents of the project cited the potentially negative environmental effects of such releases, and the court agreed. Moreover, when the company appealed on the basis of the fact that none of the people suing would be directly affected by any water releases, the court made life even more difficult for companies such as Consolidated Edison. Not only did the appeal decision give citizen groups the right to protect the environment for noneconomic reasons, but it also made industrial firms responsible for drafting "environmental impact statements" before undertaking such major ventures.

Buoyed by this outcome, the Environmental Defense Fund embarked on a concerted strategy of environmental legislation. Wielding lawsuits and court injunctions, they targeted everything from simple industrial pollution to the construction of nuclear reactors. Problems such as the contamination of soil with heavy metals, which had seldom had a high public profile, were suddenly thrust into the limelight by the Environmental Defense Fund. Popular media began bandying about the term "ecology," which previously had been familiar to only a few scientists. Subtle concepts such as the "food chain" became widely discussed, as did the assertion that humans now had the power to make the planet unable to sustain human life. Since the dawn of the cold war in the 1950s, the major threat to the existence of human life appeared to be the radiation that would linger after a major nuclear conflict. Now an equally gloomy picture was being drawn by those who accused humanity of ruining the natural systems that had nurtured us for millions of years.

Astronauts provided the most poignant image to accompany this accusation, a photograph of the earth in its entirety, as seen from the moon. Reproduced in magazines, school textbooks, and posters, the sight of this "big blue marble" reinforced the argument that we dwelled in a world of finite resources, with natural boundaries that we ignored at our peril. Nor was this message lost on hundreds of thousands of people who began to join conservation groups like the Sierra Club. During the course of the 1960s, that organization saw its membership quintuple to 113,000. Similarly, the Wilderness Society doubled its membership to 54,000, the Audubon Society doubled its to 81,500, and the National Wildlife Federation doubled its to 540,000.

For some observers, this widespread realization of our world's boundaries had come none too soon. In 1968 Italian industrialist Aurelio Peccei assembled a meeting of scientists, economists, educators, and government administrators to discuss this subject. That gathering spawned the Club of Rome, a think tank that soon issued a report called The Limits to Growth. The report sounded some of the most dire warnings yet that our population and technological capabilities could soon reach the "carrying capacity" of the planet. Without dramatic recycling and conservation initiatives, the report said, key resources such as petroleum, metals, and minerals would be in such scarce supply as to be all but gone. Similarly, we would find viable farmland and clean water to be no less scarce unless we worked harder at preserving the integrity of our ecosystems.

The call for a new relationship between human beings and nature prompted many people, including Gaylord Nelson, a senator from Wisconsin, to take action. Using his own funds, Nelson set about organizing Earth Day, a national event to promote a better understanding of environmental issues. Since young people were to play a critical role in the activities, the chosen day was April 22, 1970, when most of the nation's college students could be expected to have completed their exam schedule. When it arrived, no fewer than 10,000 schools and 2,000 colleges and universities held special classes for the occasion. There were nature hikes, garbage cleanup campaigns, and formal presentations about pollution. Larger cities hosted huge rallies and street fairs. And although it was almost impossible to determine the total number of participants across North America, estimates ran as high as twenty million.

Earth Day is still marked every April 22, though with somewhat less fanfare than on that first occasion. For many people, it was a proud and consummate expression of the protest movements that characterized the 1960s. Direct action in the name of the environment would seldom take such a massive and spontaneous form again. Instead, the decade opened by Earth Day would welcome a much more carefully planned brand of activism.

The 1970s: A Very Green Decade

The legal achievements of the Environmental Defense Fund demonstrated the virtues of organized activism, pointing the way for other interested parties that wanted to follow suit. Organizations sprang up year after year, employing the talents of individuals with expertise in the rapidly developing field of environmental law. Some of those individuals became famous in their own right, such as American lobbyist Ralph Naderwho founded the Public Interest Research Group in 1970 as one of the first independent "watchdog" agencies on environmental regulationand French mariner Jacques Cousteau, whose Cousteau Society drew worldwide attention to the state of the world's oceans. Other agencies that were formed about the same time went on to become household names: Friends of the Earth, Union of Concerned Scientists, League of Conservation Voters, and the Worldwatch Institute.

No such list would be complete without Greenpeace, which continually set higher standards for the most dynamic of these organizations. This definitive collection of environmental activists assembled in 1970 by way of responding to a somewhat different causethe U.S. testing of nuclear weapons under Amchitka Island, part of the Aleutian Island chain off Alaska. The group consisted of antiwar protesters who feared the outcome of a nuclear arms race, many of them expatriate Americans who had moved to Canada to avoid being drafted into the war in Vietnam. Others were Sierra Club members, voicing their own fears of deep-sea seismic activity set off by an underground nuclear explosion, which could lead to tidal waves or earthquakes along North America's west coast. Searching for a name at their initial meeting in a church basement in Vancouver, British Columbia, these distinct elements posed the words "green" and "peace," until the connection was ultimately made.

Following a fund-raising concert, Greenpeace chartered an old fishing boat, and later, a retired minesweeper. In October 1971, members and news reporters sailed on these vessels up the west coast toward Amchitka, hoping to arrive before the next scheduled bomb test at the beginning of November. Some of the people who went on this voyage admit that it seemed like a crazy thing to do, and they had little idea of what would happen once they got there. Deteriorating fall weather prevented the fishing boat from reaching the island, and the sturdier minesweeper failed to reach it before the test. Nevertheless, the trip succeeded beyond anyone's expectations. News outlets were able to provide gripping coverage of the adventure and, more importantly, the reason for that adventure in the first place. Embarrassed by this extraordinary attention, the federal government subsequently abandoned its underground testing program. As it turned out, Greenpeace did not need to achieve its stated goal to achieve a much loftier objective: exposing problems that might otherwise elude public notice.

Greenpeace learned this lesson well and began applying it elsewhere. The group chose whaling as its emblematic example of human assault on the natural world, a brutal slaughter of mammals whose intelligence was considered to be comparable to our own. Greenpeace became intimately associated with the expression "save the whales" after its ships began intercepting whaling vessels at work on the high seas. Taking great personal risks by maneuvering small boats in front of whales as they were being targeted by harpoons, Greenpeace activists filmed what they found and ensured that this visual record made its way to television news outlets. In some cases the very act of recording these encounters was enough to cause the whalers to stop what they were doing and leave.

All too frequently, such daring tactics were met with mockery, anger, and the odd outbreak of violence, but they got results. By adding drama to the earlier legislative momentum, Greenpeace helped turn the 1970s into an era of groundbreaking environmental measures. The process was already well under way in 1970, when the U.S. federal government created the Environmental Protection Agency as the bureaucratic cornerstone for an emerging regulatory regime. Over the next few years, clean water and clean air laws would be repeatedly revised. New controls would be placed on all kinds of toxic substances. Legal protection would be provided to endangered species by safeguarding their habitat, even when such protection hampered business interests.

And the activist posture born in the United States was being exported. "Green" parties, with political platforms explicitly premised on environmental topics, emerged in New Zealand in 1972 and in the United Kingdom in 1973. By the end of the decade similar parties would appear in four other European countries, most prominently in West Germany, where substantial numbers of members gained elected office. This trend had a profound influence in Europe, where citizens were facing all of the same environmental challenges as in the United States, but where governments had done little to respond to these challenges. Green party politics, raising environmental issues in the very seat of a nation's government, became an important means of prompting laws and regulations.

But perhaps the most ambitious initiative arrived on the scene by way of the United Nations. In 1972, in Stockholm, the United Nations held a Conference on the Human Environment, endorsing a list of twenty-six environmental principles and creating a new body to oversee them. This agency, called the United Nations Environment Programme, was based in Nairobi, Kenya, and employed more than 1,000 people. It became the model and basis for creating thousands of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operating in all parts of the globe, focusing on various aspects of environmental management. Many still do good work, but not all of these NGOs would be free of political influence, and some would prove to be ineffectual or downright incompetent. Yet they stood on the front lines of a growing number of international treaties for dealing with environmental issues. From 1930 to 1971, forty-eight such treaties were negotiated. Between 1971 and 1980, another forty-seven were added.

The 1980s: The Pendulum Swings

Just as the protests of the 1960s gave way to a more orderly environmental agenda in the 1970s, this agenda took a decidedly different turn in the 1980s. The decade opened with Congress introducing the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), known as Superfund. This law created a tax on industries that would be dedicated to cleaning up releases or threatened releases of hazardous substances in the environment. Over the next five years CERCLA brought in some $1.6 billion for this purpose, creating a trust fund to deal with abandoned or uncontrolled hazardous waste sites.

This kind of genuine environmental progress, resulting in well-defined, well-enforced, and well-funded rules, had stemmed from a combination of grassroots activism and political pressure. Individuals were encouraged to "think globally, act locally" (i.e., interpret a general environment topic through actions they could take immediately, such as tackling water pollution by lobbying factory owners to clean up industrial runoff that was being dumped into a nearby river). At the same time, political leaders were eager to take action to address the dire warnings of pessimistic groups such as the Club of Rome. Harsh pollution rules, for example, often raised the operating costs and lowered the profits of the industries that were doing the polluting. Many politicians were taking a long-term view of the environment, but it was costing them political support in the short term.

In 1980 much of that support disappeared. In the wake of economic recessions throughout much of the 1970s, voters mounted a conservative backlash. Led by President Ronald Reagan, political figures stated bluntly that too much attention had been paid to environmental matters that affected few people at any time, while too little attention was being paid to economic problems that affected far more people on a day-to-day basis. The environment would not necessarily be ignored, but the needs of industry would be given much more weight. Little environmental legislation moved forward during Reagan's definitive eight-year term, and a great deal of existing legislation was weakened or set aside.

Grassroots support fared little better, as the focus in many communities became ever narrower. Where people were formerly being asked to reject water pollution in principle, local protests were increasingly premised exclusively on what was happening locally. Known as the "not in my backyard syndrome," these actions might keep a polluting industry out of a particular region that could organize opposition to it, but they did not muster the broader political will to keep that industry from polluting anywhere at all. This fragmentation of protest ensured that environmental legislation would not move forward.

Moreover, environmental sciencewhich had given the initial push to the entire movementwas becoming bogged down in controversy. Qualified experts began sparring publicly with the pessimistic conclusions of the Club of Rome. These opponents maintained that the carrying capacity of our planet is much greater than The Limits to Growth suggested. And, they added, our own capacity for technological innovation is even more profound. Even were we to "run out" of some key resource, we are inventive enough to find a way around this shortcoming. As for the damage we are inflicting on the earth's ecology, some researchers began to compare it with the damage done by the earth itself. These investigations noted that a natural phenomenon like a volcano emits far more air pollution than any number of smokestacks, and that subtle climatic changes could alter water temperature enough to kill off far more aquatic species than any industrial waste.

Even a decade-long $600 million study of acid rain, which drew on the work of some 2,000 scientists, proved to be inconclusive. The physical process appeared to be simple enough: human activities were emitting large amounts of sulfur into the atmosphere, which subsequently came down in highly acidic raindrops, which in turn led to the acidification of lakes and rivers. Yet the research incorporated a great deal of competing evidence to show that these bodies of water often went acidic without any human influence, and had been doing so for thousands of years. When the final report was presented in 1990, its conclusions were objective but so thorough and multifaceted that they failed to form the basis for any concrete action on the problem.

Other major environmental matters met the same fate in public forums. Scientists wrangled over the meaning of huge "holes" that had been discovered in some parts of the earth's atmosphere. The holes were defined by the absence of ozoneairborne oxygen molecules that normally screen out harsh radiation from space. Some observers linked the holes with the use of chemicals that were being used in refrigeration and spray-can technology. Others countered that the holes came and went at random, implying that they were merely natural occurrences that we had finally discovered. The chemicals were eventually banned, but there is still no firm consensus on ozone holes. In contrast, a similar scientific controversy over global warming emerged in the 1990s. While doubters continued to be heard, enough of a consensus was established to draft an agenda for concerted international action that was enacted in several nations.

Such muddles, combined with the conservative tenor of the times, vexed environmental activists. They wanted their issues back on the public agenda, even if truly radical action were required.

Violent Turns

Some members of Greenpeace had seen the conservative backlash coming even before the presidential election of 1980. According to Canadian member Paul Watson, the essential response had to be increasingly militant protest actions. Among other things, he did not want merely to scare away whalers by filming them; he advocated placing explosives on the hulls of their ships in order to cripple their livelihood. Greenpeace rejected such tactics, and in 1977 it rejected him as well. He formed his own organization, called the Sea Shepherds, outfitted with a refurbished ship that had been renamed Sea Shepherd. Watson described the 200-foot trawler as "the first ship in history dedicated to the enforcement of international marine wildlife conservation law." Whales, he added, now had their own navy.

That navy's first skirmish came off the coast of Portugal in 1979, when the Sea Shepherd rammed a ship that was illegally taking whales. Despite the attack, and Watson's willingness to own up to it for the authorities, the owners of the ship refused to press charges because of the publicity a trial would generate. In this way, the Sea Shepherds attempted to augment the public exposure that Greenpeace had found so effective in quelling environmental offenses. Watson regarded himself as offending the offenders, daring them to strike back.

Some members of Greenpeace might have admired his dedication and nerve, but they would not have been inclined to admit it publicly. Taunting authority was one thing, but menacing it with illegal action was a line that many conscientious members of society refuse to cross. Watson continued to cross it as often as he could. And as the political atmosphere of the 1980s began to wear down the environmental movement, he was joined by others.

In 1980 American activist Dave Foreman felt the same frustration as Watson. "Too many environmentalists have grown to resemble bureaucrats," said Foreman. "Pale from too much indoor light; weak from sitting too long behind desks; co-opted by too many politicians." By way of response, he founded Earth First!, an organization aimed at putting activists like himself back in the middle of the fray. Earth First! led skirmishes that ranged from high-profile prankssuch as hanging a symbolic "crack" down the face of an unwanted damto outright sabotage, such as wrecking logging or road-building equipment in wilderness areas. These more serious offenses were labeled "ecotage," and the group took great pride in making them as inventive and disruptive as possible. In particular, Earth First! was linked with a practice known as tree-spiking, randomly nailing large spikes deep into trees in a logging area. Loggers and mill workers were then warned that some of these trees might contain these large pieces of metal, which could cause serious injury if they were struck with a saw blade. Forestry workers felt threatened, and logging companies remained unsure of how to deal with this tactic, even though it appears that there has never been a proven case of personal harm caused by tree spiking.

Others have taken such radical action a step further. Citing a philosophy called deep ecology, these activists accord animals the same inherent rights as any human being. From this viewpoint, animals raised for food on farms or being used in laboratory experiments deserve to be "liberated." Groups dedicated to this purpose have gone so far as to break into research facilities and remove the animals. When such vandalism became more common in the mid-1980s, the scientific community was shocked. Soon, however, that response gave way to a more concerted campaign to raise awareness of the ways in which animal experimentation can promote the well-being of both animals and humans. In addition, the use of animals has become subject to ever-closer scrutiny, fostering a regulatory framework that has steadily reduced their use, in favor of other experimenting and testing methods.

While none of these initiatives may be enough to satisfy the most extreme elements of the animal-rights movement, members of that movement are highly diversified. Some criticize the extremists for idealizing animals, as well as for ignoring the violence and brutality that often mark the lives of creatures who already find themselves "liberated" in the wild. In this way, moving from a purely philosophical outlook to a more broadly based scientific understanding of the issue, many environmental activists retreated from the most radical positions and began searching for more practical and effective.

The 1990s: Managing in the Mainstream

When the environment initially entered the forum of public discussion in the 1960s, many of its ideas were profoundly novel. Some people did not welcome or even understand the argument that a river flowing in the uninhabited wild could be more important to human existence indirectly than a dam that could deliver power directly to millions of human beings. Today many of us still have difficulty accepting the premise that a seldom-seen plant or animal might play a part in the global ecosystem that is every bit as crucial as our own. Activists continue to press for a wider appreciation of the complexities that abound in environmental science, even as the scientists continue to struggle with those complexities.

For better and for worse, therefore, a great deal of the thinking of environmental activists has now entered the social and cultural mainstream. The language of environmental activism has been embraced by members of the political and business establishment. Action occasionally follows on the heels of these words, but the most appropriate course can be far from clear. A leading example of this dilemma was the debate over climate change that developed at the end of the twentieth century. Furious debate swirled around the possibility that human industrial activity was increasing the level of carbon dioxide in the earth's atmosphere sufficiently to cause a "greenhouse effect," raising the average temperature. If so, major environmental changes could be expected, including the loss of major cropland and the raising of the sea level.

For many observers, it remained unclear how climate change might be demonstrated or disproved. Nevertheless, a 1997 conference in Kyoto, Japan, offered an international set of protocols that would limit each country's output of "greenhouse gases" according to the nature of its economy and its landmass. Only a handful of countries have so far endorsed the Kyoto Protocol, including Japan, Britain, Germany, New Zealand, and Canada. But Australia and the United States have rejected the terms of the agreement, severely hampering efforts to address a global problem with a global response.

Similar difficulties have plagued grassroots initiatives. For instance, a five-year effort was carried out to persuade McDonald's to abandon its use of foam-plastic packaging, which does not break down in landfills. In 1991 the Environmental Defense Fund struck a deal with the fast-food giant, which agreed to use paper wrapping. Although the decision was hailed as a victory, critics quickly pointed out that this alternative would lead to just as much waste and environmental damage. The fundamental problemoverpackaginghad not been resolved.

Even Earth First! founder Dave Foreman eventually cut his ties with that organization and its methodology. In 1991 he began to lead the Wildlands Project, which works cooperatively with private and public landowners to set up buffer zones around park areas. Earth First!, for its part, still pulls off some occasional extreme action. Serious damage has also been carried out by a more shadowy organization called the Earth Liberation Front, which in 1998 took responsibility for burning down part of a Colorado ski resort near a designated wilderness site.

Going Global, Going Simple

As the ideas voiced by environmental activists entered the mainstream, so too did a sense that those voices should also represent the mainstream. Groups such as Greenpeace have begun to examine the diversity of their own membership, which has traditionally been dominated by white males. Women have steadily joined, and a separate philosophical position known as ecofeminism appeals to both environmental activists and representatives of longstanding women's groups. By recruiting women as well as individuals from various ethnic or cultural backgrounds, the environmental movement can also offset a perception that it speaks primarily for affluent North Americans. That charge has followed lobbying efforts in developing nations such as Brazil, where activists have advocated limits on road building and logging in the Amazon rain forest. Many Brazilians resent the suggestion of economic restrictions coming from representatives of other nations that have already inflicted environmental damage on their regional ecosystems in order to further their own economic growth.

In fact, much more attention is being paid to the suggestion that economic development may well be the best way to protect the environment. Economists argue that poor countries fare much worse in environmental terms, using less efficient technology and lacking the transportation and communication systems to promote activities such as recycling. This assertion is still hotly debated, but it surfaces during discussions of globalization, the issue that now generates far more of the traditional style of protest activity than the environment. Young people who a generation ago marched in the street to announce their opposition to nuclear war or toxic waste can today be found marching in the streets to announce their opposition to a market-driven economic model that became dominant in the 1980s.

In this respect, therefore, the ambitions of environmental activists have returned to some of the original priorities of the 1960s, such as targeting major developments like dams rather than appealing to a desire to see rivers free of pollution. But an environmental consciousness continues to thrive, instilled in the popular imagination and often enshrined in law. Concerned citizens no longer need to commit outrageous acts in order to foster an appreciation of our impact on the natural world. As the twenty-first century begins, our way of life is dominated by technologies that ensure that we can obtain as much information about the environment as we could ever want. The challenge that lies ahead is not that of becoming aware of the environment, but determining how we will act on that awareness.

And perhaps the most revealing trend may be to act less. A movement known as voluntary simplicity has found favor among individuals who find themselves accumulating more and more material wealth but gaining less and less satisfaction from it. The next stage of activism may amount to limiting this accumulation, reducing what we take from the natural world in order to benefit both ourselves and the environment. That prospect contains an irony that would not be lost on Henry David Thoreau. "I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself," he wrote, "than be crowded on a velvet cushion."

see also Addams, Jane; Agenda 21; Air Pollution Control Act; Antinuclear Movement; Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; Brower, David; Cancer Alley, Louisiana; Carson, Rachel; ChÁvez, CÉsar E.; Clean Air Act; Clean Water Act; Commoner, Barry; DDT (Dichlorodiphenyl trichloroethane); Disasters: Chemical Accidents and Spills; Disasters: Environmental Mining Accidents; Disasters: Natural; Disasters: Nuclear Accidents; Disasters: Oil Spills; Earth Day; EarthFirst!; Earth Summit; Ehrlich, Paul; Environmental Justice; Ethics; Gibbs, Lois; Government; Green Party; Green Revolution; Hamilton, Alice; History; LaDuke, Winona; Laws and Regulations, International; Laws and Regulations, United States; Lifestyle; Limits to Growth; Nader, Ralph; National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA); National Toxics Campaign; New Left; Nongovernmental Organizations (NGOs); Ocean Dumping; Popular Culture; Population; Poverty; Progressive Movement; Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs); Public Participation; Treaties and Conferences; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; Warren County, North Carolina; Writers; Zero Population Growth.


bohlen, jim. (2001). making waves: the origin and future of greenpeace. montréal: black rose books.

brower, michael, and leon, warren. (1999). the consumer's guide to effective environmental choices. new york: three rivers press.

day, david. (1989). the environmental wars. new york: st. martin's press.

newton, david. (1990). taking a stand against environmental pollution. new york: franklin watts.

pringle, laurence. (2000). the environmental movement, from its roots to the challenges of a new century. new york: harper collins.

sale, kirkpatrick. (1993). the green revolution. new york: hill & wang.

scarce, rik. (1990). eco-warriors. chicago: the noble press.

watson, paul. (1994). ocean warrior: my battle to end illegal slaughter on the high seas. toronto: key porter.

zakin, susan. (1993). coyotes and town dogs: earth first! and the environmental movement. new york: viking.

Tim Lougheed

Marion and Barney Lamm became known as the "Sacrificial Lamms" after they voluntarily closed their prosperous fishing lodge on Salt Lake, Ontario, to protest the coverup of mercury contamination. Mercury levels twenty-eight times the upper federal limit were found in lake fish and Minimata Disease was found in local Ojibway Indians. The Lamm's twenty-year fight to protect the Ojibway is chronicled in fifty-nine boxes of documents now housed at the Harvard University Library.

In 1972, the Club of Rome, an international think tank, published The Limits to Growth, warning that man-made damage to nature was expanding to such an extent that it might put at stake the very survival of humankind. The book was highly controversial, coming at a time of high public optimism following a period of immense economic growth in both the Western and Communist worlds. The Limits to Growth was based on one of the first efforts (at MIT) to apply computer modeling to economy and the environment. It sold twelve million copies in thirty-seven languages.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Activism." Pollution A to Z. . 21 Oct. 2016 <>.

"Activism." Pollution A to Z. . (October 21, 2016).

"Activism." Pollution A to Z. . Retrieved October 21, 2016 from




Activism refers to action by an individual or group with the intent to bring about social, political, economic, or even ideological change. This change could be directed at something as simple as a community organization or institution or as complex as the federal government or the public at large. In most cases, but not all, the action is directed toward the support or opposition of a controversial issue. Such issues range from basic human rights (see Blau and Moncada 2005) to the rights of gay men and lesbians (see Hunter et al. 1992) to antiwar or prowar sentiments over the Iraq War.

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right of the people to petition the government for a redress of grievances. While earlier drafts of the First Amendment simply addressed the needs of the people to assemble and petition, later drafts included the rights of free speech, freedom of the press, and religion. However, the right to these freedoms is a matter of debate. Laws such as the Patriot Act, passed shortly after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon near Washington, D.C., expand the authority of U.S. law enforcement agencies under the rhetoric of terrorism and limit the constitutional rights of U.S. citizens. In addition, rights to assembly are often viewed by law enforcement agencies and government organizations as a political threat. As a result, there are countless cases in U.S. history where altercations between law enforcement and organizing groups, even peaceful assemblies, have resulted in violence. For instance, a rally in Los Angeles over immigration rights on May 6, 2007, was disrupted when police officers fired rubber bullets into the crowd and pummeled television crews and other journalists with batons (Kahn 2007).

Activism can take many forms, including such actions as civil disobedience, rioting, striking by unions, government or institutional lobbying, verbal or physical confrontation, various forms of terrorism, and the use of music and the media to draw attention to particular issues. The rise of the Internet has allowed new forms of activism to emerge and has also allowed many small, local issues to gain a wider audience and in some cases worldwide attention. Activism is a necessary vehicle for progressive and social change (see Bonilla-Silva 2006). Major movements such as the civil rights movement represent examples of what large-scale activism can accomplish given the right historical conditions and group collectivities.

In addition to individual or group-level activism, there are centers and organizations whose sole purpose is to promote social change through awareness and the bridging of theory and practice. Examples of such organizations include Loyola UniversityChicagos Center for Urban Research and Learning, a public sociology center that promotes research addressing community needs and that involves community organizers at all levels of its research process. Similarly, Project South, a leadership-development organization located in the southern United States, works with communities in bottom-up activism over issues pertaining to social, racial, and economic justice.

SEE ALSO Civil Liberties; Civil Rights; Civil Rights Movement, U.S.; Human Rights; Political Parties; Protest; Resistance; Revolution; Social Movements; Womens Movement


Blau, Judith, and Alberto Moncada. 2005. Human Rights: Beyond the Liberal Vision. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 2006. Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States. 2nd ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Hunter, Nan D., Sherryl E. Michaelson, and Thomas B. Stoddard. 1992. The Rights of Lesbians and Gay Men: The Basic ACLU Guide to a Gay Persons Rights. 3rd ed. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Kahn, Carrie. 2007. Police Tactics at L.A. Rally Reignite Scrutiny. National Public Radio (NPR): Weekend Edition Sunday, May 6.

David G. Embrick

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Activism." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 21 Oct. 2016 <>.

"Activism." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . (October 21, 2016).

"Activism." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved October 21, 2016 from


ac·tiv·ism / ˈaktəˌvizəm/ • n. the policy or action of using vigorous campaigning to bring about political or social change. DERIVATIVES: ac·tiv·ist n.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"activism." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . 21 Oct. 2016 <>.

"activism." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . (October 21, 2016).

"activism." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved October 21, 2016 from