Environmental Activism

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Environmental Activism


Environmental activism encompasses a broad array of individuals and organizations working in scientific, social, conservational, and political fields that address the concerns of environmentalism. These individuals and organizations are known collectively as part of the environmental movement or green movement. Environmental activists within the green movement do not share a common political affiliation or agenda and seek diverse solutions to environmental problems.

Historical Background and Scientific Foundations

The roots of modern environmental activism lie in the nineteenth-century formation of the first environmental organizations. Typically representing the interests of conservationists and natural historians, such groups were formed in Europe and North America, covering interests as diverse as animal welfare (e.g., Britain’s Royal Society for the Protection of Animals); Forestry (e.g., George Perkins Marsh’s 1864 Man and Nature, which introduced notions of sustainability); national parks and wilderness preservation (e.g., America’s Sierra Club founded in 1892; Britain’s National Trust in 1895); and urban sanitation (a favorite cause of Britan’s Victorians). Awareness of environmental issues was aided by writers such as Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, William Wordsworth, and Beatrix Potter, who used it as the centerpiece of their work. Texts on natural history became popular in Europe. Active interest in natural history also encompassed botany, collecting (e.g., butterflies and ferns), and gardening, feeding membership of relevant organizations and clubs.

In the mid-twentieth century, environmental activism shifted its focus to local concerns of environ-

mental degradation. Localized concerns—nuclear power, toxic waste, acid rain, road building—found an expression in the era’s increased political activism. Works such as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) and Barry Commoner’s Science and Survival (1965), found popular audiences, heightening the educational efforts of conservationists and raising awareness of human-caused environmental degradation.

During this period there was a growing sense that humankind’s effect on nature impacted not just at a localized level, but rather on some overarching entity known as the environment. An examination of the New York Times’ index citations under the term “environment” demonstrates that the word “environment” was not used in 1955, but by the time of the first Earth Day in 1970, the word appeared in the index 86 times.

This growth in environmental activism through the 1960s spurred the creation of environmental policy by national governments. On January 1, 1970, U.S. President Richard M. Nixon signed the National Environment Policy Act (NEPA) into law on live television and declared the 1970s to be the “Decade of the Environment.” Over the following years the United States and several other western nations created the basis of environmental policy, establishing new laws and government departments, agencies, and regulatory bodies to address and oversee environmental issues.

Although the 1960s gave birth to hundreds of grassroots green organizations, not until the following decade did such groups break national boundaries and become international bodies. Nevertheless, the roots of the two most important international green organizations lie on a local level.

Greenpeace started life in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, in 1969 as the Make a Wave Committee—a group of Canadian and American political activists opposed to U.S. underground nuclear testing at Amchitka, an island off the west coast of Alaska.


ECO-TERRORISM: Criminal sabotage against persons or property carried out by an environmentally oriented group for symbolic purposes.

GLOBAL SOUTH: Academic term referring to underdeveloped countries.

GREEN PARTIES: Values-oriented political parties based on the environmental and social principles of the green movement.

GREEN MOVEMENT: A social ideology focused on environmental and quality-of-life issues, promoting values such as global responsibility, community-based economics, and sustainability.

SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT: Development (i.e., increased or intensified economic activity; sometimes used as a synonym for industrialization) that meets the cultural and physical needs of the present generation of persons without damaging the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Motivated by a mixture of environmental concern for the fate of the island and objection to nuclear weapons development, the organization launched a seaborne mission to disrupt a nuclear test, attracting huge public interest and forcing the United States to end nuclear testing on the island. The organization was renamed Greenpeace in 1971.

Greenpeace gained international fame when it attempted to sabotage and disrupt French nuclear tests in the Pacific Ocean in the 1970s. Their efforts resulted in France’s abandonment of atmospheric nuclear testing. Under the inspired leadership of a Canadian businessman David MacTaggart, Greenpeace utilized this publicity and his business acumen to transform the Vancouver outfit into a global organization. Greenpeace in Europe allowed sympathetic activists beyond Canada to set up national organizations, which were unified in 1979 as Greenpeace International.

In Britain, Friends of the Earth was formed in 1971, initially to protest against a lemonade manufacturer’s use of non-recyclable bottles. Like Greenpeace, its protests captured popular imagination, enabling it to expand its interests nationally, then internationally, to encompass such issues as road building, whaling, and climate change. It currently claims to be the largest international network of environmental groups in the world, covering more than 54 countries worldwide.

Political parties that put environmental issues at their core also emerged in the 1970s. Although mainstream political parties had begun to lay down the basis of environmental policy, these did not go far enough according to some activists. Green parties promised to elevate environmental issues and favor strict pollution and energy regulation. Critics asserted that many green parties incorporated a mix of anti-globalism and anti-corporatism with their brand of environmentalism, potentially isolating those who sought to balance economic growth with environmental protection. For example, in former West Germany, where Europe’s most influential Green Party—Die Grunen—was formed in 1980, some activists were committed not only to green politics but in exacting more fundamental changes to the basis of society. The party’s platform contained elements of libertarianism, feminism, Marxism, and anti-industrialism.

Today, there are around 60 national Green Parties, mostly in developed countries. Though all national Green Parties have policies and agendas unique to them, their agendas are usually based around commitments to environmentalism, grassroots democracy, nonviolence, and social justice. There is no conforming political philosophy, but ecology, social justice, nonviolence, and grassroots democracy are traditional elements of green politics that are incorporated by many parties.

Membership of environmental organizations peaked in the early 1990s as concern over climate change and other environmental issues—such as post-Chernobyl nuclear fall out, industrial pollution in the former Soviet bloc, destruction of the Amazon rain forests—reached the popular public conscience. Membership in Greenpeace (defined as people who had donated money to it) peaked in 1991 at 4.8 million. Its anti-whaling campaign—“Save the Whales”—captured global imagination with a series of spectacular protests. Greenpeace activists would chase whaling fleets and interpose themselves between the harpoon of a catcher ship and fleeing whale.

Greenpeace, however, was not beyond criticism, and its actions sometimes brought it into conflict with governments. In 1985, as Greenpeace prepared another flotilla to avert French nuclear testing at Moruroa atoll, French special forces attached two bombs to the hull of the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior. When the bombs detonated, the ship sank, killing a Portuguese photographer. The bombing of Rainbow Warrior raised international outrage. However, Greenpeace’s use of life-endangering direct action tactics was criticized even by some within the environmental movement.

There remains widespread debate over which protest actions are appropriate to advance environmental causes. Mainstream environmental activists eschew actions that destroy property or endanger lives. However, several mainstream groups encourage direct action campaigns that impede environmental destruction or cause great expense or delay to companies engaged in environmentally damaging practices. A significant majority of those within the environmental movement denounce the actions of eco-terrorists, such as the dangerous spiking of trees that endangers the safety of loggers or the mass-burnings of new housing developments (even if they are under construction and uninhabited).

However, there is significant debate over what some nations identify as eco-terrorism. For example, some nations include minor criminal acts such as trespassing in their definitions of eco-terrorism. Although they are a slim minority of all protest actions engaged in by environmental advocates, extremist protests include those carried out by the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), a loose network of organizations active in Britain, Canada, and the United States. Over the past two decades, ELF members have been accused of damaging SUVs, burning uninhabited housing developments, trespassing, and sabotage. The organization is described by the FBI as “one of the most active extremist elements in the United States” and a terrorist threat.

Impacts and Issues

Environmental concerns now play a crucial role in national and international policy. Mainstream political parties across the globe vie with each other to adopt green issues in their political platforms. Increasing media attention is paid to environmental issues. Activists con-


Modern computer and communications technology can indirectly contribute to the many forms of pollution—including what some call “e-waste.” In July 2007, researchers from China and England published data in the journal Environmental Science & Technology that indicated that regions in China where workers recycle electronic parts were found to have high blood levels of flame-retardant chemicals used in the production of computer and other plastic and/or electronic components. The identified chemicals included more than 200 forms of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) such as deca-BDE. PBDEs are classified according to numbers of the bromine atoms they contain.

Prior laboratory studies showed a link between exposure to PBDEs with five to eight bromine atoms and neural damage in developing rat and mice embryos. The new evidence strengthens claims that deca-BDE (containing 10 bromine atoms) causes similar damage. Researchers have not ruled out that breakdown products of deca-BDE are responsible.

Although China is not the only country battling such pollution, in the published study, Chinese workers involved with electronic component recycling or disposal had deca-BDE concentrations in excess of 200 times what was found in European workers doing similar work. Finding of elevated levels in villages remote from the recycling plants indicates that the deca-BDE molecules may have attached to airborne dust particles and that exposures were continuous and renewing.

tinue to push individuals and organizations to adopt responsible environmental practices such as sustainable development, energy conservation, and recycling.

Celebrity endorsements have helped environmental activism. Although public awareness and concern of environmental issues has increased, conversely, support for larger environmentalist organizations has declined steeply. At the same time, celebrity environmental advocates, such as the former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, rock star Sting, and actor Leonardo DiCaprio, have used their public prominence to raise awareness of climate change and other environmental issues. Gore, who jointly won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for his work in promoting the understanding of climate change, helped create the Oscar-winning film An Inconvenient Truth about the subject. He also organized the Live Earth concerts in 2007, hosted simultaneously at 12 global sites and broadcast to an audience of hundreds of millions.

Also enjoying a renaissance are the plethora of protest and campaign groups operating on a local basis. Fledgling environmental activism groups are emerging in the developing world, especially in China and India. Activists in the global south have advanced notions of environmental justice that seek to hold developed nations more responsible in addressing environmental concerns throughout the world and to balance needed development with environmental stewardship in less prosperous regions.

See Also Conservation; Earth Day; Silent Spring



Liddick, Donald R. Eco Terrorism: Radical Environmental and Animal Liberation Movements. Westport: Praeger, 2006.

Payne, Daniel G. Voices in the Wilderness: American Nature Writing and Environmental Politics. Hanover: University Press of New England, 1996.

Pepper, David. Modern Environmentalism: An Introduction. London: Routleledge, 1996.

Rubin, Charles T. The Green Movement: Rethinking the Roots of Environmentalism. New York: Free Press, 1994.

James Corbett

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