Environmental Protests

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Environmental Protests


Environmental protests are demonstrations seeking to bring recognition of how people, companies, or governments impact a natural environment. Protests are staged to bring attention to environmental issues and to prompt action to prevent or address environmental problems. Most environmental protests are planned and peaceful, however a small minority of protests employ controversial tactics with the potential to harm people or property.

Historical Background and Scientific Foundations

The environmental protests that are well-known to most people are typically epic in scale (the Live Earth Concerts with millions of participants and viewers across the globe), spectacular in execution (Sea Shepherd’s anti-whaling campaign off the coast of Antarctica), or have significant outcomes (Baltic states initiating their break with the former Soviet Union with protests against water pollution). However, most protests are small and focus on local environmental issues. Localized concerns bred the first environmental protests—notable examples include Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) successfully petitioning the Pennsylvania Assembly against industrial pollution in Philadelphia, and those against London’s “Great Stink” of 1858—at a time before environmentalism was a modern philosophy or social and political movement.

Environmentalism emerged in the 1960s and early 1970s as a broad social movement. In the United States, Rachel Carson’s surprise bestseller Silent Spring inspired protests against the uncontrolled use of pesticides, particularly DDT. Anti-nuclear organizations, such as SANE and CND, began to add environmental concerns to their anti-war agenda. Main tenets of the era’s other protest movements—sustainability, vegetarianism, pacifism, anti-materialism—can trace some of their roots to heightened concerns about environmental degradation.

In the United States, the culmination of this increased awareness was the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. Earth Day began as a national demonstration organized by Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson (1916–2005). Twenty million citizens took to the nation’s streets and parks to campaign for a healthy environment. Earth Day is now recognized annually in several nations, involving some 500 million global citizens.

During the 1970s, environmental protests became more organized, but some also became more radical. High profile demonstrations against U.S. and French atmospheric nuclear testing catapulted international environmental protest organization Greenpeace to global prominence. Greenpeace embraced a wide range of environmental issues, including logging and whaling, and used both protest gatherings and direct action tactics to highlight environmental concerns. Direct actions included the sailing of Greenpeace ships into French nuclear test areas to halt weapons testing and protesters camping in trees or chaining themselves to equipment to slow logging progress. Friends of the Earth and dozens of national Green Parties—political parties whose platforms focus on environmental issues—also emerged in the 1970s. Over the course of decades, these organizations have engaged in tens of thousands of protests, at local, national, and international levels on issues as diverse as recycling, carbon emissions, and road building.

As scientific and public awareness of climate change increased during the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was a surge in support for environmental organizations and environmental protest movements. Membership of Greenpeace, then the largest international environmental group, peaked in the early 1990s at around 4.2 mil-


DIRECT ACTION TACTICS: Methods of political or social activism involving immediate, confrontative demand for change, such as strikes, sit-ins, and boycotts.

SEA SHEPHERD CONSERVATION SOCIETY: An international, non-profit marine wildlife conservation group known for its radical direct-action tactics.

SILENT SPRING: A seminal 1962 book, written by Rachel Carlson, that is credited with inspiring widespread public interest in pollution and the environment.

lion. Support for other groups increased exponentially and green issues were incorporated into mainstream political debates. The number of environmental protestsrose. In Britain, road building and intensive farming techniques were often fought by environmental groups. In France, environmental organizations opposed industrial pollution; in Italy, more than 4 million people took part in environmental protests in 1990 alone, most often against urban pollution. In developing countries, where environmental degradation was often an unfortunate byproduct of economic development, grassroots campaigns—such as those against the damming of India’s Narmada River—attained international prominence.

As environmentalism has evolved into one of the foremost political issues of the early twenty-first century, environmental protest has taken on new forms. Banner waving, marches, concerts, and even direct actions (such as those directed against the Japanese whaling fleet in the winter of 2008) are still prevalent. However, large-scale campaigns to educate the public on environmental issues are gaining in popularity. In 2006, former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, whose documentary film, An Inconvenient Truth, warning of the dangers of climate change, won an Oscar; the Live Earth concerts he helped organized in July 2007 were staged in 12 locations and broadcast to a worldwide audience numbering hundreds of millions.

Impacts and Issues

A majority of western governments now have an environmental agency that regulates industry and oversees environmental protection efforts. Businesses targeted by environmental protesters have also adopted more environmentally conscious practices.

Although most environmental organizations and protests are peaceful and non-destructive, a small number of environmental activists assert that radical action is sometimes necessary to defend the environment. This

stance is controversial, even within the environmental movement itself. Critics assert that environmentalists who use radical direct action tactics that harm people or property are eco-extremists or ecoterrorists. Many environmentalists claim that using overly radical protest tactics alienates the public and makes people less sympathetic to environmental issues. For example, despite whaling being illegal in most of the world, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s vessel, Steve Irwin, spent the winter of 2008 involved in a campaign of sabotage against the Japanese whaling fleet in the Southern Ocean. Protests against whaling, genetically modified crops (GMOs), greenhouse-gas emissions, emissions credits, corporate pollution, logging, and large corporate farming are some of the major environmental issues that have sparked mass—and sometimes violent—protests across the globe.

Primary Source Connection

The following article reports on the devastation of Lake Tahoe, located along the California-Nevada border, caused by the Angora wildfire of June 2007, and what is being done to clean its water. The nitrogen and phosphorus from the fire have caused a loss of clarity in one of the world’s clearest lakes as well as having harmful effects on the lake’s trout. The article acknowledged that the most imminent danger that the fire’s remnants pose to the lake is erosion, which local specialists and residents are working to improve through such tactics as planting trees on the eroding slopes.


With the Angora wildfire contained, officials are now racing to stave off damage to the famous, cobalt-blue Lake Tahoe.

In just over a week, the fire burned 3,100 acres, forced the evacuation of 3,500 people, and cost $11.3 million to fight. Property losses from more than 325 homes and structures could tack another $150 million onto the tab.

Long after the embers fade, the fire is expect to impact the clarity and health of North America’s largest alpine lake. Its stewards are scrambling to prevent runoff from the burn area, an effort that could be complicated by community frustration with past antierosion regulations.

“Lake Tahoe is revered for its cobalt blue, clear water,” says Charles Goldman, a lake researcher at the University of California at Davis. “It’s one of the clearest large lakes in the world, even with the transparency loss [in recent years].”

The lake has lost a third of its transparency since Dr. Goldman began monitoring it in 1959. Visitors can still see 22 meters down, but that figure shrinks about one foot each year. Human impacts are to blame: auto exhaust, smoke, road dust, and runoff from nearby development.


The nuclear power accident in Chernobyl, Ukraine, formerly part of the Soviet Union, occurred between April 25 and 26, 1986, and was documented as the worst incident of its kind in the world to date. The accident was a result of a failure to observe various safety procedures during the testing of one of the plant’s four nuclear reactors. A chain reaction went out of control, leading to explosions and a fireball that forced the lid off of the reactor. More than thirty people died immediately, and an estimated 2,500 died within a short period of time. Some 135,000 people were forced to evacuate from the area because of high radiation levels within a 20-mi (32-km) radius.

Following the accident, the region suffered from numerous consequences, including increased levels of cancer, particularly thyroid cancer; psychological repercussions, such as anxiety, depression, and other stress-induced mental disorders; a severe fall in income for the area due to numerous evacuations and the limiting of industry and agriculture; a decline in the birth rate; and a $12.8-billion cost to the Soviet economy.

The longer-reaching effects of the event included an increased awareness of the dangers inherent in nuclear power, and a strong activist movement in Eastern Europe to mitigate these dangers through increased security measures and limited use of nuclear energy, as well as conservation efforts to help restore and protect those areas of ecosystems most effected by the Chernobyl accident.

That runoff may be accelerated by the fire’s destruction of the vegetation that holds soils in place, bringing fine particles into the lake. And nitrogen and phosphorous from the fire threaten to turn the lake green by spurring algae blooms.

These effects aren’t merely aesthetic. In the long run, such impacts could diminish the deep-water oxygen needed for the lake’s trout, says Goldman.

“Its kind of like the canary in the coal mine: We’ve used water clarity as a symbol of whether the whole lake ecosystem is getting better,” says Michael Donahoe, conservation co-chair with the Tahoe Area Sierra Club.

A greater threat, however, is erosion. The burn area covers 10 percent of the Upper Truckee River watershed, and 25 percent of all water and pollutants entering the lake come from that river, says John Reuter with the Tahoe Environmental Research Center at UC Davis.

The forest service, state officials, and local planners are working on erosion mitigation strategies. Even during the firefighting effort, trenches known as water bars were dug to manage runoff. Next steps include planting trees, such as willows, to hold together steep, burned-out slopes. Another possibility, says Dr. Reuter, is diverting the flow of Angora Creek through a nearby meadow that could act as a natural water filter.

“The critical time is between now and when we get the rains in the fall. We need to get the planting done,” says Donahoe.

While most of the burned land is public, experts say homeowners also have a role to play by replanting properties with vegetation that isn’t highly flammable and that retains moisture.

Tahoe residents are familiar with such calls: For decades the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA) has strictly managed building and landscaping on properties around the lake with an eye to conserving lake water quality.

The fire stirred up local bitterness, with some residents feeling the TRPA exacerbated the fire with an antiero-sion measure that involved keeping a layer of pine needles or wood chips on properties.

Homeowner Jeff Glass raised concerns over the needles several years ago in a letter to a local newspaper after a fire marshal recommended he clean them up. Last week’s fire destroyed his home. He says he doesn’t know if cleaning up his needles would have made any difference.

As fire officials began reopening neighborhoods last week, some residents started angrily raking up the pine-needle layer.

“In the short term, people will feel more comfortable if they remove pine needles from their property, and we understand that,” says Julie Regan, TRPA spokesperson.

The TRPA is working with many agencies on the restoration efforts and wants to work in harmony with homeowners, too. “Hopefully we can keep the lines of communication open to let them know they can still protect their land from fire while also reducing the potential for erosion—that the two are compatible,” says Ms. Regan.

Many factors contributed to the fire, including drought, high winds, sluggish efforts to remove brush from local land, and human carelessness. Investigators are searching for those responsible for the illegal campfire that started the blaze.

“I think the level of pine needles had very little impact on the course of how this fire burned. This fire was a per-fect storm,” says Reuter. “The best we can do is try to educate people” despite the mistrust.

Ben Arnoldy


See Also Eco-Terrorism; Environmental Activism; Silent Spring



Burchell, Jon. The Evolution of Green Politics: Development and Change within European Green Parties. Earthscan: London, 2002.

Dryzek, John S., et al. Green States and Social Movements: Environmentalism in the US, UK, Germany and Norway. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

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

Rootes, Christopher, ed. Environmental Protest in Western Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

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

James Corbett

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Environmental Protests