views updated Jun 27 2018



The question of the relations between man in society and the geographical environment in which he lives is a very old one. Hippocrates (fifth century B.C.) wrote a treatise, “On Airs, Waters, and Places,” which is generally regarded as the first formed expression of an environmentalist doctrine, although in view of the limited data available to him it is not appropriate to regard this as a statement sufficiently definitive for a serious critique of environmentalism, as Toynbee does (1934). Environmental considerations, especially climatic ones, play a considerable role in Montesquieu (1748) and perhaps reached their peak in the mid-nineteenth century, with Victor Cousin’s “give me the [physical] map of a country … and I pledge myself to tell you, a priori, … what part that country will play in history, not by accident, but of necessity; not at one epoch, but in all epochs” (quoted in Febvre [1922] 1925, p. 10). Such extreme necessitarianism could hardly go unchallenged, and the first serious attack on geographical determinism is associated with the name of Paul Vidal de la Blache, who about the turn of the century became in effect the founder of an opposed doctrine known as “possibilism.”

Possibilist doctrine is perhaps best, or at least most characteristically, summed up in a dictum of Lucien Febvre ([1922] 1925, p. 235): “There are nowhere necessities, but everywhere possibilities; and man, as master of the possibilities, is the judge of their use.” A protest against crude predestinar-ianism was certainly in order; but Vidal’s own qualifications are perhaps not always faithfully mirrored by his disciples, and Febvre’s epigrammatic statements distracted attention from the real task of assessing the probabilities posed by the indisputable fact that the possibilities are distributed over the face of the earth with great inequality. This has recently been elegantly demonstrated by Lukermann (1965). It is also, perhaps, insufflciently noted that French possibilism was itself to some extent determined by a reaction to what we would now call an expansionist Geopolitik, expressed in Friedrich Ratzel’s Politische Geographic of 1897 (Febvre 1922; cf. Spate 1957).

Be that as it may, the French school of geography, particularly noted for its meticulous and luminous style of regional description, was by that very technique often able, quite plausibly, to evade the issue, while more general works, such as those of Brunhes (1910) and Vallaux (1911), tempered possibilism by some allowance for the “influences,” although not the “controls,” exercised by the physical environment. In Germany, also, the broad strokes of Ratzelian anthropogeography were gradually succeeded by the more subtle chorographic analyses of Landschaft, and already in 1907 Alfred Hettner had arrived at a formulation not dissimilar from Febvre’s (cf. Hartshorne 1939, p. 123).

In English-speaking countries the evolution was different. With the popularization, or (in both senses) vulgarization, of Ratzel’s basically deter-minist outlook by Semple’s Influences of Geographic Environment (1911), a somewhat naive view of environmental “controls” became paramount among geographers in the United States and Britain, and this is what is generally known as “environmentalism.” Another powerful influence was that of Ellsworth Huntington, whose numerous works attached a preponderating role to broad climatic factors. But the antienvironmentalist reaction, if much later than in France and Germany, was all the more complete. To some extent both the acceptance and the reaction stemmed from a rather uncritical empiricism, and this was especially notable in Britain. While in Britain possibilism in its purest form held undisputed sway in the 1930s, in the United States environmentalism was not so much negated as simply sidetracked. There were indeed plenty of overt rejections (Sauer 1925; Platt 1948—an extremist case), but on the whole the emphasis was on geography as simply the study of areal differentiation. This, of course, has clear analogues with the German development, and Hettner in particular was a strong influence, especially through the comprehensive methodologic study of Richard Hartshorne (1939). In Britain there was no comparable searching out of fundamentals, and indeed possibilism fitted well into a rather superficial and characteristically “English” empirical distrust of theory. The qualifications, subtle and unstressed but nonetheless significant, of the French school were ignored, and geography became in effect an entirely idiographic study in which it would be indecent to draw conclusions. There were, of course, heretics: in the United States, Peattie (1940); in Britain, Markham (1942); but they had no effect.

The old view of geography as primarily a study of man-environment relations is now outmoded, and it is probable that a reasonable consensus would be found in favor of Hartshorne’s formulation (1959, p. 21): “accurate, orderly, and rational description and interpretation of the variable character of the earth surface.” However, relationships vary with the distribution of the phenomena that are in relation, and provided that we do not prejudge the issue by insisting that they are confined to those between man and natural environment or are one-way only, there is still ample scope for the examination of environmental problems. It is not, as Toynbee says (1961, p. 635), modern arrogance, but humility in face of data still inadequate, which refuses to take his refutation of Hippocrates as a final judgment. Moreover, while it may be true that external demands (as from history and sociology) for environmental assessments may represent a hangover from days when geographers were all too ready with crude causal explanations (and they got the habit from historians), it yet remains true that very often historical, sociological, economic, anthropological, political, and even religious and aesthetic phenomena cannot be properly comprehended without careful attention to environmental considerations.

Thus, the question is by no means so decisively closed, in an antienvironmentalist sense, as it seemed two or three decades ago; and as we shall see, it has taken on an entirely new aspect with the application of new techniques to geographical inquiry. While there have always been individual divergences from the general trend and, not infrequently, internal inconsistencies in the work of individuals, whether styling themselves environmentalists or possibilists, the question (as in many controversies) has been bedeviled by the assumption by both sides of a too rigid dichotomy. Whether tenable in strict logic or not, a more balanced probabilistic hypothesis seems warranted. This seems avoidable only if, as Hartshorne hints (1959, p. 55), we altogether abandon any distinction between man and nature; and this repudiation, dubiously metaphysical as it is, in practice seems impossible to maintain (Spate 1963a, pp. 255-259). In practice, except on an absurdly mechanistic plane, it is impossible to hold that all man’s activities are absolutely conditioned or determined by his natural environment, even if we resort to intricate rationalizations as to its expression through social institutions. But it is absurd, also, to take Febvre’s dictum at face value and so slide into the position of ignoring the fact that possibilities vary greatly from milieu to milieu and, hence, in any given milieu are in fact limited. One may in a sense overcome this by saying that anything is possible anywhere if only one is willing to pay the price; but then, paying the price is itself a compelled adjustment to the environment. The flight from “controls” into a denial of “influences” takes us nowhere; or, if anywhere, into solipsism.

A reaction against possibilism became apparent around 1950. It avoided the crudity of the earlier concept of environmental control, as well as the dead end of possibilism, by stressing in any given situation the balance of probability, as, of course, both environmentalists and possibilists had often done in practice without admitting it. Some signs of rapprochement are found even in contributions avowedly committed to one side or the other (Tat-ham 1951; Taylor 1951). Perhaps the first really vigorous reassertion of geographic determinism was that of Martin (1952).

This newer and more cautious environmentalism gives more play to social factors than did the old. It recognizes that the geographical environment is only a part of the total environment and allows for the modifications of environment introduced by human activity; geographical influences act through society, and cultural tradition has a certain autonomous and reciprocal effect. Strands of causation may therefore be extremely subtle, and dogmatism is avoided. At the same time, it is firmly held that there is a larger irreducible minimum of influence by the physical environment than possibilism allows for. Although the impact of this will vary with the converse impact of human technological levels, nevertheless there will always be at least the adjustment by price and very often a much more direct adjustment.

The mandates of the geographical milieu are, however, often more negative and permissive than positively imperative. Thus, a total of 200 frost-free nights does not enforce the growing of cotton but does permit it, and fewer frost-free nights inhibit it. Further, while in a given situation the general cast of development may be very strongly influenced or conditioned by geographical factors, the detail may be dependent on quite other factors. This introduces a margin-of-error concept and may be illustrated by the difference between the general location of a frontier zone or a communications node (given the existence of a society with these features), which may be fully conditioned by geography, and the precise siting of a boundary within the frontier zone or of a city near the node, which may depend on historical accident and which may, perhaps, in turn become a geographical factor in a new chain of relationships (Spate 1957).

This revival of methodological debate in geography owes much to the general increase in sophistication in the social sciences. This is perhaps more particularly true of the newer, quantitative approaches, but is by no means confined to them. It may fairly be said that the net result of the debate has been a material change in the general temper of geographical writing. If there has been no return to the compulsions of the older environmentalist school, as exemplified perhaps not so much in Ratzel himself as in Semple’s rendition of him in the Influences of Geographic Environment (1911), it is equally true that pure possibilism, in the Febvre version, seems also to be dead. Stimulating as a protest, it was in the long run stultifying. Perhaps its most valuable residuum is that, indirectly at least, it helped to break away from the static concept of environment as a once-and-for-all given thing in itself, and it raised the question, Environment for what? This, however, seems to have no necessary connection with a possibilist view, and it may indeed have gone too far in the direction of a metaphysical identification of man with nature. The newer, probabilistic approach in regional writing is more likely to draw conclusions of general import than possibilism did, or at any rate to draw them more consciously and responsibly.

The debate has not been entirely internal to geography. One factor was the interest aroused by Toynbee’s somewhat cavalier direct treatment of environmentalism and by the large if sometimes erratic importance he attached to it in such concepts as “the stimulus of New Ground” and the effects of a Volkenvanderung by sea (1934). Toynbee’s analyses are of great interest, although vitiated by unfamiliarity with the main current of geographical writing and lack of a sense of scale; but both negatively and positively he contributed to putting environmentalism on the map again. The environmental component in such studies as Wittfogel’s Oriental Despotism (1957) or, on a different scale, Sahlins’ Moala (1962) is obvious.

The new trend has not, of course, gone unchallenged. As has been noted, it places some stress on probability, and the almost accidental introduction of the rather clumsy term “probabilism” (for which this writer must regretfully accept responsibility) has naturally attracted some dialectical criticism. Important contributions to the debate are those of Montefiore and Williams (1955) and the Sprouts (1956; 1957; 1965).

The former appear to approach the problem from the standpoint of logical positivism. Their criticism of a too naive acceptance of cause and effect as the only way of looking at scientific explanation is acute and vigorous, and they end with calling a plague on both houses: “… there can be no further point in their continuing a dispute which has virtually no bearing on their activities as working geographers.” However, it may be suggested that this does not dispose of the issue. Belief does normally have some bearing on activity, and the dichotomy has been resurrected in a new (and, to some, alarming) fashion by quantifiers of the type of Warntz and Isard. The fundamentally important papers by the Sprouts include a very careful semantic analysis of hypotheses under the categories “environmental determinism,” “mild environmen-talism,” “environmental possibilism,” “environmental probabilism,” and “cognitive behaviorism.” They point out the logical residuum of environmentalist thinking implied in the possibilist approach and give at least a qualified blessing to probabilism; but it may be said that to a geographer their possibilism looks more like probabilism, and their probabilism seems in turn to hold a more predictive element than those who would not call themselves environmentalists tout court would allow.

The rise of applied and quantitative geography has in some respects given a new emphasis to environmental studies. One may instance Soviet geography, in which there is theoretically no problem : the laws of nature govern physical geography but are entirely separate from the social laws which govern man, and therefore there can be no unified geography (which is the essence of environmental-ism) but only physical and economic geographies. Practice, and large-scale planning do, however, compel very meticulous attention to environmental factors, and even “influences” are not altogether banned, as they are in pure possibilism (Spate 1963b). In practically all fields involving the physical application of technology, whether under Soviet or Western auspices, very careful attention to problems of the physical environment is essential, if only as part of estimating costs.

It is often stated that the impact of modern technology has minimized, even annihilated, the significance of the environmental factor. However, on analysis it will frequently appear that the role of the physical milieu, if less “brutal” than it may be for a primitive-subsistence society, is pervasive in a more subtle way. It may be theoretically possible to grow anything almost anywhere, at a price; but the effect of price itself, in alliance with modern communications, may well be not to widen the range of a given crop but to narrow it to the area physically best suited for it: witness the formerly wide and presently restricted extent of flax growing in Europe and cotton growing in India. Large-scale technical installations may often depend for their economic efficiency on a nice balance of environmental considerations.

The basic assumptions of the new, quantifying schools have strong determinist, if not mechanistic, overtones, as suggested by the very title “social physics” (Stewart & Warntz 1958). At the least, they are strongly probabilistic, as is well demonstrated by Burton (1963). They aim at being nomo-thetic rather than idiographic, as were possibilism and much of the work of the chorographic approach standard in the Hartshorne era. They avowedly seek out laws with a capital L, as did Semple (Dodd & Pitts 1959). They work largely in models, and a high degree of prediction is regarded as the ideal. A culmination of this attitude is that of Isard (1956) in his desire for a “true” set of regions suitable for all purposes. There is often a tendency, as in the concept of population potential (Stewart & Warntz 1958), to abstract all but one or two factors, considered determinative; but these, also, are considered as some sort of summing up of the essence of the total environment.

It cannot, therefore, be assumed, as it was only a few years ago, that the ancient debate regarding the role of environmental factors is played out. That role changes with every change in technology, but it also must enforce technological changes, if the full and effective deployment of technical potential is to be made possible. Nor would the conquest of space necessarily mean the supersession of environment; there may be other than terrestrial environments for man, and these will compel special adjustments, social and technical. Meanwhile, the study of environment on this earth is far from complete; and while claims that it would provide an all-embracing rationale of society are justly dead, its significance must always be reckoned with in such studies as anthropology, archeology, sociology, and political science, to say nothing of history, and it forms an essential bridge between these social studies and the natural sciences.

O. H. K. Spate

[See the entries listed underGEOGRAPHY. See alsoREGIONAL SCIENCEand the biographies ofFEBVRE; HETTNER; HUNTINGTON; RATZEL; VIDAL DE LA BLACHE.]


Brunhes, Jean (1910) 1924 Human Geography. London: Harrap. → First published in French. A fourth French edition was published in 1934 by Alcan.

Burton, Ian 1963 The Quantitative Revolution and Theoretical Geography. Canadian Geographer 7, no. 4:151-162.

Dodd, Stuart C.; and PITTS, FORREST R. 1959 Proposals to Develop Statistical Laws of Human Geography. Pages 302-309 in International Geographical Union, Regional Conference in Japan, Tokyo and Nara, 1957, Proceedings of IGU Regional Conference in Japan, 1957. Tokyo: Science Council of Japan.

Febvre, Lucien (1922) 1925 A Geographical Introduction to History. New York: Knopf. → First published as La terre et devolution humaine.

Hartshorne, Richard (1939) 1964 The Nature of Geography: A Critical Survey of Current Thought in the Light of the Past. Lancaster, Pa.: Association of American Geographers.

Hartshorne, Richard 1959 Perspective on the Nature of Geography. Association of American Geographers, Monograph Series, No. 1. Chicago: Rand McNally. → A restatement and, in part, an extensive revision of Hartshorne 1939.

HIPPOCRATES On Airs, Waters, and Places. Pages 54-59 in Eric H. Warmington (editor), Greek Geography. London: Dent, 1934.

Huntington, Ellsworth (1915) 1924 Civilization and Climate. 3d ed., rev. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.

Huntington, Ellsworth 1945 Mainsprings of Civilization. New York: Wiley; London: Chapman.

Isard, Walter 1956 Location and Space-economy: A General Theory Relating to Industrial Location, Market Areas, Trade and Urban Structure. Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T. Press; New York: Wiley.

LUKEHMANN, F. 1965 The “Calcul des Probabilites” and the Ecole Francaise de Geographic. Canadian Geographer 9:128-137.

Markham, Sydney F. (1942) 1947 Climate and the Energy of Nations. 2d American ed., rev. & enl. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Martin, A. F. 1952 The Necessity for Determinism. Institute of British Geographers, Publications 17:1-11.

Montefiore, A. C.; and WILLIAMS, W. M. 1955 Determinism and Possibilism. Geographical Studies 2:1-11.

Montesquieu, Charles (1748)1962 The Spirit of the Laws. 2 vols. New York: Hafner. -> First published in French. See especially Book 14, Chapters 12 and 13.

Peattie, Roderick 1940 Geography in Human Destiny. New York: Stewart.

Platt, Robert S. 1948 Environmentalism Versus Geography. American Journal of Sociology 53:351-358.

Ratzel, Friedhich (1882-1891) 1921-1922 Anthropo-geographie. 2 vols. Stuttgart (Germany): Engelhorn. → Volume 1: Grundzüge der Anwendung der Erd-kunde auf die Geschichte, 4th ed. Volume 2: Die geographische Verbreitung des Menschen, 3d ed.

Ratzel, Friedrich (1897) 1923 Politische Geographie. 3d ed. Edited by Eugen Oberhummer. Munich and Berlin: Oldenbourg.

Sahlins, Marshall D. 1962 Moala: Culture and Nature on a Fijian Island. Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press.

Sauer, Carl O. (1925) 1963 The Morphology of Landscape. Pages 315-350 in Carl O. Sauer, Land and Life: A Selection From the Writings of Carl Ortwin Sauer. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

Semple, Ellen C. 1911 Influences of Geographic Environment, on the Basis of Ratzel’s System of An-thropo-geography. New York: Holt.

Spate, O. H. K. 1952 Toynbee and Huntington: A Study in Determinism. Geographical Journal 118: 406-428. -> Contains four pages of discussion.

Spate, O. H. K. 1957 How Determined Is Possibilism? Geographical Studies 4:3-12.

Spate, O. H. K. 1963a Islands and Men. Pages 253-264 in Francis R. Fosberg (editor), Man’s Place in the Island Ecosystem: A Symposium. Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press.

Spate, O. H. K. 1963b Theory and Practice in Soviet Geography. Australian Geographical Studies 1:18-30.

Sprout, Harold H.; and SPROUT, MARGARET 1956 Man-Milieu Relationship Hypotheses in the Context of International Politics. Princeton Univ., Center of International Studies.

Sprout, Harold H.; and SPROUT, MARGARET (1957) 1964 Environmental Factors in the Study of International Politics. Pages 61-80 in William A. D. Jackson (editor), Politics and Geographic Relationships: Readings on the Nature of Political Geography. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall. -> First published in Volume 1 of the Journal of Conflict Resolution.

Sprout, Harold H.; and SPROUT, MARGARET 1965 The Ecological Perspective on Human Affairs, With Special Reference to International Politics. Princeton Univ. Press.

Stewart, John Q.; and WARNTZ, WILLIAM 1958 Macro-geography and Social Science. Geographical Review 48:167-184.

Tatham, George (1951) 1957 Environmentalism and Possibilism. Pages 128-162 in Thomas G. Taylor (editor), Geography in the Twentieth Century: A Study of Growth, Fields, Techniques, Aims and Trends. 3d ed.. enl. New York: Philosophical Library.

Taylor, Thomas Griffith (1951) 1957 Introduction: The Scope of the Volume. Pages 3-27 in Thomas G. Taylor (editor), Geography in the Twentieth Century: A Study of Growth, Fields, Techniques, Aims and Trends. 3d ed., enl. New York: Philosophical Library.

Toynbee, Arnold J. 1934 A Study of History. Volume 2: The Geneses of Civilization. Oxford Univ. Press.

Toynbee, Arnold J. 1961 A Study of History. Volume 12: Reconsiderations. Oxford Univ. Press.

Vallaux, Camille 1911 Geographie sociale: Le sol et I’etat. Paris: Doin.

VIDAL DE LA BLACHE, PAUL 1902 Les conditions gáogrephiques des faits sociaux. Annales de geographic 11:13-23.

Wittfogel, Karl A. 1957 Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press. -> A paperback edition was published in 1963.


views updated May 09 2018


American environmental concern traces back to Jeffersonian ideas of a unique American connection to land and the romantic ethos of the nineteenth century. Open land, sometimes viewed as "wilderness," defined the New World for many European settlers. Thomas Jefferson argued that this open land could be transferred into an American strength if development were directed toward an agrarian republic. While much of the nation would pursue land-use similar to the landscape of Jefferson's ideal, some urban Americans remained intrigued by Jefferson's idea of a unique American connection to the natural environment. This can be seen in the adoption of European forms such as parks and gardens and in the intellectual tradition of romanticism and transcendentalism. By the end of the 1800s, wealthy urbanites pursued "wild" adventures in sites such as the Adirondacks, initiated organizations to conserve animal species or limit pollution, and, finally, set aside areas of nature from development. While the first national parks, Yellowstone and Yosemite, proved to be watershed events in environmental history, they were not initially set aside to protect wilderness areas.

Much nineteenth century environmentalism occurred without a strict organization or philosophy, and the first national parks are a primary example of this. Some scholars have chosen to view nineteenth century environmentalism as a product of Gilded-Age decadence and not an emerging new consciousness toward natural resource use. For instance, Yellowstone, established as the first national park in 1872, developed closely with railroad interests who hoped it would attract tourists to the American West. Its oddities—geysers, waterfalls—proved more important to observers than its unspoiled wilderness. They also made its utility for settlement questionable, which allowed its sponsors to dub the area "worthless for development." Such a designation made lawmakers more willing to sponsor setting it aside for altruistic reasons.

The progressive period energized many Americans to identify social ills and use the government to correct them. The impulse to discontinue waste of resources and the pollution, physical and spiritual, of American communities rapidly became an expression for Americans' unique connection to the land. The leadership of President Theodore Roosevelt and his Chief of Forestry Gifford Pinchot galvanized the upper-class interest with national policies. These policies deviated in two directions, preservation and conservation. Roosevelt greatly admired the national parks as places where "bits of the old wilderness scenery and the old wilderness life are to be kept unspoiled for the benefit of our children's children." With his spiritual support, preservationists linked securing natural areas apart from development to icons of Americanness, including Jeffersonian ideals and romanticism. Finally, though, preservationists argued that a society that could exhibit such restraint as to cordon off entire sections of itself had ascended to the level of great civilizations in world history. While Roosevelt is thought to have had preservationist convictions, his main advisor on land management, Pinchot, argued otherwise for the good of the nation.

Conservationists, such as Pinchot, sought to qualify the preservationist impulse with a dose of utilitarian reality. The mark of an ascendant society, they argued, was the awareness of limits and the use of the government to manage resources in danger. Forest resources would be primary to Pinchot's concern. The first practicing American forester, Pinchot urged Americans to manage forests differently than had Europe. Under Pinchot's advice, President Theodore Roosevelt moved the few National Forests created in 1891 out of the jurisdiction of the Department of Agriculture and into an independent Forest Service. During his administration, Roosevelt added 150 million acres of National Forests. The U.S. Forest Service became one of the most publicly-recognized government agencies of the Roosevelt era under Pinchot's direction. A mailing list of over 100,000, frequent public appearances, and penning articles for popular magazines combined with Pinchot's personal connections to help make forests a national cause celebre. This public standing, created through forest conservation, further inflamed the approaching altercation that would define the early environmental movement.

While the difference between preservation and conservation may not have been clear to Americans at the beginning of the twentieth century, popular culture and the writing of muckraking journalists clearly reflected a time of changing sensibilities. After the San Francisco fire, the nation confronted its feelings in order to define national policy. San Francisco, in search of a dependable supply of water, requested that the Hetch Hetchy Valley, located within the boundaries of Yosemite National Park, be flooded in order to create a reservoir to protect against future fires. Preservationists, rallied by popular magazine articles by naturalist John Muir, boisterously refused to compromise the authenticity of a National Park's natural environment. Reviving romantic notions and even transcendental philosophies, Muir used this pulpit to urge "Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life." He called those wishing to develop the site "temple destroyers." In reaction, Pinchot defined the conservationist mantra by claiming that such a reservoir represented the "greatest good for the greatest number" of people, and therefore should be the nation's priority. The dam and reservoir would be approved in 1913, but the battle had fueled the emergence of the modern environmental movement.

Environmentalism continued to emerge as a portion of twentieth-century culture throughout the period before World War II. Most importantly, the New Deal brought the connection of scientific understanding to the popular appeal of not abusing natural resources. Particularly as New Deal agencies strove to win public approval for their back-to-work programs, popular periodicals were deluged with scientifically-based articles discussing land-use practices being carried out by New Deal agencies. This development incorporated the emergence of ecology, also taking place in the 1930s, with federal policies to manage watersheds, maintain forests, teach agriculture, and hold fast the flying soils of the Southern Plains. Press coverage of the "dust bowl" of the 1930s, for instance, presented a natural disaster caused by drought and bad luck. Through government-made documentary films such as The Plow that Broke the Plains, the New Deal infused a bit of ecological background to explain desertification and agricultural practices that can be used to combat it. In the process of a natural disaster, the American public learned a great deal about its role within the natural environment.

This lesson became more pronounced as Americans increased their lifestyle standards and their expectations for safety. Historians point to a clear correlation between the 1950s growth in the middle class and the popularity of environmentalism. Samuel P. Hays wrote that this era "displayed demands from the grass-roots, demands that are well charted by the innumerable citizen organizations… " that grew out of such public interest. Within growing suburbanization, middle-class Americans expected health and home safety. While there was as yet little regulative authority available, grass-roots environmentalists demanded their government to intercede and insure community safety. The groundswell of interest mobilized with the counter-culture movements of the 1960s, and activists seized a national stage to link scientific data with environmental concern.

The initial interest of the public in the 1940s and 1950s was garnered through an event similar to Hetch Hetchy. The Bureau of Reclamation, an agency developed by applying Pinchot's idea of conservation to waterways of the American West, set out to construct the Echo Park Dam along the Utah-Colorado border, and within a little used National Monument, named Dinosaur—even though most of its fossils and bones had been stolen. As Congress neared a vote on the issue in 1950, 78 national and 236 state conservation organizations expressed their belief that National Parks and Monuments were sacred areas. David Brower, executive director of the Sierra Club and Howard Zahniser of the Wilderness Society used the opportunity to create a model for environmental lobbyists to follow. Direct-mail pamphlets asked: "What is Your Stake in Dinosaur?" and "Will You DAM the Scenic Wildlands of Our National Park System?" Additionally, a color motion picture and a book of lush photos, each depicting the Echo Park Valley's natural splendor, were widely viewed by the public. Such images and sentiments forced Americans to react. With mail to Congress late in 1954 running at eighty to one against the dam, the bill's vote was suspended and the project eventually abandoned. The issues had been packaged by environmentalists to connect concerns with romantic images of the American past. The American public reacted as never before.

Zahniser identified this moment as the best to press for the environmental movement's greatest goal: a national system of wilderness lands. Based on the idealistic notion of pristine wilderness, such a system had been called for beginning with Aldo Leopold in the 1910s. With increased recreation in parks and public lands, argued Zahniser, it had become even more crucial that some of the land be set aside completely. His bill, introduced to Congress in the 1950s, precluded land development and offered recreational opportunities only for a few rather than for the great mass of travelers. Such an ideal goal required great salesmanship, and Zahniser was perfect for the job. As the political climate shifted in the early 1960s, lawmakers became more interested in wilderness. Finally, in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law. The United States had taken one of the most idealistic plunges in the history of environmentalism: nearly ten million acres were immediately set aside as "an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain." Additional lands were preserved in similar fashion by the end of the decade.

While the concept of wilderness forced the general American public to begin to understand ecosystems and the webs of reliance operating within natural systems, the application of scientific understanding to environmentalism occurred most often in other realms. Pollution composed the most frequent complaint, but its nuisance derived more from physical discomfort than a scientific correlation with human health. Rachel Carson, a government biologist turned nature writer, presented the American public with its lesson in science in 1962 with the publication of Silent Spring. The bestseller told the story of pollution (particularly that from the popular pesticide DDT) and its effect on ecological webs of life linked water runoff to fish health and then to depletion of the Bald Eagle population. Readers were left to infer the effects of such chemicals on humans. Flexing their increased environmental awareness, the American public scurried to support Carson's parade through television talk shows. The Kennedy administration appointed a commission to study Carson's findings and a year later banned DDT from use in the United States. Carson became identified with "mother nature" and a maternal impulse to manage the natural environment through federal regulation.

Over the next decade, a deluge of environmental legislation responded to the public's demand for action. The public outcry was so severe that even a conservative such as Richard Nixon could be deemed "the environmental President" as he signed the National Environmental Protection Act in 1969, creating the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The public entrusted the EPA as its environmental regulator to enforce ensuing legislation monitoring air and water purity, limiting noise and other kinds of pollution, and monitoring species in order to discern which required federal protection. The public soon realized just how great the stakes were. During the 1970s, oil spills, river fires, nuclear accidents, and petroleum shortages made it appear as if nature were in open rebellion. Rapidly, this decade instructed Americans, already possessing a growing environmental sensibility, that humans—just as Carson had instruct-ed—needed to live within limits. A watershed shift in human consciousness could be witnessed in the popular culture as green philosophies infiltrated companies wishing to create products that appealed to the public's environmental priority. Recycling, day-light savings time, car-pooling, and environmental impact statements became part of everyday life after the 1970s.

The culture expressing this environmental priority has taken many forms since the 1970s. Earth Day 1970 introduced a tradition that has evolved into an annual reminder of humans' tenuous existence. As many as twenty million Americans participated in the first celebration. Some celebrants protested polluting companies, others planted trees, and still others cleaned up trash. Particularly for school-age children, a single day has evolved into continuous awareness. Ideas such as highway trash cleanup and recycling have become part of everyday American society. Many parents find children acting as environmental regulators within a household. Mixing science with action, environmentalism proved to be excellent fodder for American educators. More importantly, though, the philosophy of fairness and living within limits merged with cultural forms to become mainstays in entertainment for young people, including feature films such as Lion King and Fern Gully, environmental music, and even clothing styles. The audience of children and youths quickly became an outlet for ideals for which many adults longed but from which society limited their access. In essence, after 1980 many American parents expressed their own convictions by supporting the environmental idealism of youth culture.

Earth Day 1990 continued such traditions, but also marked an important change in environmentalism's scope. Worldwide, 14 nations and more than 40 million humans marked some kind of celebration on Earth Day 1990. While a global perspective seemed inherent in the web of life put forward by Carson and others, it would take global issues such as the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986 and shared problems such as greenhouse gasses and global warming to bind the world into a common perspective, fueled to action by the Western environmental consciousness. Most importantly, the United Nations presented a tool for facilitating such efforts. With its first meeting on the environment in 1972, the global organization created its Environmental Program. This organization would sponsor the historic Rio Conference on the Environment in 1992 and that on global warming in 1997. In response to such activities, the U.S. federal government declared the environment a genuine diplomatic risk in global affairs by creating a State Department Undersecretary for the Environment in 1996. What began as an intellectual philosophy had so impacted the human worldview that it would now influence global relations.

By the late 1990s, polls revealed that nearly 70 percent of Americans referred to themselves as "environmentalists." But of those who called themselves environmentalists most did not hold deep philosophical commitments. More often, they expressed themselves in reaction to mass mailings put out by any of the hundreds of environmental special interest groups developed by the 1990s. Starting from associations of conservation hunters, including the Audubon Society founded in the 1870s, organizations such as the Sierra Club, Wilderness Society, and the American Wildlife Federation have evolved with the environmental movement. Additionally, the global emphasis spawned Greenpeace, the world's largest environmental organization. Financial support from membership dues broadens the cultural impact of environmental philosophies while also allowing many Americans to define themselves as supporters while possessing little of the movement's primary convictions.

The twentieth century has witnessed the development of a consciousness that transcends the preservation of special places and the regulation of damaging pollutants. From romantic beginnings, Americans have been moved to ask serious questions about their very basic idea of progress. For many Americans, increased environmental awareness has moved them to alter their actions and priorities. American culture, though, has become more "green" for every observer.

—Brian Black

Further Reading:

Fox, Stephen. The American Conservation Movement. Madison, University of Wisconsin Press, 1981.

Nash, Roderick. Wilderness and the American Mind. New Haven, Yale University Press, 1982.

Sale, Kirkpatrick. The Green Revolution. New York, Hill and Wang, 1993.

Worster, Donald. Nature's Economy. New York, Cambridge University Press, 1977.


views updated May 14 2018


Environmentalism is a broad term used to describe the ideology of social and political movements that emerged in the 1960s around concerns about pollution, population growth, the preservation of wilderness, endangered species, and other threatened non-renewable resources such as energy and mineral deposits. As such it is a vivid nexus for science, technology, and ethics interactions. Since the 1970s, environmentalism has proved to be one of the most powerful and successful of contemporary ideologies, although this very success has generated so many strains of environmentalist ideas as to threaten the meaningfulness of the term itself.

Intellectual Roots

Although modern environmentalism can be traced to multiple intellectual roots, in the United States there are three primary influences. The first are the U.S. romantic and transcendentalist movements, which found moral and artistic inspiration in the natural world. The greatest representative of these ideas is the nineteenth-century writer Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), whose Walden (1854) uses the natural world as a philosophical vantage point from which to evaluate and criticize U.S. society and politics. From this tradition, which was developed by John Muir (1838–1914) and others, environmentalism gains a focus on the value of preserving wilderness and nonhuman species.

A second major intellectual source for environmentalism is the U.S. conservation tradition. The most important founders of this tradition are Theodore Roosevelt and his close adviser and the first head of the U.S. Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot (1865–1946). These and like minded progressive reformers from the early-twentieth century led a movement to regulate and conserve natural resources and preserve some spectacular wilderness areas as national parks. The overall concern of the conservation movement was to maintain a sustainable supply of natural resources for a growing economy, which was believed to be essential for the health of a democratic society. From this tradition, environmentalism has inherited concerns about sustainability, the impact of the economy on the natural world, and human equity and justice issues concerning the distribution of environmental benefits and risks.

A third intellectual source for environmentalism is found within the scientific community of the 1950s and 1960s, when scientists became alarmed by the worldwide impact of nuclear weapons use and testing, chemical pollution of the environment by modern economic activity, and the stress on the environment caused by the sharp growth in human population during the twentieth century. The three greatest representatives of this tradition are biologists who wrote highly popular and influential books that caused broad-based alarm about environmental problems, Rachel Carson (Silent Spring [1962]), Paul Ehrlich (The Population Bomb [1969]), and Barry Commoner (The Closing Circle [1971]). Inspired by such works, environmentalism has gained a focus on public health problems that grow from modern productive processes and military technology.

Although these three traditions are responses to different types of problems and have generated different sets of concerns, environmentalism weaves them loosely together. Environmentalist thinkers and organizations stress different strains of environmentalism, but concerns as disparate as wilderness preservation, reducing environmental pollution and addressing the health problems it causes, and evaluating and protesting the injustice of unequal environmental impacts of various public policies and economic activities on disadvantaged subgroups in U.S. society (such as the poor, or people of color), are all recognized as part of the environmentalist agenda.

Two key facts about environmentalism must be stressed. First it is simply one of the most remarkably successful of all contemporary social and political ideologies. What was a marginal set of concerns and views during the 1960s has become part of the social and political mainstream. Public opinion polls consistently demonstrate wide-ranging public support for environmentalist values and policies, even if the saliency of environmentalist concern is somewhat less than that found for other issues such as the economy. Not surprisingly, candidates from across the political spectrum have found it necessary to profess environmental values, even if there is reason at times to doubt their sincerity. The corporate world has discovered that it is increasingly good business to market products and services as green, natural, organic, or environmentally responsible. Academic disciplines, from law to ethics to the natural sciences to engineering to economics and beyond, have been influenced by environmentalist concerns and have developed sub-disciplines focusing on environmental issues. Vast rivers of private financial donations flow into the coffers of a variety of environmental organizations found on the local, national, and international levels. In short, in the course of a single generation, environmentalism has grown to be one of the most visible and important ideologies in contemporary life. Rarely has an ideology enjoyed this level of achievement in such a short period of time.

The second key fact to note is that this very success, coupled with the diverse intellectual roots that nourish it, has made the intellectual content of environmentalism ambiguous, perhaps even incoherent if one is looking to find a unified ideology.

Three Types of Environmentalism

In light of this ambiguity, it is helpful to divide the universe of environmentalist views into three broad categories. First liberal environmentalists think of environmental problems in the political and social context of conventional liberal ideals and social policy. Drawing primarily, but not only, on the conservation tradition, liberal environmentalists have been successful in promoting extensive environmental regulation of industry and other polluting activities. The environmental justice movement, as well as increased interest in applying the philosophical tools of pragmatic philosophy to the study of environmental ethics, are also fundamentally liberal developments in environmentalism; the first demands respect for liberal equity in the distribution of environmental risk, and the second draws on the liberal tradition of U.S. philosophical pragmatism in order to evaluate the ethical implications of particular human behaviors in relation to the natural world. Much of the growing field of environmental economics may also be included in the category of liberal environmentalism, because it applies conventional liberal economic principles and tools to the study of environmental policy. What liberal environmentalists share is a perspective that views environmental problems within the context of recognized liberal philosophical, political, and social values.

Radical environmentalism can be thought of as an array of environmentalist ideas that challenge the philosophical and political underpinnings of liberal democratic society. The greatest unifying theme among radical environmentalists is the insistence that the anthropocentrism of liberalism, the assumption that human beings are the source and measure of all value, be rejected in favor of a moral perspective more inclusive of values intrinsic to the non-human world, a view that is sometimes called biocentrism or ecocentrism. The claim is that conventional moral perspectives are incapable of appropriately appreciating non-human things, and therefore there is a need to discover fundamentally new ways of thinking about the natural world and its relationship to people. Beyond these claims, radical environmentalists quickly part company, pursuing a multitude of philosophical paths. Eco-feminists, for example, suggest that women have natural connections with and insights into nature that men are less likely to experience, and that are lost or suppressed within a patriarchal society; fighting patriarchy is therefore related to not only freeing women from men, but to the reconnection of human beings with nature more generally. Rather than emphasizing gender, deep ecologists promote what they understand to be more primal, unified understandings of the proper relationship of humans to the natural world than they find in modern social and political theory and practice. Social ecology, a form of eco-anarchism, claims that humans could naturally live in just, non-hierarchical social organizations, and that environmental problems grow out of and reflect the oppression of humans by humans in unjust, hierarchical societies. Some would include eco-socialists among radical environmentalists, because they promote a political vision contrary to contemporary liberal democracy. Not all radical environmentalists, however, believe the socialist political program is sufficiently biocentric to be truly radical or environmentalist.

As an illustration of the huge growth in the ideological power of environmentalism, the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries began to see the emergence of new forms of conservative environmentalism. While it is true that there have always been conservation groups that have historically appealed primarily to hunters and other groups not conventionally thought to be liberal or radical, these have been on the margins of environmentalism. Historically, conservatives have more often than not been hostile to environmentalism, on the grounds that it threatened to over expand the government's regulatory powers (in the case of liberal environmentalism) or, even worse, that it attacked the moral foundations of conventional society (in the case of radical environmentalism). There is a new and growing free market environmentalism, however, that is attacking the liberal environmental regulatory programs, and defending private property rights and conventional capitalist economic organization as the best way to promote environmental health and resource conservation. There is also some growth of a less militantly free market conservative sympathy for environmentalism that emphasizes the continuity of community traditions and religious piety toward what is understood to be a created universe.


Beyond the U.S. context, environmentalism has become a powerful force throughout the world, both within other countries and in the international order. The diversity of environmentalist views explodes within this broader context, from the demands of indigenous peoples to control local ecosystems in the face of pressure by international markets and corporations, to the growth of Green political parties (most importantly and successfully in Germany), to the attempt to design international policies for contending with world-wide environmental issues such as global climate change, to attempts to address wildly inequitable resource allocation between the rich and poor, the developed and developing, nations. In different contexts, and with different aims and intentions, environmental politics has become a factor in local, national, and international politics, and as such contexts have proliferated, so too has the breadth of environmentalist ideology expanded almost beyond measure and clear focus.

Given this array of environmentalist views and projects, it is clear that the very notion of environmentalism is being stretched to include incompatible ideas. The single unifying theme, to the degree that it can be found, is simply the attention paid to the human relation to the natural world and the promotion of ideas and policies intended to protect the health and fecundity of nature.

In light of the diversity of environmentalist views, it is difficult to clearly assess the implications of this ideology for modern science, technology, and ethics. It is clear, for example, that there have been elements of misanthropy and hostility toward science and technology in some strains of radical environmentalism, a kind of primitivism that views modern society in all its facets as a plague on the natural world to be resisted, even turned back, as much as possible. It is also true, however, that this is a marginal set of attitudes even within the radical environmentalist camp. Radical environmentalism does indeed insist on an ethical reorientation toward non-human things, but this by no means always reflects misanthropic views. On the contrary, the claim more often includes a presumption that humans will find their lives more meaningful if they learn to live harmoniously with nature, that radical environmentalism is a positive good for both people and nature. Likewise, even while much radical environmentalism distrusts science and technology, it often draws heavily on the science of ecology to inform its own analysis of problems, and often promotes what it considers to be environmentally friendly technologies.

Liberal and conservative environmentalisms usually appeal to conventional ethical categories (for example, the weighing of public goods against individual rights), and tend to work within the conventions of mainstream science and technology to promote their ends. The debates they engage are more often about the proper balancing of environmental goods against other important values, than about the need for such a balance in the first place. Liberal environmentalism also tends to be committed to using modern science to closely evaluate the overall environmental impact of existing technologies, and to producing the most environmentally benign technologies currently feasible.

Although it is difficult to generalize about environmentalism, given the great diversity of ideas and concerns found within the movement, the very power and popularity of environmentalist ideas reflects a growing sensitivity to and concern about the natural world. While environmentalists often worry about different issues, from wilderness preservation to public health to social justice, and often see the world in different ways, from radical biocentrists to conservative free market advocates to almost an infinity of variations in between, environmentalism reflects a rich diversity of attempts to think seriously about the appropriate relationship between people and the rest of nature. It is clear, from the popularity of environmentalist ideas, that there is a broad and growing sense of the importance of this overall project.


SEE ALSO Air;Carson, Rachel;Conservation and Preservation;Deforestation and Desertification;Earth;Environmental Ethics;Fuller, R. Buckminster;Rain Forest;Sierra Club;Sustainability and Sustainable Development;Thoreau, Henry David;United Nations Environmental Program;Water.


Anderson, Terry Lee, and Donald R. Leal. (2001). Free Market Environmentalism Today. New York: Palgrave. A good representative of the free market environmentalism literature.

Bliese, John. (2001). The Greening of Conservative America. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. An example of a conservative environmentalism that is distrustful of a simple faith in the free market.

Bookchin, Murray. (1982). The Ecology of Freedom: The Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy. Palo Alto, CA: Chesire Books. A classic social ecology text.

Dobson, Andrew. (1998). Justice and the Environment. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Guha, Ramachandra. (2000). Environmentalism: A Global History. New York: Oxford University Press.

Luke, Timothy. (1999). Urbana: University of Illinois Press. Capitalism, Democracy and Ecology. Luke weds environmentalism to a leftist populism.

Merchant, Carolyn. (1996). Earthcare: Women and the Environment. New York: Routledge. A historian's view of the relationship between women and the environment.

Norton, Bryan. (1991). Toward Unity Among Environmentalists. New York: Oxford University Press. Among the most sophisticated works in the pragmatic school of environmental ethics.

Sagoff, Mark. (1988). The Economy of the Earth: Philosophy, Law and the Environment. New York: Cambridge University Press. The best liberal critique of the use of cost benefit analysis as the primary tool of environmental policymaking.

Sessions, George, ed. (1995). Deep Ecology for the Twenty-first Century. Boston: Shambhala. A standard deep ecology text.

Taylor, Bob Pepperman. (1992). Our Limits Transgressed: Environmental Political Thought in America. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas. A survey and discussion of some of the primary strains of environmental thought in the United States.


views updated May 23 2018



Environmentalism is a social movement animated by the goal of bringing about deep changes in how humans perceive and behave toward the natural world. It aims at a fundamental shift in society's vision of humankind's home planet: from a world perceived as offering a virtually limitless cornucopia of resources for human use to a world perceived as fragile, finite, and requiring careful stewardship on the part of its increasingly powerful human inhabitants. Although the movement's roots lie in the nineteenth century, environmentalism really only took off during the cultural ferment of the 1960s, spreading rapidly throughout Western Europe and the other industrial democracies during the 1970s and 1980s. By the early 2000s, environmentalist ideas have come to constitute a prominent feature in the political, economic, and cultural landscape of virtually all the major industrial democracies. Environmentalism still has a very long way to go before its ambitious goals of economic and ecological restructuring come close to full realization—but it has made a most impressive (and incisive) start.


In Europe, three major phases in the rise of environmentalist awareness can be discerned from the eighteenth to the twenty-first century. The first, situated in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, might be described as the era of utilitarian conservationism, marked by concern over soil erosion or the accelerating depletion of certain key resources such as timber, and by the development of new strategies for managing natural areas with an eye to husbanding those resources for the future. Thus the earliest signs of a modern environmental sensibility can be traced to the Enlightenment period, as naturalists first began putting together the systematic picture of Earth's plants and animals that would gradually mature into the full-fledged science of modern biology. Yet this emergent conservationist attitude remained quite far removed from the worldview of twenty-first-century environmentalists because it only assigned value to nature's plants and animals insofar as those creatures—or their products—might prove useful to humans. A tree was a good thing, according to this vision, because it offered wood for fuel or for building such objects as houses, boats, or furniture; its value lay solely in its utility to humankind. This homocentric vision of nature would predominate in Europe throughout the nineteenth century (and still continues to play a key role in the advancement of environmentalist agendas in some quarters even in the early twenty-first century).

Toward the late nineteenth century, however, a new vision began to emerge—an attitude that might be described as aesthetic conservationism. Partly through the far-reaching influence of the artistic currents of Romanticism, and partly as a reaction against the rapid spread of urban society and industrialism, more and more citizens of Europe and North America began to place a value on nature simply because they deemed it beautiful to behold. The first major sign of this new attitude can be seen in the creation of Yellowstone Park by the United States government in 1872. Yellowstone was of no "use" to anyone because it consisted of a large tract of territory fenced off from further development or human intervention: its value lay simply in its very wildness, in the beauty people found through the contemplation of nature in a relatively primal and untouched state. During the succeeding decades, many nations followed the example set by the United States, creating national parks throughout the world: in Australia (1879), Canada and New Zealand (1880s), South Africa (1890s), Sweden (1909), and France and Switzerland (1914). This current of aesthetic protectionism gave a powerful boost to the efforts of the more utilitarian conservationists, and the two groups often formed alliances around the turn of the twentieth century in getting laws passed for the defense of natural sites.

Yet one should not read too much into these early efforts. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, the vast majority of Europeans, like the citizens of the world's other industrial democracies, continued to believe unabashedly in endless material progress through unrestrained economic growth, in the seemingly limitless bounty that human ingenuity could extract from nature. Only a small minority even became aware of conservationist issues, and even fewer actively campaigned for nature protection.

All this changed quite dramatically in the 1960s—the decade that marked the birth and rapid rise of modern environmentalism. Several factors came together to bring about this sudden shift: a keen awareness among scientists of the increasingly grievous (and in some cases irreversible) damage being done to the earth's ecosystems by the accelerating growth of industrial society; a new radicalism among scientists and nature lovers, no doubt emboldened by the activism and protests of the 1960s counterculture; and a new sophistication in the science of ecology itself, offering truly alarming forecasts of a full-scale environmental collapse if human beings continued to exploit nature with the reckless abandon that had thus far prevailed. For the first time, many ordinary citizens began using the metaphor of a spaceship to describe Planet Earth: a finite environment, from which only limited resources could be drawn, and into which only a limited quantity of pollutants and effluents could be cast. Once humankind crossed a critical threshold, the spaceship would simply become uninhabitable, a spherical tomb floating in the blackness of space. It was this attitude of profound alarm, coupled with an urgent and hopeful effort to mobilize the requisite social and economic changes for long-term survival, that distinguished modern environmentalism from its conservationist predecessors.


The movement spread with extraordinary swiftness, flowing across borders and winning converts by the thousands throughout the industrialized democracies. A pullulating variety of organizations formed to spread the message: from small neighborhood groups promoting recycling to international networks such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace; from the Environmental Protection Agency in the United States (1970) to the Ministry of the Environment in France (1971) to the creation of the United Nations Environmental Program (1972). Between 1965 and 1975, vast numbers of books, newspaper articles, and TV programs devoted to environmentalist topics spread across the cultural scene; and public opinion polls consistently showed that citizens placed environmental issues near the top of their list of priorities for public policy. While the number of hard-core environmental activists remained relatively small (probably in the thousands throughout Europe), the number of Europeans who considered themselves ardently "pro-environment" clearly numbered in the tens of millions by the mid-1970s.

Not surprisingly, the politicians responded with alacrity. As fledgling environmentalist (or "green") political parties began to form in the 1970s, somewhat hesitantly submitting their first candidates in regional and national elections, the mainstream parties of both Left and Right quickly took notice: they soon co-opted various portions of the environmentalist message within their own party platforms, and declared themselves to be ardently "greener than thou." Green parties formed and began contesting elections in the late 1970s in England, Germany, and France; other West European nations, such as Spain, Italy, Sweden, and the Netherlands, followed suit in the 1980s. These new green parties tended to receive between 2 percent and 10 percent of the vote in national elections, and rarely succeeded in pushing beyond those levels; but their influence far exceeded these modest statistics because their very existence—and their vocal advocacy on behalf of environmental issues—forced the larger mainstream parties in government to begin institutionalizing significant measures for environmental protection.


During the 1980s, and even more markedly during the 1990s, a dense blanket of environmental legislation and regulation gradually spread over the societies of Western Europe (with the newly liberated societies of Eastern Europe following suit after the collapse of the Soviet empire). In France by the early 1990s, for example, more than one thousand specialized laws on the environment were in place, as well as eighty-three ordinances and regulations at the level of the European Union and some three hundred international treaties. A commensurately complex thicket of French governmental agencies, institutes, and regulatory bodies had come into being to implement and enforce these new laws.

Here indeed lay one of the great ironies of the environmental movement's history: despite the fact that most green activists deeply distrusted the centralized bureaucracies of the nation-state and advocated a devolution of power to more decentralized and local forms of democratic power, the fact remained that several decades of successful environmental activism had resulted in more, not less, government. The sheer complexity of most environmental issues, and their close imbrication in virtually every aspect of a modern industrial economy, all but forced the management of environmental problems into the hands of governmental authorities—from the municipal level all the way up to the supranational institutions of the European Union. The "greening" of Europe had only proved possible through a significant growth in state power.

A second great irony also faced Europe's green activists. During the movement's early years, in the 1960s, most environmentalists earnestly believed that the main "enemy" lay in Big Industry—the huge factories with their belching smokestacks, the captains of industry who had strong economic interests in blocking environmental regulation and who possessed powerful political connections to help them do so. But the activists turned out to be wrong. By the year 2000, it was the industrial sector that exhibited far and away the most impressive "greening" of any facet of European society. Partly the changes were voluntary—under-taken by industrial firms because of tax incentives or because of concerns about maintaining a positive image before an environmentally aware public opinion; and partly the changes were coerced by ever rising standards of environmental legislation and regulation. Yet, whatever the reason, the factories of the 1990s emitted only a small fraction of the pollutants they had spewed a mere three decades earlier; they were far more energy efficient; and a great many of the products they created were being designed with tough environmental standards in mind, so that they might minimize the harm done to the natural world throughout their product life cycle, from manufacturing to disposal. The combined pressures of public opinion and stringent legislation had made a major impact.

Far less successful in the "greening" effort were the important economic sectors of transportation, the consumer economy, and agriculture. Europeans drove more cars, faster cars, bigger cars in the 2000s than they had four decades earlier; and although these modern vehicles emitted far fewer particle pollutants than the models of the 1960s, they still belched forth greenhouse gases on an ever growing scale—and most consumers apparently did not care enough about this fact to switch to eco-friendly modes of transport, such as buses, bicycles, or trains. The consumer economy, meanwhile, was pouring out a cornucopia of products that would have astonished even the most brazenly optimistic economists of the 1960s: despite substantial efforts at recycling, the volume of trash produced in most European countries in the 2000s had grown by 300 percent since the 1960s. Energy consumption had just about quadrupled in the four decades between 1960 and 2000, and the portion derived from renewable sources such as hydroelectric, wind, or solar power constituted a paltry 8 percent of the overall energy equation: the other 92 percent of energy came from sources that would sooner or later run out.

As for European agriculture, in 2004 it still remained premised on the same model that had dominated the 1950s: pour on the fertilizers, squeeze the most possible out of the land, ignore erosion and soil depletion, and place faith in the invention of new chemicals to fix the problems that will inevitably arise down the road. Overfishing of the seas around Europe, meanwhile, has resulted in the near extinction of many species that once provided a plentiful bounty of seafood; efforts by national governments and by the European Union to rein in the destructive practices of industrialscale fishing enterprises had, by the 2000s, spectacularly failed to yield positive results.


The "bottom line," therefore, remains mixed. On one level, it is astonishing to observe just how many areas of European society have been deeply affected by environmentalist changes—and all this in the relatively short span of a mere four decades. Attitudes, habits, practices, laws, and institutions have all undergone a significant green transformation. And yet the transformation remains incomplete—appallingly so, when one considers the high stakes in play. European society, it is fair to say, has taken the first important steps down the road to a truly sustainable economic and cultural order; but the road yet to be traveled remains dauntingly long.

A pessimist might argue that environmentalism has failed, because modern industrial society has proved incapable of making a sufficiently swift transition into a fully sustainable economy, and (more importantly) because the hardest changes—those involving real sacrifices—still lie in the future. An optimist, on the other hand, could argue that the most difficult phase has already occurred: the phase in which large numbers of citizens first become aware of the environmentalist challenge and begin to adjust their horizons commensurately. According to this vision, a generation newly educated in environmental values, and energized by the grim prospect of looming environmental collapse, will prove ready to make the sacrifices, and to meet the challenges, that undeniably still lie ahead.

See alsoConsumption; Greenpeace; Greens.


Bess, Michael. The Light-Green Society: Ecology and Technological Modernity in France, 1960–2000. Chicago, 2003.

Cronon, William, ed. Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature. New York, 1995.

Dalton, Russell J. The Green Rainbow: Environmental Groups in Western Europe. New Haven, Conn., 1994.

Dominick, Raymond H. The Environmental Movement in Germany: Prophets and Pioneers, 1871–1971. Bloomington, Ind., 1992.

Latour, Bruno. Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy. Translated by Catherine Porter. Cambridge, Mass., 2004.

Lipietz, Alain. Green Hopes: The Future of Political Ecology. Translated by Malcolm Slater. Cambridge, Mass., 1995.

McNeill, J. R. Something New under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World. New York, 2000.

Nash, Roderick. The Rights of Nature: A History of Environmental Ethics. Madison, Wis., 1989.

Oelschlaeger, Max. The Idea of Wilderness: From Prehistory to the Age of Ecology. New Haven, Conn., 1991.

Worster, Donald. Nature's Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas. Cambridge, U.K., 1994.

Michael Bess


views updated May 23 2018


The latter half of the 1800s marked a period in American history when researchers, scientists, and concerned citizens worked together to raise the collective consciousness about the importance of the nation's natural resources. The government took a leadership role in the effort to preserve nature for nature's sake by passing legislative acts. This was the beginning of what is known as the conservation movement .

These early efforts to preserve and protect were led by influential and dedicated men such as John Muir (1838–1914), Underwood Johnson (1853–1937), President Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919; served 1901–9), and Aldo Leopold (1886–1948). Although these activists and others like them made great progress, it was not until the 1960s that the first truly nationwide, organized, and vocal efforts emerged in what is known as the environmental movement.

The catalyst for this movement was the 1962 publication of a bestselling book titled Silent Spring. Author Rachel Carson (1907–1964; see box) left no doubt in the minds of Americans that chemicals in the air and water were killing nearly every form of wildlife. Readers were shocked, and out of that concern developed a renewed and vigorous dedication to saving and protecting the environment.

Environmentalism takes center stage

During the remainder of the 1960s, several environmental organizations were established, including the Environmental Defense Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Friends of the Earth. U.S. senator Gaylord Nelson (1916–2005) of Wisconsin was the primary organizer of a new holiday, which debuted in 1970. The first Earth Day was celebrated on April 22 and an estimated twenty million people participated. The purpose of the day was to send a message to politicians, encouraging them to pay attention and do something for the environment before it was too late. Nelson had been trying since late 1962 to appeal to the logic and sensibility of Congress, largely without success. Earth Day continues to be celebrated across the nation in the twenty-first century.


The 1970s was a decade of major activism in the environmental movement. At that time, pollution had become a major concern. Congress had passed the Clean Air Act in 1963, but it was not until 1970 that amendments were added that made it a truly effective bill. The 1963 version offered federal research funding and urged the development of air pollution control agencies at the state level. In 1965, an amendment was passed that added the requirement of the creation and enforcement of automobile emissions standards. This was the first time the federal government took an active role in the clean air policy.

The Clean Air Act of 1970 finally put actual power in the hands of the federal government

Rachel Carson: Ahead of Her Time

Rachel Carson was born on May 27, 1907, in the small town of Springdale, Pennsylvania . She grew up on a farm and spent most of her time studying nature and reading.

Carson earned a scholarship to the Pennsylvania College for Women and graduated with honors in 1928. She took a fellowship at the Marine Biology Laboratory at Woods Hole on Cape Cod, Massachusetts , where she saw the ocean for the first time. Carson went on to study zoology and genetics on scholarship at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland . She graduated with honors once more in 1932.

In 1935, Carson applied for a job at the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries. At the time, women were not encouraged to take any civil service exams, but Carson outscored all other applicants and was the second woman in history to be hired by the bureau for a permanent professional post. She wrote and edited government publications there, and when the bureau merged with the Biological Survey in 1940 and was renamed the Fish and Wildlife Service, Carson was quickly promoted. Eventually, she became a full-fledged biologist and the chief editor.

During these early years, Carson wrote two books in her field of study, but it was not until her third, The Sea Around Us (1951), that she became a best-selling author. The book focused on oceanography and included several technical and scientific breakthroughs. Carson won the National Book Award for her work and retired from government service to become a full-time author.

She published another award winner in 1955. The Edge of the Sea was also a best-seller, and it was made into an Oscar-winning documentary.

Carson had long been concerned about the overuse of pesticides. At the time, DDT was considered an effective pest control because its use resulted in higher crop yields. Carson's research found that the chemical destroyed the environment with long-term use. She spent four years gathering data and interviewing biologists, chemists, and other scientists. The result of her efforts was Silent Spring, in which she proved that DDT is transferred to living organisms through the food chain. Carson claimed DDT all but exterminated the American falcon, and she showed that the toxin in high doses was dangerous to humans.

The chemical industry publicly labeled Carson “hysterical,” and companies tried to force the publisher to suppress the book. Silent Spring became an immediate best-seller, however, and its author was featured in a 1963 documentary in which she debated a chemical company spokesperson. That documentary won her many fans. The book itself is credited with creating an awareness of the dangers of pesticides. DDT was banned in the United States in 1972. Carson won many awards for her work before her death on April 14, 1964.

and became the basis for all future air pollution control policy. Three amendments were added that year: the Water Quality Act, the Solid Waste Disposal Act, and the Wilderness Act. The last amendment was passed to ensure the protection of 9 million acres of public land.

In addition to the Clean Air Act, the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970 was passed in response to the federal government's destruction of natural environment while building interstate highways throughout the two previous decades. The act established the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which became the largest and most powerful regulatory body ever established by the federal government. The mission of the EPA is to protect human health while safeguarding the environment.

Public activism

The 1970s had its fair share of environmental crises, and the media covered them in great detail. One of these accidents was the radioactive gas leak at Three Mile Island near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Another such crisis was the discovery and subsequent reporting of the fact that homes along the Love Canal in Buffalo, New York , were built on toxic soil. In 1979, the EPA disclosed its finding that fifty-five thousand sites in the country were critically toxic.

America's response to these events and reports was to join organized coalitions and activist groups. Membership in environmental organizations skyrocketed. The National Audubon Society (established in 1905), for example, tripled its numbers to four hundred thousand in the 1970s. New groups were established, including Greenpeace (1971), the Cousteau Society (1973), and Worldwatch Institute (1975). These and other groups pressured politicians to get involved, and their efforts saw the passage of eighteen environmental laws throughout the decade.

Conservatism hinders movement

Republican Ronald Reagan (1911–2004; served 1981–89) who became president in 1981 had a conservative agenda that was not environment-friendly and federal support for environmental programs was stalled. Nonetheless, national environmental groups refused to back down from their goals, and they responded to this lack of federal support by expanding membership and staff. Local grassroots organizations flourished, and an estimated twenty-five million activists populated the country by 1987. A 1985 Harris poll indicated that 80 percent of the American public supported environmental laws and regulations.

Not all environmentalists were willing to work with the restricted support of the federal government. They believed lobbying in Washington, D.C. , could have only limited impact, and true progress could be gained only through direct—and sometimes illegal—action. One such group, EarthFirst!, formed in 1980. EarthFirst! members engaged in demonstrations, media stunts, and what they call “ecotage,” which is the sabotage of equipment used for roadbuilding, dam construction, and clearcutting. Because of the group's violent and radical tactics, it received intense media coverage but also met with criticism from the more mainstream organizations, who believed their illegal tactics only hindered the progress of the environmental movement as a whole.

1990s and beyond

In 1990, EarthFirst! began being identified more as a mainstream movement and less as an organization. Those members who refused to give up using criminal activity as a means of protest broke off from the main group and formed an offshoot they called the Earth Liberation Front (ELF). Although the organization claims no spokesperson or leadership, it includes activists from the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Despite the fact that ELF's tactics include destruction of property and violence, no deaths have ever resulted from their actions. Still, the ELF was classified as the number one domestic terror threat by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in 2001.

Thirty years after the environmental movement had been born, it had become the most successful social change movement since the abolition movement (end of slavery ) in the nineteenth century. By 1990, an estimated 100 million people (25 million in the United States) in 140 countries had celebrated Earth Day. Even with such success, however, the environment was still in danger. More than half of all Americans lived in counties with polluted air in 1993; more than 170,000 lakes were acidified, and 90 percent of all garbage went unrecycled.

When Bill Clinton (1946–; served 1993–2001) became U.S. president, his vice president was environmental activist and former U.S. senator Al Gore (1948–) of Tennessee . After serving alongside Clinton for two terms, Gore unsuccessfully ran for president in the 2000 election. After defeat, Gore turned his attention to activism, and he has served in the private sector as a champion of environmentalism, lecturing on the topic of global warming, a prime concern of the environmental movement.

Global warming is the increase in the average temperature of the Earth's near-surface air and oceans. Some scientists and researchers believe global warming will eventually result in worldwide rising of sea levels, Arctic shrinkage, and possible flooding and drought (depending on the region). It could also lead to an increase in natural disasters like hurricanes and tornadoes, as well as an increase in diseases spread by mosquitoes, which thrive on heat and humidity. In addition, some scientists predict the extinction of many plants and animals because they will not be able to adapt to their altered ecosystems quickly enough.

Global warming is caused by several factors, the primary being an increase in the greenhouse effect (how natural gases in the Earth's atmosphere reduce the amount of heat escaping from the earth into the atmosphere). Although the greenhouse effect allows the Earth to stay warm enough to sustain life, an increase would prevent heat from escaping, making the planet too hot for life to survive. Greenhouse gases are increased by human activity, such as farming, industry, and the burning of fossil fuels for energy.

Gore used his time as vice president to try to effect change in environmental policy by sponsoring hearings, publishing books, and launching educational programs. Once out of politics, he toured the country giving lectures, and in 2006, released a documentary titled An Inconvenient Truth. This film gave evidence for global warming and warned of the need for immediate changes in human behavior. It won the 2007 Academy Award for Documentary Feature and was the fourth highest-grossing documentary in U.S. history as of 2008.

The environmental movement has always had its share of critics who refute the findings of studies and claim that what is happening with the environment at any given times is natural. Other skeptics believe environmentalism is merely a political issue, not one of science. Doubts aside, environmentalism in the twenty-first century goes far beyond the idea of preserving natural beauty to recognize the importance of biodiversity. Some new businesses, such as computer liquidators, exist solely to recycle and reuse. Although momentum of grassroots activism has leveled off, the environmental movement as a whole has become one based on science and research, which gives it an authority it never previously held.


views updated Jun 11 2018


Environmental protection in Russia traces its roots to seventeenth-century hunting preserves and Peter the Great's efforts to protect some of the country's forests and rivers. But environmentalism, in the sense of an intellectual or popular movement in support of conservation or environmental protection, began during the second half of the nineteenth century and scored some important victories during the late tsarist and early soviet periods. The movement lost most of its momentum during the Stalin years but revived during the 1960s and 1970s, peaking during the era of perestroika. After a decline during the early 1990s, environmentalism showed a resurgence later in the decade.

early history

Sergei Aksakov's extremely popular fishing and hunting guides (1847 and 1851) awakened the reading public to the extent and importance of central Russia's natural areas and helped popularize outdoor pursuits. As the membership in hunting societies grew in subsequent decades, so did awareness of the precipitous decline in populations of game species. Articles in hunting journals and the more widely circulated "thick" journals sounded the alarm about this issue. Provincial observers also began to note the rapid loss of forest resources. Noble landowners, facing straitened financial circumstances after the abolition of serfdom, were selling timber to earn ready cash. Anton Chekhov, among others, lamented the loss of wildlife habitats and the damage to rivers that resulted from widespread deforestation. By the late 1880s the outcry led to the enactment of the Forest Code (1888) and hunting regulations (1892). These laws had little effect, but their existence testifies to the emergence of a Russian conservation movement.

In contrast to the environmentalism around the same time in the United States and England, the main impetus for the movement in Russia came from scientists rather than amateur naturalists, poets, or politicians. Russian scientists were pioneers in the fledgling field of ecology, particularly the study of plant communities and ecosystems. While they shared with western environmentalists an aesthetic appreciation for natural beauty, they were especially keen about the need to preserve whole landscapes and ecosystems. During the early twentieth century when the Russian conservation movement began to press for the creation of nature

preserves, it did not adopt the U.S. model of national parks designed to preserve places of extraordinary beauty for recreational purposes. Instead, Russian scientists sought to preserve large tracts of representative landscapes and keep them off limits except to scientists who would use them as laboratories for ecological observation. They called these tracts zapovedniks, a word derived from the religious term for "commandments" and connoting something forbidden or inviolate. The Permanent Commission on Nature Preservation, organized in 1912 under the auspices of the Russian Geographical Society, proposed the creation of a network of zapovedniks in 1917, shortly before the Bolshevik Revolution. Its primary author was the geologist Venyamin Semenov-Tian-Shansky (18701942). His brother, Andrei (18661942), a renowned entomologist, was an important proponent of the project, along with the botanist Ivan Borodin (18471930), head of the Permanent Commission, and the zoologist Grigory Kozhevnikov (18661933), who had first articulated the need for inviolate nature preserves.

These scientists also sought to popularize a conservation ethic among the populace, especially among young people. Despite their many educational efforts, however, they were unable to build a mass conservation movement. This was at least partly because their insistence on keeping the nature preserves off limits to the public prevented them from capitalizing on the direct experience and visceral affection that U.S. national parks inspire in so many visitors.

soviet period

The early Bolshevik regime enacted a number of conservation measures, including one to establish zapovedniks in 1921. The politicization of all aspects of scientific and public activity during the 1920s, together with war, economic crisis, and local anarchy, threatened conservation efforts and made it difficult to protect nature preserves from exploitation. In 1924 conservation scientists established the All-Russian Society for Conservation (VOOP) in order to build a broad-based environmental movement. VOOP organized popular events such as Arbor Day and Bird Day, which attracted 45,000 young naturalists in 1927, and began publishing the magazine Conservation (Okhrana prirody ) in 1928, with a circulation of 3,000. An All-Russian Congress for Conservation was convened in 1929, and an All-Soviet Congress in 1933. By this time conservationists had lost their optimism, overwhelmed by the Stalinist emphasis on conquering nature in the name of rapid industrial development. The government whittled away at the idea of inviolate zapovedniks over the ensuing decades, turning some into game reserves, others into breeding grounds for selected species, and opening still others to mining, logging, and agriculture. In 1950 the government proposed to turn over more than 85 percent of the protected territories to the agriculture and timber ministries.

Environmentalism of a grassroots and broad-based variety finally began to develop after Stalin's death. VOOP had expanded to some nineteen million members, but it existed primarily to funnel extorted dues into dubious land-reclamation schemes. The real impetus for environmentalism came during the early 1960s in response to a plan to build a large pulp and paper combine on Lake Baikal. Scientists once again spearheaded the outcry against the plan, which soon included journalists, famous authors, and others who could reach a broad national and international audience. The combine opened in 1967, but environmentalists gained a symbolic victory when the government promised to take extraordinary measures to protect the lake. Similar grassroots movements arose during the 1970s and early 1980s to protest pollution in the Volga River, the drying up of the Aral Sea, riverdiversion projects, and other threats to environmental health.

Under Leonid Brezhnev, environmentalists were able to air some of their grievances in the press, especially in letters to the editors of mass-circulation newspapers. As long as they did not attack the idea of economic growth or other underpinnings of soviet ideology, they were fairly free to voice their opinions. By and large, the environmentalists called for improvements in the central planning system and more Communist Party attention to environmental problems, not systemic changes. Their arguments took the form of cheerleading for beloved places rather than condemnations of the exploitation of natural resources, and it became difficult to distinguish environmentalism from local chauvinism. In contrast to its counterpart in the West, environmentalism in the Soviet Union was often closely aligned with right-wing nationalist politics. Furthermore, environmental activism had little impact on economic planners. Although, as official propagandists boasted, the country had many progressive environmental laws, few of them were enforced. Activists were further hampered by official secrecy about the extent of environmental problems. In 1978 a manuscript entitled "The Destruction of Nature in the Soviet Union" by Boris Komarov (pseudonym of Ze'ev Wolfson, a specialist in environmental policy) was smuggled out and published abroad.

Environmentalism left the margins of soviet society and took center stage in the period of glasnost. After the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, everyone became aware of the threat soviet industry posed for the environment and public health, and also of the need for full disclosure of relevant information. Environmental issues galvanized local movements against the central government, and nationalist overtones in the environmental rhetoric fanned the flames. In Estonia, protests in 1987 against a phosphorite mine grew into a fullblown independence movement. Environmental issues also helped initiate general political opposition in Latvia, Lithuania, Kazakhstan, and elsewhere. Environmentalists began to win real victories, closing or halting production on some fifty nuclear plants and many large construction projects. There were thousands of grassroots environmental groups in the country by 1991, and the Greens were second only to religious groups in the degree of public trust they enjoyed.

post-soviet activism

After 1991 the influence of Russian environmental organizations declined. As the central government consolidated its power, public attention turned to pressing economic matters, and pollution problems decreased as a result of the closing of many factories in the post-Soviet depression. Later in the decade the government became openly hostile to environmental activism. It arrested two whistleblowers, Alexander Nikitin and Grigory Pasko, who revealed information about radioactive pollution from nuclear submarines. President Vladimir Putin dissolved the State Committee on the Environment in 2000 and gave its portfolio to the Natural Resources Ministry.

Environmental organizations survived by becoming professionalized nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) on the Western model, seeking funding from foreign foundations and appealing to world opinion rather than cultivating local memberships. Among the most influential of these are the Center for Russian Environmental Policy under the direction of Alexei Yablokov (former environmental adviser to Boris Yeltsin), the St. Petersburg Clean Baltic Coalition, the Baikal Environmental Wave, the Russian branch of the Worldwide Fund for Wildlife (WWF), and Green Cross International, of which Mikhail Gorbachev became president in 1993. A few radical environmental groups emerged during the early 1990s, notably the Rainbow Keepers and Eco-Defense, which promote more fundamental societal change. Beginning during the late 1990s, there was a revival of grassroots activism on local issues of air and water quality, animal welfare, nature education, and protection of sacred lands. Such efforts rely on local members and on the resources of preexisting (i.e., Soviet-era) institutions and networks, and they tend to cultivate local bureaucrats and political leaders.

See also: chernobyl; russian geographical society; thick journals


Goldman, Marshall I. (1972). Environmental Pollution in the Soviet Union: The Spoils of Progress. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Henry, Laura. (2002). "Two Paths to a Greener Future: Environmentalism and Civil Society Development in Russia." Demokratizatsiya 10(2):184206.

Komarov, Boris (Ze'ev Wolfson). (1978). The Destruction of Nature in the Soviet Union. London: Pluto Press.

Pryde, Philip R. (1991). Environmental Management in the Soviet Union. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press.

Stewart, John Massey, ed. (1992). The Soviet Environment: Problems, Policies and Politics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Weiner, Douglas R. (1988). Models of Nature: Ecology, Conservation, and Cultural Revolution in Soviet Russia. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Weiner, Douglas R. (1999). A Little Corner of Freedom: Russian Nature Protection from Stalin to Gorbachev. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Yanitsky, Oleg. (1999). "The Environmental Movement in a Hostile Context: The Case of Russia." International Sociology 14(2):157172.

Ziegler, Charles E. (1987). Environmental Policy in the USSR. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

Rachel May


views updated May 18 2018


The environmental movement in the United States was born in the 1960s and it gathered strength in the 1970s, when a growing populace took interest in curbing the effects of industrial and agricultural practices on the natural environment and on public health. The literature written and the legislature passed during this period led to many changes in the way that manufacturing and farming were conducted throughout the country. Federal regulations and agencies were established to restrict the use of harmful chemicals and their release into the environment. While certain companies found that they had to resort to costly measures in order to comply with these regulations, other manufacturers managed to find inexpensive or even money-saving solutions. Nevertheless, the new emphasis placed on environmental awareness altered the way in which many businesses were to operate nationwide.

Scientist and author Rachel Carson was a key figure in the early environmentalist movement: Her groundbreaking 1962 book Silent Spring alerted U.S. citizens to the hazards of several widely used pesticides and herbicides. Her arguments caused uproar among chemical manufacturers and created a stir in political circles around the country. Carson named specific chemicals responsible for contaminating the natural environment, for spreading disease among humans, and for killing birds, fish, and other wildlife. She painted a chilling futuristic picture of a world unfit to support lifeof the silence of a spring without songbirds.

In addition to the appearance of this highly influential book, three events contributed to the rise of environmentalism in the 1960s United States: an oil spill in the Santa Barbara channel blackened the shoreline in Southern California; the chemically contaminated Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio spontaneously caught fire; and an active afternoon at the steel mills of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania caused a temperature inversion in the city, which grew so dark and polluted that street lights and drivers' headlights were turned on at midday. Media coverage of these incidents increased public awareness about the dangers of certain chemicals and toxic substances widely used by industries. Concerned citizens and legislators called for action, asserting that industrial practices throughout the country would have to change.

In 1969 lawmakers passed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the first of a series of legislation designed to protect the environment. The NEPA required federal agencies to submit statements about the environmental effects of their activities. In the same year Congress established the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which monitored federal agencies' compliance with the NEPA and with later legislation. The following year Congress introduced both the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, which conducted research on workers' exposure to harmful substances in the workplace, and the Department of Health and Human Services, which set on-site business standards for health and safety. The Clean Air Act (1970) called upon manufacturers to safeguard against the release of air pollutants in their vicinity and the Clean Water Act (1972) forbade manufacturers from contaminating nearby bodies of water. Many more acts and agencies were introduced throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, and all were born out of the tremendously effective environmentalist movement.

After the regulations went into effect, the United States saw much improvement in air and water quality, as well as in the management of toxic substances, pesticides, and waste. In "Twenty-Five Years of Environmental Progress at a Glance" the EPA reported that between 1970 and 1994 emissions of six common air pollutants decreased by 24 percent and emissions of lead dropped by 98 percent. The EPA also noted that during the same period wastewater standards prevented more than one billion pounds of toxic substances from contaminating bodies of water. Considering that in the same amount of time the nation's economy grew by 90 percent; the population increased by 27 percent; and the number of motor vehicles driven rose by 111 percent, the environmental improvements achieved were quite dramatic.

Because environmental legislation targeted corporations in particular, many manufacturers had to spend a lot of money creating devices and conducting tests that would control the use and release of harmful substances. The EPA estimated that in 1997 U.S. corporations spent $170 billion in efforts to comply with federal regulations. Critics of environmentalism noted that this figure represented 2.2 percent of the country's gross domestic product, a proportion that exceeded what was spent on environmental safety in other countries. Whether or not the benefits of the regulations merited this considerable expense was becoming a topic of heated debate.

Throughout the 1990s economics played a growing role in environmental policymaking, as powerful corporations had a great impact on the passing of legislation. Environmental policymaking became a struggle between big business, which wished to curb the spending required by federal regulations, and the proponents of environmentalism, who strove to continue improving air and water quality and enhancing public health. Those who straddled between economic and environmental interests believed, perhaps idealistically, that the two forces would keep each other in check and that taking both interests into account would lead to cost-conscious approaches to environmental protection in the United States.


Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. 1962. Reprint, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994.

DiLorenzo, Thomas J. "Federal Regulations: Environmentalism's Achilles Heel." USA Today, September, 1994.

"Silent Spring Revisited," [cited May 25, 1999], available from the World Wide Web @ www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/nature/disrupt/sspring.html/.

Portney, Paul R. "Counting the Cost: The Growing Role of Economics in Environmental Decision making." Environment, March, 1998.

The Reader's Companion to American History. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin Co., 1991, s.v. "Conservation and Environmental Movements."

"Twenty-Five Years of Environmental Progress at a Glance," [cited May 25, 1999], available from the World Wide Web @ www.epa.gov/25year/intro.html/.

Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, 1962">

we are subjecting whole populations to exposure to chemicals which animal experiments have proved to be extremely poisonous and in many cases cumulative in their effects. these exposures now begin at or before birth andunless we change our methodswill continue through the lifetime of those now living.

rachel carson, silent spring, 1962


views updated May 08 2018


Environmentalism is the ethical and political perspective that places the health, harmony, and integrity of the natural environment at the center of human attention and concern. From this perspective human beings are viewed as part of nature rather than as overseers. Therefore to care for the environment is to care about human beings since we cannot live without the survival of the natural habitat .

Although there are many different views within the very broad and inclusive environmentalist perspective, several common features can be discerned. The first is environmentalism's emphasis on the interdependence of life and the conditions that make life possible. Human beings, like other animals, need clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, and nutritious food to eat. Without these necessities, life would be impossible. Environmentalism views these conditions as being both basic and interconnected. For example, fish contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB), mercury , and other toxic substances are not only hazardous to humans but to bears, eagles, gulls, and other predators. Likewise, mighty whales depend on tiny plankton , cows on corn, koala bears on eucalyptus leaves, bees on flowers, and flowers on bees and birds, and so on through all species and ecosystems. All animals, human and nonhuman alike, are interdependent participants in the cycle of birth, life, death, decay, and rebirth.

A second emphasis of environmentalism is on the sanctity of lifenot only human life but all life, from the tiniest microorganism to the largest whale. Since the fate of our species is inextricably tied with theirs and since life requires certain conditions to sustain it, environmentalists contend that we have an obligation to respect and care for the conditions that nurture and sustain life in its many forms.

While environmentalists agree on some issues, there are also a number of disagreements about the purposes of environmentalism and about how to best achieve those ends. Some environmentalists emphasize the desirability of conserving natural resources for recreation , sightseeing, hunting , and other human activities, both for present and future generations . Such a utilitarian view has been sharply criticized by Arne Naess and other proponents of deep ecology who claim that the natural environment has its own intrinsic value apart from any aesthetic, recreational, or other value assigned to it by human beings. Bears, for example, have their own intrinsic value or worth, quite apart from that assigned to their existence via shadow pricing or other mechanism by bear-watchers, hunters, or other human beings.

Environmentalists also differ on how best to conserve, reserve, and protect the natural environment. Some groups, such as the Sierra Club and the Nature Conservancy , favor gradual, low-key legislative and educational efforts to inform and influence policy makers and the general public about environmental issues. Other more radical environmental groups, such as the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and Earth First! , favor carrying out direct action by employing the tactics of ecotage (ecological sabotage), or monkey-wrenching , to stop strip mining , logging , drift net fishing, and other activities that they deem dangerous to animals and ecosystems. Within this environmental spectrum are many other groups, including the World Wildlife Fund , Greenpeace , Earth Island Institute , Clean Water Action, and other organizations which use various techniques to inform, educate, and influence public opinion regarding environmental issues and to lobby policy makers.

Despite these and other differences over means and ends, environmentalists agree that the natural environment, whether valued instrumentally or intrinsically, is valuable and worth preserving for present and future generations.

[Terence Ball ]



Chase, S., ed. Defending the Earth: A Dialogue Between Murray Bookchin and Dave Foreman. Boston: South End Press, 1991.

Devall, B., and G. Sessions. Deep Ecology: Living as if Nature Mattered. Layton, UT: Gibbs M. Smith, 1985.

Eckersley, R. Environmentalism and Political Theory. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1992.

Naess, A. Ecology, Community and Lifestyle. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Worster, D. Nature's Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977.


views updated May 23 2018


For many decades, Americans have felt they could do whatever they wanted with their air, land, and water. There always seemed to be plenty. It was easy to ignore environmental devastation by moving on to a new place. By 1850, for example, more than one hundred million acres of land had been cleared of trees, an area equal in size to the entire state of California. As the United States became more industrialized in the late nineteenth century, those problems became harder to ignore. More Americans became concerned about these problems, and the environmental movement was started. It continues to the present day.

The creation of national parks marked the first stirrings of environmentalism. As Americans realized the limitations of their natural resources, they wanted to preserve some untouched natural areas from development so that they would always be there for future generations of Americans to enjoy. Yosemite, in California, was created in 1864, followed by Yellowstone in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho in 1872. More national parks, national wilderness areas, and national monuments were established in the coming decades. President Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919) made environmental preservation one of his priorities during his term in office (1901–9), preserving millions of acres of land and creating a National Forest Service to help manage wilderness areas. Although battles would often be fought over what to do with these national areas from time to time, the United States has continued to add more of these protected areas.

After World War II (1939–45), environmentalism took on a new direction. While there was still concern for protecting unpolluted natural areas, the environmental movement turned to protecting the environments in which most Americans lived. The 1962 book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1907–1964) awakened many Americans to the dangers of industrial pollution from chemicals. By the 1960s, it seemed that many of the hazards of the industrial era were beginning to build up to intolerable levels. New environmental groups sprang up to alert Americans and to fight pollution, including Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defense Council. The U.S. government increased its efforts by creating the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1969. In 1970, the first Earth Day was held to encourage ordinary Americans to get involved protecting the environment in their own communities.

In the decades since 1970, the environmental movement has continued to push for cleaner air, water, and land, fighting industrial polluters and often government indifference. Because the environment is of such vital importance, its protection has remained an important part of American culture.

—Timothy Berg

For More Information

Dunlap, Riley E., and Angela G. Mertig, eds. American Environmentalism: The U.S. Environmental Movement, 1970–1990. Philadelphia: Taylor and Francis, 1992.

Earth Day Network.http://www.earthday.net/ (accessed March 29, 2002).

Fox, Stephen. The American Conservation Movement. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1981.

Greenpeace International Homepage.http://www.greenpeace.org/ (accessed March 29, 2002).

National Resources Defense Council.http://www.nrdc.org/ (accessed March 29, 2002).

Rome, Adam Ward. The Bulldozer in the Countryside: Suburban Sprawl and the Rise of American Environmentalism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Sale, Kirkpatrick. The Green Revolution. New York: Hill and Want, 1993.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.http://www.epa.gov/ (accessed March 29, 2002).


views updated Jun 11 2018


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