Environmental Movements Essay

Cheap Custom Writing Service

This Environmental Movements Essay example is published for educational and informational purposes only. If you need a custom essay or research paper on this topic, please use our writing services. EssayEmpire.com offers reliable custom essay writing services that can help you to receive high grades and impress your professors with the quality of each essay or research paper you hand in.

To identify a movement, or movements, as environmentally oriented is to cast the politics of environmentalism in terms of social movement theory. Other notable social movements include the labor, women’s, civil rights, peace/antiwar, student, animal rights, and antiglobalization movements, all of which have at times been linked to environmental movements. Classically, social movements are considered to have a type of life cycle. They germinate in order to challenge some form of oppression within society, they build and mobilize affinity groups around issues of solidarity common to an oppressive cause, culminating in success or failure. If social movements fail, theorists have charted how other movements may attempt to revisit the failed issue or reorganize collective actors previously associated with the failed movement as part of a resurgent political strategy. If social movements are victorious, social movement theory has tended to represent them as inevitably ossifying and fragmenting, with leading movement intellectuals and organizations often cementing the movement’s overall bureaucratization and rigid institutionalization through their demands for its rigid formalization.

Environmental movements do not appear to accurately reflect this model. Instead, such movements have remained vital and capable of adjusting to meet the dynamic needs of differing social, cultural, political, and historical conditions. They have celebrated many great and small victories without having become either de-radicalized or sclerotic. Likewise, environmental movements have been dealt innumerable setbacks and have arguably been defeated in the large, if one is to judge them by the ongoing exponential growth of global human population, the continued development of unsustainable economic systems, and the ever-burgeoning planetary ecological crises of the last 30 years. Still, this has not led to the marginalization or evaporation of environmental movements. Rather, environmental movements are flourishing as they never have before and remain poised as central agents of sociopolitical change during the 21st century.

Environmental movements involve collective activist networks of individuals, groups, formal and nonformal organizations, and institutional bodies that struggle for social transformation around environmentally-related causes such as global climate change, antitoxics, the conservation of natural resources, population growth problems, the end to nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction, the protection of pristine wild places and biological species, corporate accountability, and the promotion of environmental justice principles. Environmental movements work at local, regional, national, transnational, and global levels, and can be structured as loose affiliations of a transient nature, or as longerterm alliances that consist of well-established corporate and noncorporate organizations, including political parties such as the international confederation of Green parties. While environmental movements have played crucial roles in lobbying politicians, as well as in getting governments to produce and enforce sound environmental legislation; having a professional environmental policy approach is only one function of environmental movements. Environmental movements work in legal and illegal ways to transform mainstream values, educate the public about social problems of an environmental nature, create sustainable cultural alternatives, and block environmental harms through myriad forms of protest and direct action.

Sometimes it is implied that the wide variety of global environmental movements are facets of a larger, all-inclusive ecology or Green Movement that has the gestation of a planetary consciousness, the mass proliferation of appropriate technologies, and the broad democratization of science as its goals. Others fold even this larger environmental movement into the emergent movement for global justice, which is often called the movement of movements because of its ability to signal the need for radical change on many fronts. Yet, at least in an AngloAmerican context, the terminology of environmental movement is most often used to denote the rise of modern environmentalism in advanced industrialized nations since the 1960s; though scholars also frequently extend this time frame to include previous American movements such as the conservation, preservation, and transcendental movements of the 19th and early 20th centuries as important foundations of contemporary environmental activism. A singular environmental movement exists, but the manner in which this movement is made manifest and experienced throughout the world differs significantly, with singular movements sometimes working in contradiction to each other’s immediate aims. The environmental movement can refer to anything from a history of localized green activism, to a theorized worldwide revolution predicated on ideas of ecological well-being.

The American environmental movement is often hailed as the birthplace of environmentalism. While nothing resembling an environmental movement existed until the mid-19th century when both the conservation and transcendental movements took root amongst sectors of society concerned with the consequences of the Industrial Revolution, a legacy of ecological harms can be traced all the way back to the initial colonization of North America by European merchant ships, which brought with them a variety of highly invasive species and plagues through the Columbian Exchange.

Native Americans

Native Americans, Mesoamerican tribes, and many Canadian First Peoples who had been living in relative ecological harmony with the land for millennia continue to bear the oral traditions of this history, the living testimony of the perilous environmental and social legacy of colonization. Native voices play an increasingly prominent role in the environmental movement, where they offer articulations of and legitimation for alternative cosmological visions and sustainable living practices. Notably, Winona LaDuke, a leading spokesperson of the indigenous peoples’ movement, ran for vice president of the United States as the U.S. Green Party nominee in 1996 and 2000.

If American indigenous societies have tended to produce place-based ecological knowledge and promote a general conservation ethic in their cultural practices, it is only recently that they have more widely practiced public forms of environmental activism. This is in contradiction to the false images of Native American environmental activists that have been fostered by white environmentalists since the 1970s in order to better ground the movement in cultures that appear to represent land-based alternatives to modernity. The most infamous example of this practice was when an 1854 speech by Suquamish leader Chief Seattle was entirely rewritten by screenwriter Ted Perry to support the message of the 1972 environmentalist film Home. The so-called Perry version of Chief Seattle’s speech has since been quoted by political leaders at Earth Day celebrations, by environmental ideologues such as Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers, and has served as the basis for a best-selling environmentally-themed children’s book, Brother Eagle, Sister Sky: A Message from Chief Seattle.

19th Century American Movements

The first nonindigenous movement for American environmental conservation began in earnest during the mid-19th century. Thomas Jefferson is sometimes considered the father of the American conservation movement because of his founding work as a naturalist and his call in the book Notes on the State of Virginia for the country to be inhabited as a series of small-scale, subsistence-styled farms, a vision more recently defended by important environmentalists such as Wendell Berry. However, Jefferson’s late 18th century book was known to only a few people and did not exert much popular influence.

On the contrary, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature, published in 1836, was widely read and established the transcendental movement that demonstrated the manner in which the American environment should be extolled and utilized as a rich spiritual and aesthetic resource for deepening the American experience of the world. This idea represented a dramatic shift from the long-standing tradition in which the American wilderness was perceived as base, threatening, and requiring the improvements offered by civilization.

Over the next two decades, transcendentalists such as Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, and Bronson Alcott published their work in the Dial journal, which became a key movement mouthpiece. Under the transcendentalists’ influence, various forms of nature writing became commercially successful genres, and romantic painterly depictions of the American West, such as those produced by the Hudson River school artists, generated enthusiasm about the country’s natural wonders. Further, the transcendental movement linked its environmental outlook to a larger social consciousness that radically critiqued political issues of the day, such as the federal government’s treatment of Native American populations, the horror of slavery practices, the national passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, the war between the United States and Mexico, women’s civil rights, animal welfare, and the social effects of industrialism. The transcendental movement also experimented with utopian forms of community such as Brook Farm, Fruitlands, and Walden.

The Conservation Movement

By the mid-19th century, those living on America’s eastern seaboard were beginning to see the effects of deforestation, depopulation of species, soil erosion, water issues, and urban pollution in the large cities. Science and technology were also beginning to make revolutionary breakthroughs, including in previously uninvestigated domains such as the science of conservation ecology as represented by the work of George Marsh. A conservation movement arose that sought to combine the culturalism of transcendentalism with science and technology’s ability to measure and limit human impacts on the environment as part of a progressive social vision for rationally managing natural resources for human betterment. This movement has an enduring legacy and notched many accomplishments including the creation of the world’s first national park system, beginning in 1872 with the formation of Yellowstone National Park, along with the adoption of conservation policies instituting state and national wildlife refuges, forests, and protected species.

The presidency of Theodore Roosevelt is often hailed as a central moment of the conservation movement and is notable for the historic clash between Gifford Pinchot, considered the father of American conservation forestry, and John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club. A debate erupted over whether to place a dam, a common conservation project undertaken during the early 20th century, in Yosemite Park’s Hetch Hetchy Valley in order to create a reservoir to support the city of San Francisco. Muir called for the valley’s preservation at all costs and defended nature in transcendental terms as equally important, if not more so, than civilization. Pinchot spoke of the utility of the project and counseled for its approval as long as the park (as with other natural resources) was conserved and managed scientifically for the public’s good. Roosevelt ultimately approved the project, despite great controversy and debates about whether to preserve natural places or to manage them for human use.

The 1960s And 1970s

Muir’s new preservation movement fought against the further desecration of national lands and was successful in preventing further encroachments on the national parks. Especially notable in this respect is the Wilderness Society, created in 1935, which has since protected over 100 million acres of land from development through the passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964. This legislation designated specific areas as “wilderness,” or as areas “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

As a result of legislation such as the Wilderness Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Clean Air Act, the 1960s are often seen as the era that birthed the contemporary environmental movement. In 1962, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring shocked the country by exposing the environmental dangers of ubiquitous pesticides such as DDT. In 1969, a massive oil spill off the Santa Barbara coast became the first extensively televised environmental disaster, generating public outrage, anti-oil activism, and demands for marine protection culminating in the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Finally, in 1970, the first Earth Day was conducted in San Francisco, and the American environmental movement began to have global effects.

After the 1970s, the environmental movement’s mainstream organizations grew increasingly powerful and global, often partnering with corporations and governments to promote policy change toward sustainable development, implementing industrial reforms, marketing green consumption strategies, and purchasing large land grants as part of private and private/public conservation initiatives. A prominent organization of this type is Friends of the Earth International, founded in 1969 by the former Sierra Club Director, David Brower, which now links organizations from 70 countries.

Radical Movements

By contrast, a plethora of radical environmental movements have mushroomed around philosophies such as social and deep ecology, ecofeminisim, and ecosocialism. Inspired by these philosophies, and especially the writings of Edward Abbey, the radical group Earth First! was founded in 1980 to critique the mainstream movement’s reformist tactics. Instead, Earth First! promoted direct action to protect the earth and celebrated the guerilla eco-saboteur art of monkey wrenching environmentally harmful technologies.

This militant wing of the movement further developed with the rise of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) as an offshoot of Earth First!. The ELF celebrates anarcho-primitivist philosophies, and has been known to firebomb sport utility vehicle dealerships and commit arson to destroy large developments in areas they believe should remain wild. They believe in harming no living being, but exist to inflict maximum economic damage against environmentally destructive corporations and personages. Their mission is also educational and they routinely release anonymous communiques explaining their actions after the fact. Earth First! and the ELF have demonstrated solidarity with a range of other social movements. In response, the United States and British governments have engaged in repression and targeting of these groups, labeling them and their supporters ecoterrorists.

Environmental Justice

A final radical development of the American environmental movement is the recent struggle for environmental justice, which fights against the unequal distribution of environmental harms and hazards across society, and often links environmentalism with urban and civil rights issues. The movement arguably began in 1978 during the Love Canal crisis, when Lois Gibbs successfully organized a campaign that exposed how citizens were becoming mysteriously ill due to the city of Love Canal having been knowingly developed on top of a corporate waste landfill composed of toxic chemicals. As a result of Gibbs’s community activism, the federal government created the Superfund Act, which fines polluting companies and provides emergency funds for environmental cleanup. Since Love Canal, the environmental justice movement has grown worldwide, empowering poor and minority communities in a myriad of local struggles, and now represents a significant challenge to the idea that environmentalism is primarily about wilderness protection, resource conservation, lifestyle changes, or population reduction. The environmental justice movement has mounted a critique of mainstream environmentalism as a predominantly white and middle-class movement based on affluent social concerns about how to improve quality of life.

The environmental justice movement’s focus on race, class, and gender issues as opposed to the nonanthropocentric environmental concerns developed within the American environmental movement also typifies many of the environmental movements of less affluent countries, where grassroots environmentalism is often concerned with peasant survival issues that arise because communities’ access to resources becomes imperiled or displaced by industrial and commercial enterprise. These movements affirm traditional rights and uses of land in opposition to privatization schemes that involve environmentally harmful processes of road construction, clear-cut logging, invasive mining, and industrialized agriculture techniques. Traditional uses, it is maintained, are ecologically sustainable and tend toward the maintenance of the commons. Many of these movements are decidedly radical in their ideology and militant in their resistance, though their protest runs the gamut from forms of Gandhiinspired, nonviolent Satyagraha to armed struggle.

Some environmental movements of the Global South have become internationally renowned, including India’s Chipko movement, Kenya’s Green Belt movement, Nigeria’s Ogoni movement, Brazil’s Rubber Tappers movement, and Mexico’s Zapatista movement. Chipko literally means “to hug,” and the 1970s movement for which it is named featured peasants, especially women villagers, of the Himalayan foothills who hugged the trees, practiced ecological restoration, and undertook national and international lobbying efforts in order to block timber cutting of the local forests. The lasting success of Chipko is debatable, but it has been an inspirational movement that has seeded other movements such as the antigenetic modification of food movement theorized by former Chipko activist Vandana Shiva. The Green Belt movement, founded in 1977 by 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai, focused on mobilizing and empowering women to drive environmental and social change. Through the movement’s work, over 30 million trees have been planted, women have been trained to utilize natural resources sustainably and earn a living wage, and ecotourism has been promoted.

Meanwhile, movements such as Chico Mendes’s Rubber Tappers movement and the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People have achieved measures of success at the cost of their leaders’ lives. Mendes, who was influential in organizing union workers and gaining international assistance toward ending illegal destruction of the rain forest, was murdered for his activity. Likewise, the poet Ken Saro-Wiwa was officially executed by the Nigerian state for his role in promoting Ogoni selfdetermination and protesting against international oil companies such as Royal Dutch Shell that drilled and destroyed Ogoni land without making reparations to the people. The Zapatistas have also been heavily persecuted in their struggle for indigenous rights, which began as a response to their displacement by a proposed bio-reserve. The Zapatista movement enlisted the use of the internet to generate international awareness of their plight and to strategize virtually with a range of organizations and individuals.


  1. Steven Best and A.J. Nocella, , Igniting a Revolution: Voices in Defense of the Earth (AK Press, 2006);
  2. Timothy Doyle, Environmental Movements in Majority and Minority Worlds: A Global Perspective (Rutgers University Press, 2004);
  3. Ranjit Dwivedi, “Environmental Movements in the Global South: Issues of Livelihood and Beyond,” International Sociology (v.16/1, 2001);
  4. Robert Gottlieb, Forcing the Spring: The Transformation of the American Environmental Movement (Island Press, 2005);
  5. Wangari Maathai, The Green Belt Movement: Sharing the Approach and the Experience (Lantern Books, 2003);
  6. N. Pellow and R.J. Brulle, eds., Power, Justice, and the Environment: A Critical Appraisal of the Environmental Justice Movement (MIT Press, 2005);
  7. Christopher Rootes, ed., Environmental Movements: Local, National and Global (Frank Cass Publishers, 1999);
  8. Bron Taylor, ed., Ecological Resistance Movements: The Global Emergence of Radical and Popular Environmentalism (State University of New York Press, 1995).

See also:


Always on-time


100% Confidentiality

Special offer!