environmentalism

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

environmentalism

environmentalism, movement to protect the quality and continuity of life through conservation of natural resources, prevention of pollution, and control of land use. The philosophical foundations for environmentalism in the United States were established by Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau. In 1864, George Perkins Marsh published Man & Nature, in which he anticipated many concepts of modern ecology.

Organized environmentalism began with the conservation movement in the late 19th cent., which urged the establishment of state and national parks and forests, wildlife refuges, and national monuments intended to preserve noteworthy natural features. Early conservationists included President Theodore Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot, and John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club. Conservationists organized the National Parks and Conservation Association, the Audubon Society, the Izaak Walton League, and other groups still active. After World War II increasing encroachment on wilderness land evoked the continued resistance of conservationists, who succeeded in blocking a number of projects in the 1950s and 1960s, including the proposed Bridge Canyon Dam that would have backed up the waters of the Colorado River into the Grand Canyon National Park.

The New Environmentalism

In the 1950s and 1960s, the public was becoming aware that conservation of wilderness and wildlife was but one aspect of protecting an endangered environment. Concern about air pollution, water pollution, solid waste disposal, dwindling energy resources, radiation, pesticide poisoning (particularly as described in Rachel Carson's influential Silent Spring, 1962), noise pollution, and other environmental problems engaged a broadening number of sympathizers and gave rise to what became known as the "new environmentalism." Public support for these issues culminated in the Earth Day demonstrations of 1970.

The new movement had a broader goal—to preserve life on the planet. The more radical groups believe that continued industrial development is incompatible with environmentalism. Other groups, notably Greenpeace, which advocated direct action to preserve endangered species, often clashed violently with opponents. Less militant organizations called for sustainable development and the need to balance environmentalism with economic development.

Environmental Legislation

The environmental movement generated extensive legislation, notably the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), signed into law in 1970, which established an Environmental Protection Agency and a Council on Environmental Quality; the Clean Air Acts of 1970 and 1990; the Water Pollution Control Act, as amended in 1972; other laws regulating noise, pesticides, toxic substances, and ocean dumping; and laws to protect endangered species, wilderness, and wild and scenic rivers. NEPA requires all federal agencies to file impact statements assessing the environmental consequences of proposed projects such as highways, jet runways, bridges, dams, and nuclear power plants. Moreover, the new laws provide for pollution research, standard setting, monitoring, and enforcement. Citizens are empowered to sue both private industry and government agencies for violating antipollution standards. Subsequent legislation includes the Safe Drinking Water Act (1974), the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (1976), and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, commonly known as the Superfund Act (1980). In the 1980s under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush many acts were allowed to expire and the scope of environmental protection was curtailed.

Environmental Organizations and Conferences

Several environmental organizations, among them the National Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund, specialize in bringing lawsuits. Other environmentalist groups, such as the National Wildlife Federation, World Wildlife Fund, Friends of the Earth, the Nature Conservancy, and the Wilderness Society, disseminate information, participate in public hearings, lobby, stage demonstrations, and purchase land for preservation. A smaller group, including Wildlife Conservation International and the Worldwide Fund for Nature, conduct research on endangered species and ecosystems. More radical organizations, such Greenpeace, Earth First!, and the Earth Liberation Front, have more directly opposed actions they regard as environmentally harmful. While Greenpeace is devoted to nonviolent confrontation, the underground Earth Liberation Front engages in the clandestine destruction of property, the release of caged or penned animals, and other acts of sabotage.

On an international level, concern for the environment was the subject of a UN conference in Stockholm in 1972, attended by 114 nations. Out of this meeting developed the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (1992).

Bibliography

For a general introduction, see C. Merchant, The Columbia Guide to American Environmental History (2002). See also R. J. Dubos, So Human an Animal (1970); R. M. Chute, Environmental Insight (1971); Environmental Action Association, Earth Tool Kit, ed. by S. Love (1971); P. R. Ehrlich, comp., Man and the Ecosphere (1971); Population, Resources, Environment (with A. H. Ehrlich, 2d ed. 1972), and Human Ecology (with others, 1973); J. L. Sax, Defending the Environment (1972); G. J. Marco et al., ed., Silent Spring Revisited (1987); D. A. Dunnette and R. J. O'Brien, ed., The Science of Global Change (1992); P. Shabecoff, A New Name for Peace (1997).

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