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Annual Report 2008

A Brief History of Environmentalism

Environmentalism is a broad philosophy and social movement regarding concerns for environmental conservation and restoration of the environment. Environmentalism can also be defined as a social movement that seeks to influence the political process by lobbying, activism, and education in order to protect ecosystems. Some would include protecting “natural resources” as an aim of environmentalism. This concept is due to our ethnocentrism. As a participant in ecosystems, we often focus on our personal ecology and health. We see ourselves as something either above, outside of or superior to the environment in which we eat, breathe, and take our being.

The modern environmental movement arose during the Industrial Revolution. Although a concern for environmental protection has recurred in diverse forms in different parts of the world and throughout history.

In the Middle East, the earliest known writings concerned with environmental pollution were Arabic medical treatises written during the “Arab Agricultural Revolution”, beginning in the 9th century, by writers such as Alkindus, Costa ben Luca, Rhazes, Ibn Al-Jazzar, al-Tamimi, al-Masihi, Avicenna, Ali ibn Ridwan, Isaac Israeli ben Solomon, Abd-el-latif, and Ibn al-Nafis. They were concerned with air contamination, water contamination, soil contamination, solid waste mishandling, and environmental assessments of certain localities.

One of the very first western civilization water pollution cases occurred in 1183 when the court of Chandlery banned the discharge of waste into the river Thames from a tanning factory. In 1272 King Edward I of England banned the burning of sea-coal by proclamation in London in 1272, after its smoke had become a problem.

The first large-scale, modern environmental laws came in the form of the British Alkali Acts, passed in 1863, to regulate the deleterious air pollution (gaseous hydrochloric acid) given off by the Leblanc process, used to produce soda ash. As such, modern environmentalism grew out of the amenity movement, which was a reaction to industrialization, the growth of cities, and worsening air and water pollution.

In the United States, the beginnings of an environmental movement can be traced as far back as 1739, when Benjamin Franklin and other Philadelphia residents, citing “public rights,” petitioned the Pennsylvania Assembly to stop waste dumping and remove tanneries from Philadelphia’s commercial district. The U.S. movement expanded in the 1800s, out of concerns for protecting native environments of the West, with individuals such as John Muir and Henry David Thoreau making key philosophical contributions. Thoreau was interested in peoples’ relationship with nature and studied this by living close to nature in a simple life. He published his experiences in the book, Walden, which argues that people should reconnect intimately with nature. Muir came to believe in nature’s inherent right, especially after spending time hiking in Yosemite Valley and studying both the ecology and geology. He successfully lobbied congress to form Yosemite National Park and went on to set up the Sierra Club. The conservationist principles as well as the belief in an inherent right of nature were to become the bedrock of modern environmentalism.

In the early 20th century, environmental ideas continued to grow in popularity and recognition. Efforts were starting to be made to save some wildlife, particularly the American Bison. The death of the last Passenger Pigeon as well as the endangerment of the American Bison helped to focus the minds of conservationists and popularize their concerns. Notably, the National Park Service was founded in 1916 by President Woodrow Wilson.

In 1949, A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold was published. The Almanac espoused the concept that humankind should have moral respect for the environment and that it is unethical to harm it.

In 1962 Silent Spring by American biologist Rachel Carson was published. The book cataloged the environmental impacts of the indiscriminate spraying of DDT in the U.S. and questioned the logic of releasing large amounts of chemicals into the environment without fully understanding their effects on ecology or human health. The book suggested that DDT and other pesticides may cause cancer and that their agricultural use was a threat to wildlife, particularly birds. The resulting public concern lead to the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, which subsequently banned the agricultural use of DDT in the U.S. in 1972. The book’s legacy was to produce a far greater awareness of environmental issues and interest into how people affect the environment. With this new interest in the environment came interest in problems such as air pollution and oil spills, which stimulated even more environmental awareness. At age 14, this was the book that set me on the path of environmentalism by shocking me into the awareness of how interconnected we all were on this very amazing but delicate planet.

In the 1970s, the Chipko movement was formed in India; influenced by Mahatma Gandhi, they set up peaceful resistance to deforestation by literally hugging trees (leading to the term “tree huggers”). Their peaceful methods of protest and slogan “ecology is permanent economy” were very influential.

By the mid-1970s, many were aware that humans were on the edge of environmental catastrophe. The Back-to-the-land movement started to form and ideas of environmental ethics joined with anti-Vietnam War sentiments and other political issues. In the 1970s most of the environmental protection laws we enjoy today were passed including the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, etc.

In 1979, James Lovelock, a former NASA scientist, published Gaia: A new look at life on Earth, which resurrected and popularized the Gaia Hypothesis; that life on Earth can be understood as a single organism. This became an important part of the Deep Green ideology.

Today the environmental movement is a diverse scientific, social, and political movement. In general terms, environmentalists advocate the sustainability, protection and restoration of the natural environment through changes in public policy and individual behavior. In its recognition of humanity as a participant in ecosystems, the movement is centered around ecology, health, and human rights. Additionally, throughout history, the movement has been incorporated into religion. The movement is represented by a range of organizations, from the large to the grassroots, but representing a younger demographic than is common in other social movements. Due to its large membership with varying and strong beliefs, the movement is not entirely united. Indeed, some argue that an environmental ethic of at least some sort is so urgently needed in all quarters that the broader the better. Conversely, disunity can be a weakness in the face of strong opposition from unsympathetic political and industrial forces.

At River Watch we see protecting the environment first and foremost as a personal responsibility. Environmental problems are an inherent part of our industrialized civilization evident in both state socialist and capitalist societies, although this is not a necessary outcome. Our problem is that dominant political ideologies inevitably lead to consumerism, alienation from nature, and resource depletion.

Radical changes are needed in the psychological, economic and political operation of society in order to make it sustainable: a change in mind set; moving away from consumerism; distribution of wealth and resources; better economic designs; new technologies; and, more widely distributed social innovations.

We can neither shop nor protest our way to sustainability. We need community and a better understanding of who and what we are and how to reintegrate ourselves back into the natural order in such a manner that harmonizes our existence with the natural order.