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Environmentalism is activism aimed at protecting the environment or improving its condition, particularly nature. This activism is usually based on the ideology of an environmental movement, and often takes the form of public education programs, advocacy, legislation and treaties.



One concern common to most types of environmentalism is opposing pollution. In this sense, most people in the world are "environmentalists" since hardly anyone wants to breathe air choked with fumes or swim in dirty water. For people in underdeveloped countries, the problem is often finding clean drinking water.

In another sense, the meaning of the term pollution has been extended to include industrial emissions of carbon dioxide, which is beneficial to plant growth and harmless to human beings in ordinary concentrations. The scientific community is mostly in consensus on the fundamentals of the global warming hypothesis—that carbon dioxide and other "greenhouse gases" contribute to a harmful warming trend on a global scale (see climate change issues and Kyoto Protocol).

The term in both senses was first used in the early 20th century. They are related by the observation that—if one's surroundings play a great role in individual development and those surroundings are either green, beautiful, healthy, and thriving or instead gray, ugly, degraded, unhealthy, and unable to sustain themselves—two different attitudes to life will develop. This is reflected in the modern controversy over measuring well-being, which often places importance on aesthetics and experience of a healthy natural environment (e.g. gardens).

Numerous events in the world of English-language publishing after the middle of the twentieth century contributed to the abrupt rise of environmentalism, especially among college and university students and the more literate public. One was the publication of the first textbook on ecology, Fundamentals of Ecology , by Eugene Odum and Howard Odum, in 1953. Another was the appearance of the best-seller Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, in 1962. The wide popularity of The Whole Earth Catalogs, starting in 1968, was quite influential among the younger, hands-on, activist generation of the 1960s and 1970s.

Environmentalists can conserve resources in many ways. Driving a fuel-efficient car, taking short showers, and eating vegan food are among these. Fuel-efficient cars have lower emissions and consume less oil, which is a limited resource. Short showers consume less fresh water. Vegan food (e.g. soybeans, rice, green vegetables) takes less land, water, and oil to grow and eat directly than to grow soybeans, feed the soybeans to a pig, and then eat the pig.

Environmentalism and Politics

Environmentalists first became influential in American politics after Earth Day, April 22, 1970. Their activism directly led to the creation of numerous U.S. environmental laws, starting with the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act and the formation of the US Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA in 1970. These successes were followed by the enactment of a whole series of laws regulating waste (Resource Conservation and Recovery Act), toxic substances (Toxic Substances Control Act), pesticides (FIFRA: Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act), clean-up of polluted sites (Superfund), protection of endangered species (Endangered Species Act), and more.

Fewer environmental laws have been passed in the last decade as corporations and other conservative interests have increased their influence over American politics. At the same time, many environmentalists have been turning toward other means of persuasion, such as working with business, community, and other partners to promote sustainable development.

Much environmental activism is directed towards conservation, as well as the prevention or elimination of pollution. However, conservation movements, ecology movements, peace movements, green parties, green- and eco-anarchists often subscribe to very different ideologies, while supporting the same goals as those who call themselves “environmentalists”. To outsiders, these groups or factions can appear to be indistinguishable.

As human population and industrial activity continue to increase, environmentalists often find themselves in serious conflict with those who believe that human and industrial activities should not be overly regulated or restricted, such as some libertarians.

Environmentalists often clash with others, particularly “corporate interests,” over issues of the management of natural resources, like in the case of the atmosphere as a “carbon dump”, the focus of climate change, and global warming controversy. They usually seek to protect commonly owned or unowned resources for future generations.

Those who take issue with new untested technologies are more precisely known, especially in Europe, as political ecologists. They usually seek, in contrast, to preserve the integrity of existing ecologies and ecoregions, and in general are more pessimistic about human “management”.

"Post-Environmentalism" and "The Death of Environmentalism"

In 2004, with the presidency and both houses of congress of the United States government controlled by Republicans—generally seen by environmentalists as more friendly to big business than to environmentalism—some environmentalists started questioning whether "environmentalism" was even a useful political framework. According to a controversial essay titled "The Death of Environmentalism" (Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus , 2004) American environmentalism has been remarkably successful in protecting the air, water, and large stretches of wilderness in North America and Europe, but these environmentalists have stagnated as a vital force for cultural and political change.

Shellenberger and Nordhaus wrote, "Today environmentalism is just another special interest. Evidence for this can be found in its concepts, its proposals, and its reasoning. What stands out is how arbitrary environmental leaders are about what gets counted and what doesn't as 'environmental.' Most of the movement's leading thinkers, funders, and advocates do not question their most basic assumptions about who we are, what we stand for, and what it is that we should be doing." Their essay was followed by a speech in San Francisco called "Is Environmentalism Dead?" by former Sierra Club President, Adam Werbach, who argued for the evolution of environmentalism into a more expansive, relevant and powerful progressive politics.

These "post-environmental movement" thinkers argue that the ecological crises the human species faces in the 21st century are qualitatively different from the problems the environmental movement was created to address in the 1960s and 1970s. Climate change and habitat destruction, they argue, are global, more complex, and demand far deeper transformations of the economy, the culture and political life. The consequence of environmentalism's outdated and arbitrary definition, they argue, is political irrelevancy. American environmentalism today finds itself not only losing ground on the great ecological crises of the day, but is increasingly unable to defend even the basic protections it won 30 and 40 years ago, which are under assault by a potent alliance of religious and economic fundamentalists backed by the office of the president of the United States.

Radical Environmentalism

While most environmentalists are mainstream and peaceful, a small minority are more radical in their approach. Various extreme ideologies of radical environmentalism, and several ecology-based theories of anarchy (known as (small-g) green anarchism, i.e. eco-terrorism) are cited to justify equipment sabotage, logging, fishing blockades, and arson, such as burning of houses impinging on a perceived "natural ecology." Environmentalists differ in their views of these ideologies and groups, but almost all condemn violent actions that can harm humans. Some tolerate the destruction of property not essential to sustaining or saving human life. The most extreme, sometimes called terrists, often claim to view themselves as part of nature, simply acting to protect itself from man.

Environmentalism and religion

Many major world religions now teach that mankind has a responsibility to protect the environment. The concept of the social mortgage in Catholic social teaching implies that humanity does not have an absolute right to use the world's resources (viewed as a godly creation), but is responsible for protecting the environment; many Protestant denominations have similar teachings. Islam also teaches stewardship and responsibility for the Earth's environment.

Environmentalism in fiction

Environmentalism in music

Environmentalism is occasionally the topic of song lyrics. See Environmental protest songs for a list of such songs.

Environmentalism in nonfiction

  • A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold - a forester, ecologist, environmental philosopher.
  • Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough , Michael Braungart

See also


  • Shellenberger, M. and T. Nordhaus. 2004. The Death of Environmentalism Full text of article and subsequent debate)

External links

Last updated: 06-02-2005 04:23:45
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