Environmental Movement History

A brief history of the environmental movement

America’s environmental movement grows out of three strands running back well into the 19th century. As the growth of industry and cities led to the pollution of water, air, and land, movements developed to protect public health against its effects. As private companies began unregulated and destructive exploitation of the continent’s forests and mineral deposits, a conservation movement, identified in particular with President Theodore Roosevelt, developed to manage the development of natural resources for long-term human use. As the remaining wilderness areas of the continent were increasingly threatened by human activity, a preservation movement developed to protect them for their natural beauty and spiritual value. The Sierra Club, founded by John Muir, encouraged the creation of the world’s first national park at Yellowstone in 1872.


Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring. Official photo as FWS employee. c. 1940.

The years after World War II saw an enormous expansion of urban and industrial growth and a proliferation of new chemicals and industrial processes that increased the toxic pollution of air, water, and land. The fallout from nuclear tests spread around the globe, contaminating children’s milk and generating a large movement to halt nuclear weapons testing to protect environmental health. In 1962, Rachel Carson’s hugely influential book Silent Spring revealed how spraying of DDT to control insect pests was wiping out America’s songbirds — revealing as well the interconnectedness of nature that was increasingly being recognized as a result of the new science of ecology. A new generation of environmentalism emerged in response, manifested in 1970 in the first Earth Day, with labor support. (Today, a billion people worldwide participate in annual Earth Day events.) It was followed by a new national environmental policy regime embodied in the Clean Water Act, The Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency. The labor movement, in particular the United Steel Workers of America (USWA) and the Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers (OCAW), played a major role in lobbying for the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act.

Meanwhile, new global environmental threats joined local and national concerns. The biggest was and is climate change resulting from the global warming caused by the emission of carbon dioxide and other “greenhouse gasses.” Others included ozone depletion, acid rain, extinction of endangered species, ocean acidification, desertification, and the potential threat of new technologies like genetically modified organisms and nanotechnology. Forestalling climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions in particular became the leading focus of a new, globally-oriented generation of environmental campaigners such as 350.org, who in October, 2009 organized a global day of action with 5,200 rallies from Mt. Everest to the Great Barrier Reef in what CNN called “the most widespread day of political action on the planet.”

While environmental organizations, like unions, are diverse in objectives and style, the environmental movement as a whole embodies several common themes. People must regard nature as more than a collection of resources to be exploited; human beings have a stewardship responsibility for the environment, whether the purpose be to provide for the long-run well being of humanity or the well being of nature itself. Property rights cannot give the unrestricted right to pollute the environment and threaten the well being of nature and other people. Economic growth does not justify environmental destruction or forms of economic development that cannot be sustained.