Environmental Movements - History of The Movement

History of The Movement

The roots of the modern environmental movement can be traced to attempts in 19th-century Europe and North America to expose the costs of environmental negligence, notably disease, as well as widespread air and water pollution, but only after the Second World War did a wider awareness begin to emerge.

The US environmental movement emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, with two key strands: preservationist such as John Muir wanted land and nature set aside for its own sake, while conservationists such as Gifford Pinchot wanted to manage natural resources for human use. Among the early protectionists that stood out as leaders in the movement were Henry David Thoreau, John Muir and George Perkins Marsh. Thoreau was concerned about the wildlife in Massachusetts; he wrote Walden; or, Life in the Woods as he studied the wildlife from a cabin. John Muir founded the Sierra Club, one of the largest conservation organizations in the United States. Marsh was influential with regards to the need for resource conservation. Muir was instrumental in the creation of Yosemite national park in 1890. Muir was also personally involved in the creation of Sequoia, Mount Rainier, Petrified Forest and Grand Canyon national parks. Muir deservedly is often called the "Father of Our National Park System."

During the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, several events illustrated the magnitude of environmental damage caused by humans. In 1954, the 23 man crew of the Japanese fishing vessel Lucky Dragon 5 was exposed to radioactive fallout from a hydrogen bomb test at Bikini Atoll. The publication of the book Silent Spring (1962) by Rachel Carson drew attention to the impact of chemicals on the natural environment. In 1967, the oil tanker Torrey Canyon went aground off the southwest coast of England, and in 1969 oil spilled from an offshore well in California's Santa Barbara Channel. In 1971, the conclusion of a law suit in Japan drew international attention to the effects of decades of mercury poisoning on the people of Minamata.

At the same time, emerging scientific research drew new attention to existing and hypothetical threats to the environment and humanity. Among them were Paul R. Ehrlich, whose book The Population Bomb (1968) revived concerns about the impact of exponential population growth. Biologist Barry Commoner generated a debate about growth, affluence and "flawed technology." Additionally, an association of scientists and political leaders known as the Club of Rome published their report The Limits to Growth in 1972, and drew attention to the growing pressure on natural resources from human activities.

Meanwhile, technological accomplishments such as nuclear proliferation and photos of the Earth from outer space provided both new insights and new reasons for concern over Earth's seemingly small and unique place in the universe.

In 1972, the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment was held in Stockholm, and for the first time united the representatives of multiple governments in discussion relating to the state of the global environment. This conference led directly to the creation of government environmental agencies and the UN Environment Program. The United States also passed new legislation such as the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act- the foundations for current environmental standards.

By the mid-1970s anti-nuclear activism had moved beyond local protests and politics to gain a wider appeal and influence. Although it lacked a single co-ordinating organization the anti-nuclear movement's efforts gained a great deal of attention. In the aftermath of the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, many mass demonstrations took place. The largest one was held in New York City in September 1979 and involved 200,000 people; speeches were given by Jane Fonda and Ralph Nader.

Since the 1970s, public awareness, environmental sciences, ecology, and technology have advanced to include modern focus points like ozone depletion, global climate change, acid rain, and the potentially harmful genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

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