A Concise History of Environmentalism

Looking for a concise history of environmentalism in a few hundred words? This is one of the best.

While most Americans associate environmentalism and conservation with the modern environmental movement that began in the 1960s, human beings have long known about and acted upon these important concepts.

A Concise History of Environmentalism

For instance, consider the Waorani tribe, an indigenous group of the Amazon rainforest. The Waorani have lived in “voluntary isolation” in the jungles of South America for thousands of years. The group demonstrates an understanding of sustainability by only extracting what they need, not what they want, from the environment.

Or what about Mauritius, an island nation close to Madagascar that witnessed the enactment of forest conservation and water pollution control policies by Dutch and French colonists in the 17th and 18th centuries! The fact is, history is full of examples of conservation and preservation from as far back as the last few thousand years, not just prior to the recent “environmental movement” of the last half century.

For our purposes, though, it’s more important to understand the roots of the U.S. environmentalism movement. The seeds of these efforts were sown by John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt, who both spoke of and acted upon their ecological consciences back in the early 20th century. Muir, who advocated for preserving the wilderness, worked to protect Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks, and established the Sierra Club, which is now a well-developed and active grassroots-oriented environmental organization. Roosevelt, our 26th president and a naturalist, created several national parks in the name of preserving our natural environment.

Unfortunately, in the years that followed these advancements, two world wars became the focal point of our nation’s attention and squelched any opportunities for the environmental movement to gain momentum. It wasn’t until the 1960s and 70s that environmentalism once again came into the public spotlight. We can thank Rachel Carson for her book, Silent Spring (which discusses long-term effects of pesticides), Aldo Leopold for his book, A Sand County Almanac (which describes the inherent value of nature), never-before-seen photographs of Earth from space (emphasizing that we have only one planet to share), and a large and spirited baby-boom generation for turning “environmentalism” into “modern environmentalism.” All of that effort just to add the word “modern” to the term!

Semantics aside, this new public consciousness led to the very first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, and a laundry list of important environmental policies. In 1970, the National Environmental Policy Act was passed, mandating that all federal agencies write “environmental impact assessments,” detailing the environmental impacts of federal projects before they begin. The Clean Air and Clean Water Acts also flowed from this stream of green policy, which helped to protect our nation’s air and water. In addition, the Endangered Species Act was passed to ensure that many species of domestic plants and animals did not become extinct, like the American bison.

This brings us to the 1990s, when more environmental policy came to pass. Terms like “climate change,” “sustainability” and “greenhouse gases” suddenly started entering our vocabularies. We’ll be talking more about these modern green concepts in upcoming posts.

Kenny FrankelOther related Green Blizzard articles on home energy efficiency: Energy Efficient Windows,  Water Conservation Around The House,  Living Sustainably In An Apartment, and  Gift Ideas For A Green Handyman.


About the author

Kenny Frankel

As graduate of the University of Maryland, Kenny has a major in Environmental Politics and Policy, so he's undoubtedly a guy well versed in environmental issues. Now, post college he is a practitioner of sustainable living and employed by solar installation company. We all will have a deeper green perspective after reading his articles because he brings a big picture insight to our everyday purchase decisions and even recycling.  As an early staff writer for Green Blizzard, Kenny covers environmental policy, big-agricultures impact on the environment, solar energy, recycling, and products made from recycled materials.