The modern environmental movement has its roots in the Industrial Revolution when urbanization, the burning of fossil fuels, and waste from manufacturing sites sensitized people to pollution. Untreated human waste in large cities made people ill, and calls for reform and infrastructure became insistent. Benjamin Franklin addressed the problems of rubbish in Philadelphia as early as the 1780s. In the 1800s John Muir and Henry David Thoreau made key aesthetic and philosophical arguments for the preservation of the natural world. Muir made powerful observations about the natural environment, lobbied Congress to form Yosemite National Park and set up the Sierra Club, which was a populist organization that lobbied for protection of the natural environment and is still one of the United States’ oldest and largest environmental groups.

In the twentieth century people in the United States became aware of deforestation, the demise of several species of animals, and poor land stewardship. In the early 1960s Rachel Carson's Silent Spring sensitized people to chemical pollutions. In the early 1970s the U.S. Congress created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and passed the Endangered Species Act, which Richard Nixon signed into law in 1973.

Environmentalists commonly see structural sources in the United States as the cause of many environmental problems, such as the seemingly cozy relationship between governments and private-sector polluters. Environmentalists also critique cultural elements such as the dominant cornucopia view of nature, a constant economic growth ethic, excessive consumer culture, materialism, faith that technology will solve all environmental problems, and a belief in individualism that makes social sensitivities difficult.

Environmentalism is a powerful social movement that uses protest, lobbying, activism, and education to influence policy decisions and meet conservation goals. There is tremendous diversity within the environmental movement, but common positions include sensitivity about living and working in sustainable ways. Other common concerns include deforestation, climate change, new energy sources, peak oil, chemical pollution, nuclear proliferation, genetically engineered foods, environmental justice, sustainable fishing industries, mercury in the food chain, industrial waste, nuclear waste, and air and water pollution.

Environmentalists are frequently conservative about their beliefs in technology and commonly subscribe to the “precautionary principle.” That principle generally advises that it is best to avoid taking risks in areas where one does not fully understand or is unable to cope with negative outcomes. Environmentalists would, for example, warn against something like deep-sea drilling, as the costs of a disaster outweigh the good resulting from the new source of oil.

Some strands of environmentalism lend themselves to other overt political goals. Greens want to make creating a sustainable world with renewable energy a political goal. Greens critique what they see as unsustainable practices. They demand an end to subsidies and tax credits to already profitable corporations, and they call such practices “corporate welfare.” Greens are frequently against the war on drugs, which they see as a war on poor people, and they also argue that the war on drugs has negative environmental consequences and erodes civil liberties. Greens generally do not believe in voluntary approaches to a cleaner environment and want a strong EPA and strong penalties to violators.

Greens are also critical of globalization when that means corporations relocating production to countries with no labor protections or environmental laws. Many greens feel global manufacturing is detrimental to the environment because it weakens social and environmental laws, weakens labor laws, strengthens global capital, and creates further stratification. They also argue that globalization is the opposite of bioregionalism and that bioregionalism is preferred.

Bioregionalism (or bioregional democracy or watershed cooperation) is the theory that social organization should be based on the bio- or ecoregion instead of a region determined by economic or manufacturing boundaries. Bioregionalism is a reform movement designed to heighten the political process for better protecting the environment on a local level for local residents. Bioregionalism stresses that social plans should be locally prioritized and approved for ensured sustainability. There needs to be regional control over natural commons and natural resources; resources should not be controlled by multinational corporations in the name of profit, efficiency, and globalization. Greens are critical of the parts of globalization that override local labor and environmental concerns or further economic policies that enable even greater division between the world's richest and poorest.

While environmentalism and the modern environmental movement could be considered a populist-driven movement, environmentalism is also experiencing a backlash. Currently, environmentalists are struggling with the signature problem of the era, climate change. Strong forces on the political right such as the Tea Party group, which was significant in the 2010 election, employ populist climate-change denial rhetoric. The Tea Party movement and other climate-change deniers argue that environmentalists are antiprogress, un-American, antiwealth, and antimankind. Despite strong evidence and near consensus of most of the world's climate scientists, climate-change deniers argue that the science of climate change is not clear enough to act upon. Climate-change deniers argue that the common man wants to “drill oil here and drill now,” (or, “drill, baby, drill,” as Sarah Palin famously said), and that out-of-touch elites on The Left want to tax the working class to force a new green energy system that is not needed.

Environmentalists argue that the science of climate change is clear and they are working to mobilize their base to educate and lobby. In terms of climate-change policies, the popular U.S. environmental movement seems to be at an impasse with Congress and the intransigent energy corporations that disproportionately fund their elections and profit mightily from the current polluting energy system. Now that both the environmentalist position and the pro-carbon-fuel position have taken on a populist posture, it remains to be seen if science can assist this populist debate and resolve it with intelligent policy.

John O'Sullivan

See also: Drought ; Plains and Midwest, Populism in the ; Populism ; Progressivism ; Palin, Sarah (1964–) ; Tea Party


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