A social movement or an ideology focused on the welfare of the environment, environmentalism seeks to protect and conserve the elements of earth's ecosystem. Environmentalism works to correct the damage as well as prevent future destruction, spawning numerous environmental groups in America and around the world. Even with the combinations of legislation and improved corporate behavior, nonprofit organizations still play a significant role in achieving environmental goals.


Environmentalism can be described as a social movement or as an ideology focused on the welfare of the environment. Environmentalism seeks to protect and conserve the elements of earth's ecosystem, including water, air, land, animals, and plants, along with entire habitats such as rainforests, deserts and oceans. Concepts dealing with environmental issues include the management of natural resources, overpopulation, commercial logging, urbanization and global warming. The effects of human development ad activity have harmed and altered the earth's natural state. Environmentalism works to correct the damage as well as prevent future destruction.

Historic Roots

Environmentalism began as a movement in the 1960s and 1970s. However, humanity's relationship and dependence on the earth for survival has existed since the beginning of time. Many cultures including Native Americans, Aborigines, Africans and South Americans have understood this interconnection with the natural world. Western cultures had a poor understanding of this relationship as they separated themselves from the land through technology and development. Beginning in the nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution caused many changes; Western people realized their behavior had a negative impact on the environment (Stradling and Thorsheim 1999). In the growing industrial cities of London, New York and Chicago, coal burning factories polluted the air and water while the need for lumber to build factories and homes caused mass deforestation and subsequent destruction of animal life (ibid.).

On a relatively small scale, groups of people were concerned about the future of the environment. Scientists studied ecological systems while others formed clubs and initiated protests. These concerned people became known as conservationists, a predecessor to the modern environmentalist. Some of the earliest protests against pollution and for the conservation of natural resources and wildlife happened in the late nineteenth century, (Rome 2003). Earth-friendly groups, such as the Sierra Club established in 1892, inspired President Theodore Roosevelt's innovative conservation programs (Sierra Club). Unfortunately, two World Wars and the Great Depression overshadowed conservation and environmental issues.

In the years proceeding World War II, America experienced an economic boom. New technologies introduced atomic energy, synthetic materials and chemicals, such as pesticides, which led to advancements in agriculture and consumer products. The booming economy allowed the average family to afford a house, automobile and other amenities at soaring rates. Lands outside of cities were bulldozed for suburban development, new factories emitted more pollution due to the production of more goods and larger numbers of cars discharged additional exhaust; "pollution was the price of economic progress" (Rome 2003, 525).

As the prosperity of the postwar years continued, the environmental consciousness of Americans awakened regarding the effects of environmental destruction . Scholars and environmentalists believe the beginning of the modern environmental movement can be attributed to the 1962 publication of Silent Spring , a book by Rachel Carson. Carson wrote a stunning cautionary book about pesticides and the consequences to animal and human life. (Environmental Protection Agency; Rome 2003). Other books, such as Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb published in 1968, built momentum for the movement (Pearce 2000). Simultaneously, the increased visibility of air and water pollution, as well as disappearing green space and natural habitats sparked the interests of activists across America.

The 1960s and 1970s are recognized for radical political, social and cultural movements including civil rights, feminism and protests of the Vietnam War. For many activists of this era, environmental concerns fit into their belief system of questioning authority and the status quo. Some of the early activists were youth on the extreme left of the political spectrum who earned unfavorable reputations for tactics, such as chaining themselves to trees marked for bulldozers, dumping oil into the reflecting pools at Standard Oil Headquarters, or holding dead fish at protests to demonstrate river damage (Rome 2003). This radical behavior received attention and helped inform the public of environmental atrocities. In 1969, the Cuyahoga River near Cleveland, Ohio was so polluted with toxic chemicals and industrial waste that the river actually blazed with fire (Roston 1999). For many Americans, this was the turning point in acknowledgement of the need for drastic government action to protect the environment.
Over the course of Lyndon B. Johnson's presidency during the 1960s, he signed nearly three hundred conservation and beautification measures, which laid the foundation for future legislation. Johnson wanted to follow the footsteps of previous presidential conservationists, such as Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt, and leave his legacy to history as a protector of the environment (Rome 2003).

In the beginning of the 1970s, the most significant environmental legislation was enacted by President Richard Nixon. Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act in 1970 and created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by executive order. The EPA is the governmental agency responsible for protecting the environment through federal research, monitoring, and standard setting and enforcement activities. Under the EPA, a new series of environmental laws surpassed the Johnson initiatives in requiring business to reduce pollution (Rome 2003). The most hard-hitting EPA legislation was the passages of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act. Not coincidentally, the first Earth Day was held in April of 1970. About 20 million Americans, including members of 1500 colleges, gathered to demonstrate concern about the environmental crisis (Rome 2003).

Presidents Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon laid the foundation for environmental change. Building on decades of obvious pollution and environmental irresponsibility, these initiatives and the mounting media coverage established environmentalism as a national concern.



The environmental movement has made America today a more ecologically friendly place than thirty years ago (Goldstein 2002). Legislation, research and new technologies have worked in unison to reduce pollution, increase recyclability and protect endangered animals, among many other achievements. According to a March 2003 Gallup poll, 89% of Americans recycle and 72% buy environmentally-friendly products (Kharif 2003). But at the same time, consumption is rapidly increasing, people are driving further distances with gas-guzzling SUVs, and farm land and forests are converted to developments at alarming rates. More conservation work is required according to advocacy groups, such as the National Resource Defense Counsel, World Wildlife Fund and Green Peace.

From a self-preservation perspective, environmentalism has focused the importance of a clean and healthy environment for human existence. Beyond our physical dependency on the environment are the intangible and emotional connections people feel with nature and these connections contribute to overall happiness in life. People enjoy the beauty of snow-covered mountains, playing sports in an open field, observing wild animals roaming in their natural habitats, camping, gardening, bicycling and scuba diving. Environmentalism seeks to protect and preserve the earth for present and future generations; the intangible and emotional connections with nature are at risk. Environmentalism caused Americans to rethink their lifestyles and what can be expected from the government.

Today, debate surrounds the line where government environmental control ends and the beginning of free-market practices. Corporations were blamed as the biggest culprits in pollution and destruction of land; pressure from the government, consumers and activists forced corporations to clean up their behavior and contamination. Costly legislation imposed changes on corporations, but the consumer triggered a more efficient market shift for environmentally-friendly companies. After all, corporations depend on the consumer dollar. Negative publicity from activists, increased media coverage and environmental sympathies caused consumers to question from which companies to buy products. Many companies discovered new technologies allowed decreased industrial waste and lowered manufacturing costs; this pleased the consumer and improved the bottom line (Kharif, 2003). While corporate motives to become more environmentally conscious have not been entirely altruistic, corporate America has advanced the environmental cause.

Environmentalism, although accused of using fuzzy math and scare tactics, has become a highly accepted movement by the American public. Fortunately, the advocacy of environmentalism has evolved from t radical tactics and alienation into a complex and interdependent relationship existing between environmentalists, corporations and the government. Willingness of all three groups to cooperate, negotiate and discuss solutions to problems has driven innovative concepts such as market-based environmental reforms and sustainable economic developments.

Environmentalism has spawned numerous environmental groups in America and around the world. In 1972, the first major worldwide discussion on environmental issues was held at a United Nations conference in Stockholm, Sweden, and attended by 114 nations (Encyclopedia.com). The Stockholm conference was followed by The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, or Earth Summit, where discussions revolved around the global conflict between economic development and environmental protection (ibid.). America is a world role model as a political and financial leader and its participation in world environmental efforts is vital to the success of a healthier planet.


Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Charitable donations have increased over past decades, but contributions to environmental groups have been rising at a faster rate, despite the fact they are the second smallest portion of charitable dollars. According to the American Association of Fundraising Counsel, 2002 charitable contributions totaled $240.92 billion. Of this amount, donations to environmental organizations equaled 2.7 percent or $6.59 billion. Environmental organizations are the second smallest recipient of charitable dollars after International Affairs (American Association of Fundraising Counsel 2003).

Between 1997 and 1998, donations for environmental causes jumped 28.3 percent, nearly three times the rate for overall giving, according to Giving USA 1999. A report from the Foundation Center showed foundation grants to environmental groups were growing faster than other fields after healthcare. The report also listed environmental organizations received a greater share of their funding from the top 100 foundations (Foundation Center 2002). A report by the Independent Sector stated that of all nonprofit subsectors, volunteers give the most time on average at 26 hours per month to environmental and youth service organizations. However, environmental organizations attract fewer volunteers at 4.8 percent (Independent Sector 2002).

Nonprofit environmental organizations serve the cause in a variety of methods from conventional to radical strategies. The National Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund specialize in bringing lawsuits against corporations in order to protect the environment. Other environmental groups such as the National Wildlife Federation, World Wildlife Fund, Friends of the Earth, The Nature Conservancy and The Wilderness Society distribute information, hold protests, participate in public hearings, lobby government and corporations and purchase land for preservation.

A smaller percentage of nonprofits including Wildlife Conservation International and Worldwide Fund for Nature conduct various types of research. There are other organizations that tend towards radical tactics such as Greenpeace, a nonviolent group; Earth First!; and the underground Earth Liberation Front which acts in highly confrontational and zealous ways (Encyclopedia.com).
Even with the combinations of legislation and improved corporate behavior, nonprofit organizations still play a significant role in achieving environmental goals. Unlike government agencies and corporations, the sole purpose of a nonprofit environmental group is to save the environment.


Key Related Ideas

Urban Sprawl is the expansion and development of land outside of cities. Typically, this expansion involves encroachment on agricultural areas and untouched green space thereby destroying natural habitats and causing the loss of aesthetics. Other negative environmental impacts include added air pollution due to the necessity to drive further distances and traffic congestion. Paving more land to meet the demand for highways and development prohibits water absorption, creates pollution runoff into waterways and an increases vulnerability to flooding (Stoel 1999).

Renewable energies are infinite resources such as wind and solar energy, which are in constant replenishment. Solar technologies use the sun's energy to provide heat, light, hot water, electricity and cooling. W ind power technologies lower the cost of wind energy with state-of-the-art wind turbine designs ( National Renewable Energy Laboratory ) .

Nonrenewable energies are finite resources that will eventually dwindle or become too expensive or too environmentally-damaging for retrieval. The United States currently relies heavily on nonrenewable fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas. The government, corporations, and environmental groups are researching ways to use more renewable energies (ibid.).

Sustainable development is a strategy by which communities seek economic development approaches that also benefit the local environment and quality of life. Sustainable development can be practiced locally and globally. Many environmental groups, governments and businesses are beginning to use sustainable development principles in their activities (Smart Communities Network).

Important People Related to the Topic

  • Julia Bonds: Bonds is the 2003 winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize, the largest international award for grassroots environmental efforts. She worked to halt the devastating practice of mountaintop coal mining throughout Appalachia (Goldman Environmental Prize).

  • John Muir: Muir is regarded as one of the most famous conservationists and referred to as the "Father of our National Parks." He inspired many of President Theodore Roosevelt's conservation programs, including the formation of Yosemite National Park. Muir was also the founder of the Sierra Club in 1892, one of largest environmental advocacy groups in America (Sierra Club).

  • President Theodore Roosevelt: Roosevelt was inspired by earth-friendly groups, such as the Sierra Club, in creating his innovative conservation programs. During his presidency, he established the United States Forest Service, signed into law the creation of five National Parks and 150 National Forests and placed approximately 230,000,000 acres under public protection. He also designated 18 national monuments and established the first 51 bird reserves and four game preserves (Nationmaster.com). President Roosevelt made significant strides in protecting the environment and has been recognized as a conservationist president.

Related Nonprofit Organizations

There are numerous grassroots, national, and international nonprofit environmental organizations. The following are a few examples:

  • The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) was established in 1967, linking science, economics and law to create innovative, equitable and cost-effective solutions to society's most urgent environmental problems. One of the largest environmental organizations with a membership base of 400,000, EDF granted $43 million in 2003 to environmental efforts ( http://www.edf.org ).

  • Greenpeace has a presence within 40 countries across Europe, the Americas, Asia and the Pacific. In order to maintain its independence, Greenpeace refuses donations from governments or corporations, and relies on donations from individual supporters and foundation grants. Greenpeace focuses on the most critical global threats to biodiversity and environment ( http://www.greenpeace.org ).

  • The National Wildlife Federation (NWF) is devoted to wildlife conservation and the protection of the environment. The NWF is one of the largest conservation organizations, boasting over four million members ( http://www.nwf.org ).

  • The Natural Resources Defense Council ( NRDC) is a national environmental action organization with a membership of 500,000. Through the use of science and attorney services, NRDC supports more than 1 million members in the protection of the planet's wildlife and wild places. Its goal is to ensure a safe and healthy environment for all living things. Worth Magazine has named NRDC one of America's 100 best charities ( http://www.nrdc.org ).

  • Sierra Club was founded in 1892 by one of the most famous conservationists, John Muir. The Sierra Club is the oldest and largest environmental organization in America. Its mission is to promote, educate and enjoy responsible environmental behavior ( http://www.sierraclub.org ).

Related Web Sites

The Environmental Alliance for Senior Involvement (EASI) Web site, at http://www.easi.org, provides links, publications and information about programs to build, promote and utilize the environmental activities of older persons.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Web site, at http://www.epa.gov, provides information on environmental programs, the effects of the environment on health, different types of pollutants and explains environmental legislation. EPA's mission is to protect human health and safeguard the natural environment -(air, water and land) which sustains life. EPA is a government organization in charge of monitoring, standard-setting and enforcement activities to ensure environmental protection.

The Harrison Program on the Future Global Agenda Web site, at https://bsos.umd.edu/harrison/, offers information on ecological security, long-term sustainability, globalization and governance, civil society and transnational advocacy, energy and water policy and environmental education. Located at the University of Maryland, the organization conducts research, teaching and outreach on issues intersecting with ecological, technological, social and political systems. Its goal is to promote action on problems relating to growth, sustainability, social equity and global governance.

The New Environmentalism Web site, at http://www.newenvironmentalism.org, hosts research, case studies and speeches regarding environmental efforts and policies. It provides links to local organizations and events for participation in environmental activism. The organization identifies innovative approaches to addressing serious environmental issues and works to create a society of self-motivated environmental stewards.

The Redefining Progress Web Site, at http://www.rprogress.org, offers educational materials, recent news on environmental issues and sustainability, information on the organization's programs and links to other environmental organizations. Redefining Progress works with a variety of partners to shift the economy and public policy towards sustainability.

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This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at Case Western Reserve University. It is offered by Learning To Give and Case Western Reserve University.