Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Civic Virtue
Environmental Stewardship
Environmentalism is a movement and ideology that aims to reduce the impact of human activities on the earth and its various inhabitants. The movement has evolved to build resilience towards the effects of global climate change, in order to build a society capable of adapting to a rapidly changing earth and finding sustainable ways to live in it. Civic environmentalism adopts a global, regional and local role of advocacy, awareness and education through participation and collective action. The countries and people that have done the least to contribute to climate change are the ones that will be most affected by its devastating effects-- and we see this already everywhere around the world and in the USA as well.



Environmentalism seeks to preserve the air and water we all depend upon; as well as conserve and protect entire ecosystems compromising of animals, plants, and humans found in different habitats throughout our planet. Along with preserving natural elements, this movement primarily seeks to protect the Earth's resources that humanity requires for survival and development. The most pressing issue of our global society today is climate change. This includes the issues of air and water pollution, water scarcity, food insecurity, deforestation, rising sea levels, loss of species and habitat biodiversity, and loss of indigenous environmental knowledge and traditions.  

Civic environmentalism is a regional, local, or individual response to environmental issues. It is a type of social action where citizens cooperate and work together to solve environmental problems as a means to improve the communities they live and work in. The ultimate goal of civic environmentalism is to ensure a sustainable community or movement through collective participation. In this case, sustainability can be defined as a lifestyle made up of decisions that protect the natural environment and drive social and technological innovation to solve environmental problems. These lifestyle decisions are intended to preserve the ability of future generations to achieve the same quality of life.  


Historic Roots

Environmentalism, in its oldest and ethical form, started out through traditions, habits, and knowledge of indigenous communities around the world. The Indus Civilization, 5000 years ago, practiced waste management and sanitation. Ancient civilizations in China, Peru, and India created crop rotation and terrace farming to reduce soil erosion and preserve the land. Even Greek philosophers such as Plato and Hippocrates spoke of environmental health problems and issues of deforestation in Ancient Greece. In the USA, the Native American lifestyle has a very strong connection with the land and nature. Native knowledge from Alaska to Australia, has a deeper understanding of the land they harvested and lived off, the fish stocks they relied upon, and the bushfires they controlled to hunt better. The ancient practice of using fire to clear land created a diverse re-growth of plants that eventually increased prey and predator species. Native populations throughout the world had a more holistic view of the ecosystem.  

What we know of environmentalism today is "western environmentalism," which started out as a response to reduce or fix human actions that exploited the Earth’s resources. We must acknowledge the fact that colonization of Native lands all over the planet introduced destruction and exploitation of the environment. Colonization rejected the balanced practices of the people who knew the land and who respected everything it had to offer.

Environmentalism has always been rooted in indigenous and native culture, following the historic practices that maintained balance and respect for nature. Native populations only comprise of 4 to 5 % of the world population, while they manage 11 % of the world’s forests. By doing so, they maintain 80% of the planet’s biodiversity (Robbins, 2018).  Similarly, in the USA, the environmental justice movement was started primarily by communities and people of color to address the fact that they lived, worked and played in areas closer to pollution (Miller & Skelton, 2016).  

In 1972, the first worldwide discussion on environmental issues was held at a United Nations conference in Stockholm, attended by 114 nations. Today, the Paris Agreement of 2016 is the most recent global climate framework and agreement signed by 195 UN member states. In 2017, the USA announced its withdrawal from participation in the Paris Agreement.

In the 1980s, Shell and Exxon, both large fossil fuel companies carried out their own research regarding climate change. Their scientists came to the conclusion that extracting, selling, and using fossil fuels such as oil and coal would lead to a global temperature increase and crisis that we now know more about. Sadly, these fossil fuel companies hid the science behind this and went to great lengths to further suppress any speculation regarding climate change. They made this choice in order to continue profiting off the sales and use of fossil fuels, which are the primary agent to blame for today’s climate crisis (Franta, 2018). The burning of fossil fuels releases intense amounts of carbon dioxide along with other harmful pollutants in our atmosphere, and today our cars, homes, buildings, technology, entertainment, and our whole lives are powered by fossil fuels.



Climate change is the biggest problem that humanity faces today. The severity and urgency of the climate crisis stems from the bleak reality of the impact it will have on the lives of today’s youth and future generations to come. There will be irreversible damage caused to every habitat and ecosystem of our planet. The rate or speed at which changes are taking place in our global atmosphere and on Earth is the primary cause of concern (Lindsey, 2019).  

Our call to action and desire to minimize the damage and effects are greater than ever, especially in today’s millennial, and Gen Z generations. Environmentally friendly products have increased in availability, and efforts such as recycling, reducing consumption, and online environmental petitions have advanced the space of environmental conservation. But, this isn't enough. The increase in global human consumption and population has contributed to a climate crisis that requires better environmental policies and radical change in legislation, consumer habits, and an overall change in human lifestyle.  

The climate crisis does not recognize political borders nor does it discriminate across class, race, or national origin. However, government and human response to the climate crisis is impacted by social and political biases and discrimination. Environmentalism has a significant role in promoting equity and justice as communities of color and people living in poverty face greater environmental challenges and bear higher negative cost from environmental problems (The Lancet, 2018). Western and industrial nations, such as the USA, Russia, China, Germany and much of Europe, have emitted the most greenhouse gases, but developing nations are paying the price for the damage as they battle balancing economic growth and environmental protection. Similarly, the intangible and emotional connection to nature is at risk. The science might be dense behind environmental issues, but the human connection to the environment around us is the most natural connection in our life.  

Civic environmentalism is the best way for each of us to play our part in the fight against climate change. Western and developed governments, along with giant corporations, should take most of the responsibility and action on reducing the effects of climate change. However, this is a human problem, and we can each do something. While some humans did more to cause it than others, we can all contribute to being environmentally friendly. As citizens, we can choose to recycle or reuse some materials and make purchases that use responsible packaging. Buying local and choosing bicycles and public transportation over vehicles that emit greenhouse gases is always helpful. We can reduce our consumption of meat and dairy products whose mass production is hard on the environment, and we can reduce our consumption overall. We don’t have to give up things that we require or bring joy to us; we must only reduce, reuse, and recycle to play our individual parts (EPA, 2019).  


Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

According to Giving USA 2019, giving to environment and animal organizations is estimated to have increased 3.6% to $12.70 billion and reached an all time high in 2018. 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. Unlike government agencies and corporations, the sole purpose of a nonprofit environmental group is to save the environment. 

Environmental organizations and movements uphold the advocacy role very well and serve as a benchmark in society for it. Extinction Rebellion, an international movement that focuses on non-violent civil disobedience in order to garner attention from the government but also the general public for social and environmental collapse, is a good example of a civic movement assuming the advocacy role (ExtinctionRebellion, 2019).   

Environmentalism has extended to formal organizations and groups and the overall nonprofit sector. However, environmentalism is a civic action and plays an essential role in supporting democratic processes in our civil society. The purest philanthropic act and most important thing we can do is educate ourselves and others on environmental issues. Along with awareness and education, verification of the information is equally important. Scientific journals & databases, and reputable newspapers are the most reliable but we must make the effort to double-check the source and information from various outlets and from sources that are already trustworthy.  

Similarly, when purchasing a product, we can be good consumers by asking where it came from, how it was made, and who made it?  If the item or product cannot be traced back to its maker, then it is not sustainable and has come at the expense of the environment and other people. To be part of the environmental movement further, we can volunteer our time and talent to environmental organizations, advocacy and community groups, and even nonprofit and voluntary associations that might not be directly related to the environment. Environmentalism is a truly interconnected movement and its values and teachings can be applied throughout every field and subject.  


Key Related Ideas

Climate Change: The rapid increase in carbon dioxide and methane levels in the Earth’s atmosphere that is causing unpredictable and severe climate events around the world. This increase in the level of the two gases is also causing the rapid warming of our atmosphere and surface, known as global warming. Due to the unnatural and man-made changes to our planet, our ecosystems are out of balance and are not being able to cope with the rate and speed of change which is causing catastrophic events such as severe storms, floods, hurricanes, melting of ice sheets in the North and South pole and also the start of the sixth mass extinction of all the species of our planet-- including humans (Aljazeera, 2019).  

Eco Activism: A form of engagement in social and/ or political campaigns with the aim of preventing damage to the environment and to ensure that some are not disproportionately affected by environmental degradation by giving them the opportunity to voice their concerns (WECF, 2018).  

Environmental Justice: Environmental justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies (NRDC, 2019).  

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. Wind power technologies lower the cost of wind energy with state-of-the-art wind turbine designs ( National Renewable Energy Laboratory)

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

  • Greta Thunberg: 16-year-old Swedish climate activist who started skipping school to strike outside the Swedish parliament to bring attention to the climate crisis and the inaction of governments around the world regarding the issue. Her protest has sparked into a global civic movement as millions of people pour out onto their streets demanding their local, regional and national governments take action to address and reduce the climate crisis.  
  • Rue Mapp: Mapp founded Outdoor Afro because she saw a need for the African-American community to have a deeper connection to nature. She oversees a highly-trained national volunteer leadership team who share opportunities to build a broader community, and promote leadership in conservation. Outdoor Afro has become a cutting-edge network in the U.S. that helps people connect to black history found in many natural areas, while inspiring communities to protect vulnerable public lands for everyone.  
  • Henry Saragih: He leads a union of several million Indonesian farmers that are standing up against the companies and the government that are devastating vast areas of Southeast Asia for palm oil plantations. He also heads Via Campesina, the global movement of small farmers that campaign for land reform in 80 countries primarily against big corporations that are destroying rainforests for resource production. He is currently lobbying the UN and the WTO and this struggle will determine the existence of Asia’s rainforests in the next 30 years, which also affects the political future of many developing countries.  
  • Aldo Leopold: Known as the Father of wildlife ecology and the United States’ wilderness system, he was a conservationist, philosopher and educator. He put forth the famous “land ethic” which calls for an ethical, caring relationship between humans and nature. He was instrumental in developing the USA's first national wilderness area.  
  • Tewolde Egziabher: A biologist by training, and the head of the Ethiopian Environmental Protection Authority, he is known for his excellent work on safeguarding biodiversity and the rights of farmers and communities to their resources. He has won the Right Livelihood Award in 2000 and at the Earth Summit in 2002, his passionate speech stopped the world’s politicians from supporting a US proposal that would allow the World Trade Organization (WTO) the power to override international environmental treaties.  
  • 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).

Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • The National Environmental Education Foundation: The foundation is committed to lifelong environmental learning by connecting people to knowledge that will help improve their quality of life. It is a non-partisan, non-advocacy organization that focuses on making elements of the environment more accessible and relevant to people’s daily lives. (https://www.neefusa.org/) 
  • Greenpeace: A global campaigning organization that uses modes of peaceful protest and creative communication to shed light on global environmental problems and promote solutions for a clean and green Earth. It is an independent organization and relies on donations from supporters. (https://www.greenpeace.org/usa) 
  • Environmental Defense Fund: A nonprofit organization with more than 2.5 million members and a staff of 700 scientists, economists, policy experts, and similar professionals around the planet. Committed to bipartisan environmentalism, they work with all members of congress to fortify US environmental laws as EDF believes in prosperity through environmental stewardship. (https://www.edf.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 ).


Reflection Question: What part, little or big, can we as citizens play in influencing our government's policy to respond to the climate crisis? 



  • Andrews, Eve. 2019. “Why does environmentalism have a dark side?”. Grist, August 29, 2019. https://grist.org/article/why-does-environmentalism-have-a-dark-side/ 
  • Aljazeera News. 2019. “What is Climate Change?” Start Here with Aljazeera, Aljazeera, December 1, 2019.  https://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/start-here/2019/12/climate-change-191201113702813.html 
  • AboutUs. Extinction Rebellion. Rebellion.earth. Accessed on December 10, 2019. https://rebellion.earth/the-truth/about-us/ 
  • Campbell, SueEllen. 2019. “How indigenous communities are working to protect the climate”. YaleClimateConnections, September 25, 2019. https://www.yaleclimateconnections.org/2019/09/how-indigenous-communities-are-working-to-protect-the-climate/ 
  • “Environmental racism: time to tackle social injustice”. Editorial, The Lancet Planetary Health, November, 2018.  https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanplh/article/PIIS2542-5196(18)30219-5/fulltext#articleInformation 
  • Franta, Benjamin. 2018. “Shell and Exxon’s secret 1980s climate change warnings”. The Guardian, September 19, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/climate-consensus-97-per-cent/2018/sep/19/shell-and-exxons-secret-1980s-climate-change-warnings 
  • Lindsey, Rebecca. 2019. “Climate Change: Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide”. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Climate.gov, September 19, 2019. https://www.climate.gov/news-features/understanding-climate/climate-change-atmospheric-carbon-dioxide 
  • Mason, Matthew. 2019. “What is Sustainability and Why Is It Important?”. EnvironmentalScience.org. Accessed on December 1, 2019.  https://www.environmentalscience.org/sustainability 
  • Miller, Vernice & Skelton, Renee. 2016. “The Environmental Justice Movement”. National Resources Defense Council, March 17, 2016.  https://www.nrdc.org/stories/environmental-justice-movement 
  • Purdy, Jedediah. 2016. “Environmentalism was once a Social-Justice Movement.” The Atlantic, December 7, 2016. https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/12/how-the-environmental-movement-can-recover-its-soul/509831/ 
  • Robbins, Jim. 2018. “Native Knowledge: What Ecologists Are Learning From Indigenous People”. YaleEnvironment360, April 26, 2018. https://e360.yale.edu/features/native-knowledge-what-ecologists-are-learning-from-indigenous-people 
  • United States Environmental Protection Agency. 2019. “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”. EPA.gov. Accessed on December 10, 2019. https://www.epa.gov/recycle 
  • Van Schoote, Audrey. 2018. “Eco-Activism: What it is and Why it is Relevant”. Women Engage for a Common Future (WECF), April 13, 2018.  http://www.wecf.eu/english/articles/2018/04/Eco-Activism.php 
  • Weyler, Rex. 2018. “A Brief History of Environmentalism”. Greenpeace, January 5, 2018. https://www.greenpeace.org/international/story/11658/a-brief-history-of-environmentalism/ 


This briefing paper was authored by a student taking a philanthropic studies course in 2019 at The Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.