Environmental Movements Essay

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Environmental movements are loose, uninstitutionalized networks of individuals and groups engaged in collective action motivated by shared concern about environmental issues. They are identical neither with organizations nor with protest. Less visible local action and interactions with governments and corporations are also important.

Although environmental concern has a long history, modern environmentalism dates from the 1970s, informed by increasing scientific knowledge and influenced by New left and counter cultural critiques. In North America and Western Europe, increasing concern and impatience with the timidity of conservationist organizations produced new, more radical internationalist environmental movement organizations (EMOs) that embraced nonviolent direct action: skilful exploitation of mass media made Friends of the Earth (FoE) and Greenpeace the fastest growing EMOs during the 1980s.

Their rise encouraged innovation in the tactics and agenda of conservation organizations. Soon, networking among older and newer organizations was common. Environmentalism developed through successive waves of critique, innovation, and incorporation. Radical ecological groupings and the environmental justice movement grew out of dissatisfaction with increasingly institutionalized reform environmentalism. EMOs increasingly embrace social justice and their networks extend to human rights and development NGOs.

Environmentalism is frequently explained as a dimension of post-materialism. But environmental concerns are held both by highly educated “postmaterialistists,” less fearful for their own security than concerned about global impacts of environmental change, and by less well educated people fearful for their own security.

Post-materialism better predicts environmental activism. Environmental activists and members of EMOs are disproportionately highly-educated, employed in teaching, creative, welfare, or caring professions. Because locally unwanted land uses more often impact upon the poor, grassroots environmental movements are more broadly inclusive, especially of women.

Traditionally, ”success” for a social movement meant institutionalization, usually as a political party. Viewed thus, the institutionalization of a movement is a contradiction in terms. Environmental movements may have squared the circle. Measured by size, income, formality of organizations, number and professionalization of employees, and interaction with established institutional actors, EMOs in industrialized countries have, since the late 1980s, become institutionalized. Yet institutionalization did not simply entail deradicalization. Despite worries that institutionalization has turned EMOs into ”protest businesses” incapable of mobilizing supporters for action, in Western Europe in the 1990s reported environmental protest increased and became more confrontational. Even radical ”disorganizations” committed to direct action were connected by networks of advice and support to more established organizations as groups realized the advantages of cooperation and practiced a division of labor. Thus environmental movements may retain many characteristics of an emergent movement whilst taking advantage of institutionalization. The ”self-limiting radicalism” of green parties is less striking than the ”self-limiting institutionalization” of environmental movements.

Environmental movements vary according to material differences in their environments. In North America, Australasia and Nordic countries, wilderness issues have been salient. In Western Europe, where the physical environment is more obviously a human product, concern to protect landscapes more readily combines with concerns about the human consequences of environmental degradation.

In the global South, environmental issues are bound up with struggles over distribution of power and resources, and rarely sustain environmental movements. Impeded by lack of democratic rights and judicial protection, successful campaigns often depend upon support from Northern environmental or human rights organizations.

Deliberately informal networks rather than formal organization have been preferred in recent waves of environmental activism, but the relationship of local protests   to   movements   is   problematic. Most local protests are NIMBY (not in my backyard) in origin; although some are transformed into universalist campaigns, others remain particularistic. Only rarely do local campaign groups grow into general EMOs, but they may nevertheless serve as sources of innovation and renewal within national environmental movements, by ”discovering” new issues, initiating new activists, and devising new tactics.

The absence ofa developed global polity presents obstacles to the formation of a global environmental movement. Although international agreements and agencies encourage development of transnational environmental NGOs, these are not mass participatory organizations and, outside the North, rarely have deep roots in civil society. However, better and cheaper communications erode distance just as increasing participation in higher education gives more people the skills and resources to operate transnationally.


  1. Rootes, C. (ed.) (1999) Environmental Movements: Local, National and     Frank  Cass,   London and Portland, OR.
  2. Rootes, C. (ed.) (2003) Environmental Protest in Western Europe. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  3. Rootes, C. (2004) Environmental movements. In Snow, D. A., Soule, S. A., & Kriesi, H. (eds.), The Blackwell Companion to Social Movements. Blackwell, Oxford and Malden, MA, pp. 608-40.

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