The Evolution of Environmental Movements: Responding to Impending Threats

By Karin Otsuka

The early emergence of environmentalism in the United States was spurred by varying perceptions of conservation and preservation, such as maintaining wilderness for leisurely activities, sustaining natural resources for future generations, or preserving a pristine environment free of human presence. However, from the 1960s, increasing levels of pollution and cases of social issues associated with environmental degradation gave rise to the modern conservation movement.

Rachel Carson (credit: Alfred Eisenstaedt, Getty Images)

One piece of work that is synonymous with this era of environmentalism is Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, a writer and ecologist. Published in 1962, Carson used this book to describe a world ailed with chemicals polluting the water, air, and soil, bringing sickness to wildlife and humans alike. She was particularly concerned with synthetic pesticides such as DDT, which Carson proclaimed caused birds such as bald eagles to lay thin-shelled eggs, leading to premature breakage and population declines. Amidst backlash from pesticide manufacturers and sharp personal attacks on her character, she testified before Congress in 1963 to urge for new regulations to preserve human and environmental health. Her endeavor, along with efforts made by other urban, white entities sharing her vision, led to the US banning domestic sales of DDT in 1972.

Bioaccumulation is the gradual increase in concentration of a pollutant (yellow) in an organism, which is depicted in this illustration. Pollutants can then biomagnify, in which pollutants increase in concentration as they move from one trophic level to another. Humans are a part of this as well, since they may consume organisms that have bioaccumulated pollutants. As more time passes, there is higher potential to build up more contamination.

Carson further made the connection that not only did these chemicals kill insects, its intended target, but they also bioaccumulate up the food chain, threatening predators such as fish, birds, and eventually people. This information was based on existing scientific evidence of the time that had not been publicized to the general audience until Carson’s book. Carson died of breast cancer in 1964, though throughout this ordeal, she opted to keep her health condition private, despite the possible connections between chemical exposure and her own well-being. For a slightly different angle, take a look at Living Downstream by Sandra Steingraber, published in 1997. At the age of 20, Steingraber was diagnosed with bladder cancer, prompting her to question why this had happened to her. This led her back to her hometown of Pekin, Illinois to explore the relationship between what was in her environment growing up and her current health condition. Thus, Living Downstream was her personal investigation of the connection between synthetic chemicals and cancer.


The 1969 Cuyahoga River fire of Ohio occurred as a result of heavy industrial oil pollution in the water catching on fire.

Beyond synthetic chemical exposure, other pressing issues of the mid-60s to early 70s included deadly smog from automobile and industrial pollution in New York and Los Angeles, the Union Oil drill spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, and toxic chemical discharge into the Cuyahoga River. This period of environmental crisis led to the enactment of The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, The Clean Air Act of 1970, and The Clean Water Act of 1972 by Congress and under implementation by the Environmental Protection Agency. The first Earth Day was also mobilized in 1970, which paved the way for a new period of environmentalism driven by grassroots activism, with pollution and overpopulation at the forefront of concern for the white, urban environmentalists. However, it is also important to consider the agenda behind these actions and who they were for. For example, there had been conversations for the expansion of parks and wilderness areas to better preserve perceived uninhabited lands from pollutants. This was met with opposition by Native American tribes whose lands were threatened to be taken away. They protested against policymaking processes decided upon by white environmentalists and lawmakers with no consideration of the affairs or livelihoods of Native Americans.

Activism through art (credit: Ricardo Levins Morales)

Consider another perspective. The ‘poison to humankind’ that Carson had lamented about had focused largely on the impacts of environmental degradation on urban, white and Anglo Americans. These were the sentiments shared by the so-called mainstream environmentalists, who are characterized to be part of white, wealthy, and privileged communities. This scope misses the Latino, black, Native American, and low-income white families disproportionately exposed to pollution throughout this time period and continuing to this day. This brought on the Environmental Justice Movement of the 1980s. One of the major incidents that prompted this movement occured in 1982 in North Carolina. The state planned to establish Warren County, a largely black community, as a dumpsite of soil contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyl. With no support from mainstream environmentalist groups, residents lost this case. Despite this loss, environmental justice activists nationwide began protesting against this issue, garnering the attention of national civil rights leaders and environmentalists. Further grassroots mobilization occurred during the 1990s, during which time cultural and communities leaders of marginalized and colored locales organized together in Washington D.C. to lay the groundwork for the modern environmental justice movement. Despite these efforts, black, Latino, Native American, and low-income white neighborhoods to this day are situated alongside chemical plants, coal-fired power plants, and other sources of the nation’s most toxic pollutants.

Up until this point, issues of environmental degradation have been largely visible and localized, directly impacting individuals and communities. This brought on a great challenge in framing climate change, a rising issue in the late-90s and 2000s that warned against long-term impacts and was on a scale of global proportions. Topics related to climate change, such as sea-level rise, ocean acidification, frequent heat waves, and intensified storms had started to circulate in mass media by climate scientists. This fueled students, activists, journalists, and youth worldwide to begin advocating  against these projected environmental impacts and their associated threats to human health. However, with recurring and extreme environmental events worldwide that are directly felt today and covered in mass media, such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, and the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan that led to the meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear power plant, there has been growing pressure to take proactive measures against these potential threats.

Protestors at the People’s Climate March in Washington, DC., which took place on April 29, 2017.

As new topics, incidents, and threats of environmental degradation emerge, as a society, we must also be critical of the associated movements that seek to address those issues. Who is being represented? Whose voices are missing? Which entities hold socio-political power? Which entities are most vulnerable to inequitable decision-making? These are some of the innumerable questions that must be integrated into our consideration of past, present, and future environmental movements.

Every Thursday through April and May, Currents is covering the past, present, and future of the conservation movement in the U.S. and beyond. This is the second article in the series, read the first article here.