||Environmentalism (from Old French environner, â€˜to surroundâ€™) is a term whose meaning has changed dramatically since 1970. Before that it was used in the nature/culture debate in psychology to identify the school of thought that believed the environment had a substantial effect on human personality and behaviour. Since 1970 it has been used to identify the broad argument that human societies should give a higher priority to the natural environment. This was not a wholly new argument, indeed a large part of the message had previously been advocated by the conservation movement, but it gained some new aspects and much greater salience. However, it is not enough to consider pre-and post-1970 meanings because the concept of environmentalism could only be meaningful in a large-scale society where society and Nature are alienated.
In small-scale societies, such as the groups of hunter-gatherers in which all humans lived until 10,000 years ago, long-term survival required that people lived off the fruits of Nature without destroying the plants and animals they depended on. Agricultural societies could support larger populations, often with large proportions of nobles and priests, but avoided major environmental problems, with the exception of the breakdown of irrigation systems in Mesopotamia. The major religions founded in such societies, notably Hinduism and Buddhism, advocated inner development and harmony with nature. Even the Judaeo-Christian tradition, which is often criticized by environmentalists for its belief that God had chosen mankind to have dominion over Nature, taught that we should act as God\'s stewards on Earth. In the Middle Ages, growing populations and increasing trade did begin to have some impact on the natural environment, but this was only a faint precursor of future developments.
In the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution in western Europe and the USA dramatically increased human impacts on the environment. The new economic doctrine of laissez-faire led to the pursuit of profit and a disregard of pollution and waste. Improved transport allowed a greater exploitation of distant resources where the interests of local people were often ignored. Large, industrial cities were built on an unprecedented scale and with equally unprecedented effects upon the environment. These cities stimulated both practical responses, such as pollution controls and sewage systems, and pioneer environmentalist ideas.
Three movements or schools of thought, developed in response to the upheavals of industrialization, were directly related to environmentalism. The most extreme was Romanticism, which advocated the spiritual benefits of contact with Nature, but in a way which seemed to be available only to a minority and which, unrealistically, left the cities out of account. An alternative, and perhaps more attractive to conservatives, was a revival of the concept of stewardship. More explicitly political was the concept of utilitarianism, a doctrine which sought to maximize pleasure and minimize pain, with implications for environmental policy, but with the limitation that all decisions were to be taken in human terms. In practice, the difficulty of measuring pleasure meant that demand was often used as an indicator, so utilitarianism was largely absorbed into the market economy.
The earliest practical effect of environmentalism was in the USA where the conservation movement was very influential in the development of the West, including the dedication of National Parks from the 1870s. However, conservation was defined as â€˜wise useâ€™ so it sanctioned some developments that more single-minded preservationists deplored. In the UK, the establishment of National Parks did not occur until after 1945, and the parks were given the role of promoting recreation as well as preservation, with powers hardly greater than those available to any planning authority. With the exception of controls over smoke and chemical emissions, early environmentalism mainly consisted of local reaction to particular activities.
The new environmentalism of the 1970s was increasingly holistic in content and global in coverage. Issues like the population explosion, nuclear hazards, whaling and resource shortages spread far beyond the local and seemed to require radical changes in values and priorities. New types of international pressure groups appeared, most notably Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, initially in North America, but soon spreading to many countries. The first UN conference on Environmental Pollution was held in Stockholm in 1972 and the UN Environmental Programme was set up. In the 1980s global warming and ozone depletion were added to the environmentalists\' agenda, and it became apparent that the atmosphere could only be stabilized by restricting energy and material use at levels that seem to require the reversal of industrialization. At the time of writing, few governments are prepared to consider anything but reducing the rate of growth of energy use.
As a political movement environmentalism aims to affect governmental decision-makingâ€”either directly by electing â€˜greenâ€™ candidates or indirectly as a lobby group. Public awareness is now widespread, and the increased public concern caused by the accumulation of apparently impressive, but not always conclusive, scientific evidence on environmental matters has led to the proliferation of environmental organizations, and to some electoral successes for â€˜greenâ€™ political partiesâ€”though these successes have been eroded by mainstream political parties. Significant international agreements, such as the Montreal Protocol, which aims to limit the production of substances which deplete the world\'s ozone layer, demonstrate the new level of international concern for environmental issues.
In the last few years of the 20th century, fully fledged green political philosophies are emerging, some of which claim that there is a distinctive green theory of value. â€˜Dark greensâ€™ argue that preserving the Earth\'s ecosystem for its own sake, not because it is beneficial to humans, should be at the centre of political activity. Some of them are known as Gaia theorists because they believe that the Earth (Gaia) will survive our adapatations of nature, but argue that we may not be able to survive the changes that the Earth will make in response to our interventions (see Gaia hypothesis). â€˜Light greensâ€™, by contrast, argue for environmentalist public policies because they are confident that they will ultimately benefit our species. Greens of all hues remain uncertain about whether they favour the creation of a powerful global government with the ability to enact the coercive measures required to enforce green public policies, or radically decentralized political communities as means of achieving their objectives. They have also not resolved whether or not they favour greater albeit sustainable economic growth, or a radical reduction in global consumption (population). They also remain understandably ambivalent about most of the achievements of Western civilization, as many green theorists appear to think that human organizations, like the state, and human cultural productions, like the positivistic sciences, have been catastrophic. The seriousness of environmentalist arguments are often occluded by the proponents of â€˜green lifestylesâ€™ which can involve eccentric â€˜New Ageâ€™ religions. BO\'L PS
Further reading R. Eckersley, Environmentalism and Political Theory: Toward an Ecocentric Approach; , J. Gibson, Green Illusion: Critique of Modern Environmentalism; , R. Goodin, Green Political Theory; , D. Pepper, The Roots of Modern Environmentalism; , Theodore Roszak, The Voice of the Earth: an Explanation of Ecopsychology.