Environmental movement Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The environmental movement has often been criticized by business interests for hampering the growth of American business. Environmentalists, by contrast, argue that the movement has helped point out the true costs of economic development and in doing so has helped make some industries more efficient.

The environmental movement in the United States dates from the early twentieth century formation of conservationist organizations such as the Sierra Club. Environmentalism gained force during the 1960’s and 1970’s and helped achieve the passage of legislation that halted or reduced pollution. Environmental groups’ goals vary widely, from land preservation, to halting various forms of pollution, to full-scale attacks on industry. Some business leaders have gone so far as to label environmental groups a danger to the American economy because of their advocacy of regulating industrial pollution. Other business leaders have tried to work with environmental leaders in areas of common interest and go so far as to acknowledge that some regulations have caused industry to become more efficient (for example, by using less of some materials), as well as benefiting society as a whole.Environmental movement

An Environmental Consciousness

Most early environmental groups were concerned with the preservation of natural habitats and in a few cases with local pollution issues. Coming out of the social activism of the 1960’s, existing environmental groups often adopted new issues, and new groups arose. Many of these groups were concerned with the impact that industry had on the environment. They cited numerous cases of industries polluting streams with hazardous materials such as heavy metals or petroleum compounds, or of air pollution generated by burning coal or oil. Environmental groups indicated that the pollution generated by an industry (which economists label “externalities”) should be taken into account as an internal factor when the cost of a power plant or factory was computed. Most business spokespersons argued against taking externalities into account and indicated that efforts to do so through governmental regulation introduced unfair costs.

During the 1970’s, several environmental groups engaged in lobbying, lawsuits, public-relations efforts, and demonstrations to pressure government to adopt environmental regulations. Some of their actions led to the adoption of legislation such as the Clean Air Act of 1970, water-quality legislation, and efforts designed to clean up pollution such as the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976. These tactics proved to be more effective than some of the direct-action tactics of 1970’s activists, such as a person known as “the Fox” who blocked pipes that were emitting toxic material into streams. The legislative approach was often coupled to efforts to increase public awareness of environmental concerns.

During the 1980’s, the business community struck back, aided by the receptive presidential administration of Ronald Reagan, RonaldReagan. Business leaders argued that environmental regulations should be weakened because they harmed productivity and made the United States less competitive. Their approach was directed toward lobbying government and changing the public’s perception of environmental issues.

A number of corporations and businesses are “going green” by adopting business practices favorable to the environment or producing environmentally aware products. Earthdoggy.com, an online pet store, offers this eco-friendly dog bed in 2008.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Even though the environmental movement made some gains in combating problems such as the depletion of the ozone layer during the Bill Clinton, BillClinton administration, it was not as strong as it once had been. In some cases, the memberships of individual organizations had declined from their late-1970’s levels. Business leaders had become more adept at combating the message of environmentalists, as they emphasized that environmental regulation led to job loss.

Although environmental groups had found a ready audience in the Clinton administration, the administration of George W. Bush, George W.Bush often took positions that environmental groups regarded as harmful. Efforts to lobby agencies in the Bush years were usually fruitless, as federal officials emphasized economic development even when it led to environmental harm. Some environmental leaders turned again to trying to raise public consciousness of environmental issues, most notably of global warming. In some cases, these efforts paid off, and membership in environmental groups began to increase once again.

Preserving the Environment

Although some environmental groups have advocated sharply curtailing economic growth because of potential harm to the environment, most have taken a more nuanced stand. In some cases, environmentalists have overstated risks from industries such as the nuclear power industry. For the most part, environmentalists have been critical of industries that pollute the environment or use large amounts of natural resources. They do not urge the abolition of these industries but instead advocate that means be found to decrease pollution or use fewer resources. In the short run, these changes often have meant additional costs for business. In the long run, changes such as using less of a natural resource such as copper have often meant cost savings for a business. Because air or water pollution often harm areas at some distance from the polluter, gaining business acceptance of pollution regulation has been difficult at times. Nonetheless, some businesses have emphasized that they are part of a larger whole and have a duty to be environmentally responsible in their operations.

American business and environmental groups will continue to be at odds regarding some business practices. There are also some common areas for agreement. Some oil companies now emphasize a need to conserve oil and seek out other energy sources, because of the threat of global warming. In sum, the environmental movement has often provided a needed check on the power of business in dealing with environmental issues.

Further Reading
  • Dowie, Mark. Losing Ground. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1996. Good analysis of the reverses that the environmental movement suffered during the 1980’s and some prescriptions for change.
  • Gottlieb, Robert. Environmentalism Unbound. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2001. Advocates a new approach to forming business and environmental group partnerships in dealing with environmental problems.
  • ______. Forcing the Spring. Rev. ed. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2005. Examines the changes that have taken place in the environmental movement over time.
  • Rosenbaum, Walter A. Environmental Politics and Policy. 7th ed. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2008. Broad-based approach to environmental politics that incorporates the perspectives of industry and the environmental movement.
  • Speth, James Gustave. Red Sky at Morning. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004. Written by a former environmental activist and governmental leader, this book details an agenda for environmental groups and government in dealing with the global environment.

Alaska Pipeline

Coal industry

DDT banning

U.S. Department of Energy

Environmental Protection Agency

Nuclear power industry

Water resources

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