Renewed Sense of Commitment

Environmentalists were rallying for more stringent enforcement of environmental policies, but the Reagan administration failed to express the same level of enthusiasm and support that had characterized the Nixon and Carter presidencies. Economic and political decisions that once involved environmental organizations now seemed to undermine the very spirit and intent of NEPA by sidelining environmental efforts. The membership ranks of environmental groups grew in response to these political threats, and a new environmental agenda focused on acid rain, ozone depletion, and global warming.

Without the willing support of the national government, environmental groups began to take matters into their own hands. Organizations like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, which had always encouraged direct action, had an ally with the radical Earth First!, which used similar tactics. Often referred to as direct-action groups, their methods embraced the prevention of nuclear testing, whaling, and logging through physical means. Their actions met with mixed reviews. Some felt that the movement had outgrown this type of action and that such efforts undermined the legislative progress that had been established. But activists felt that national legislation was being relied on too heavily to provide all the answers. Reintroducing the activism of the earlier movement seemed to be one of the few methods that educated the public about hazards of pollution and kept the debate alive.

With greater access to information, increasing numbers of antitoxics groups, and pressure from the international community, the pollution problem was not going to disappear. An incident in Bhopal, India, in 1984 prompted much debate about the need for uniform environmental standards and it brought a dire problem into the spotlight that had for years been ignored: environmental injustice. In Bhopal over 2,000 people died and nearly 250,000 others suffered lung and eye damage when a poorly maintained chemical storage tank overheated. The Union Carbide Company, which operated the plant internationally, was not abiding by the same regulations that applied to its West Virginia branch. The accident echoed eerily of the Gauley Bridge deaths in the late 1920s, when Union Carbide knowingly exposed hundreds of African-American miners to dangerous silica deposits.

The environmental movement expanded throughout the 1990s, becoming more international in its efforts. In 1992 the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro was attended by over 142 heads of state. Environmental organizations joined the proceedings with hopes of influencing the outcome. Five years later, organizations reconvened to assess the progress that had been made since the Earth Summit. Bound by the underlying desire to improve the environment, grassroots actions, national organizations, and legal proceedings have combined to present a positive force for change. NGOs were excluded from the 1992 Earth Summit. A satellite conference was established instead. The result was that the NGOs drafted their own alternative plans, put together daily news on their conference and delivered it to the hotels of those attending the main conference, and essentially—not much was truly accomplished at the first Earth Summit. However, the satellite conference put NGOs on the board as the key players in the environmental movement. They were perceived as more knowledgeable and could network more easily in the absence of red tape that government parties encountered.

The movement represents an amalgamation of issues, from species protection and land conservation to pollution. It has also propelled itself by employing a variety of tactics to attract attention, from petitions and protests to publications and organizations. The prospect of danger to human life in the form of pollutants has motivated people from all classes and walks of life to engage in the movement to improve the quality of life. The ability to relate the causes of pollution back to human industry gave communities a sense of empowerment. Witnessing the perils of pollution in several different forms, the public has been moved to respond. The issue of pollution has compelled nations to consider the wider implications of their decisions and actions. It has shaped the course of the environmental movement, as the realization has grown that the environment extends beyond a county sign or a border patrol—and that the issue of pollution is about the shared responsibilities of consumers, manufacturers, and all residents of the larger, global community. see also Activism; Addams, Jane; Agenda 21; Antinuclear Movement; Brower, David; Carson, Rachel; Chávez, César E.; Citizen Suits; Commoner, Barry; Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA); Dioxin; Disasters: Chemical Accidents and Spills; Disasters: Environmental Mining Accidents; Disasters: Natural; Disasters: Nuclear Accidents; Disasters: Oil Spills; Dioxin; Dono ra, Pennsylvania; Earth Day; EarthFirst!; Earth Summit; Ehrlich, Paul; Environmental Racism; Gauley Bridge, West Virginia; Gibbs, Lois; Government; Green Party; Greenpeace; Hamilton, Alice; LaDuke, Winona; Nader, Ralph; National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA); National Toxics Campaign; New Left; Politics; President's Council on Environmental Quality; Progressive Movement; Property Rights Movement; Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs); Public Participation; Public Policy Decision Making; Right to Know; Settlement House Movement; Smart Growth; Snow, John; Times Beach, Missouri; Tragedy of the Commons; Treaties and Conferences; Union of Concerned Scientists; Wise Use Movement; Zero Population Growth.


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Other Resources

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United Nations. (1997). "UN Conference on Environment and Development (1992)." Available from

Worldwatch Institute. "WTO Confrontation Shows Growing Power of Activist Groups." Available from

Christine M. Whitney

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