Agents of Information and Action

NGOs are often nonprofit groups that employ a variety of tactics for achieving awareness among the public and the government. The very nature and structure of NGOs has been advantageous in dealing with pollution issues for several reasons. First, membership within NGOs consists of people with a strong personal commitment to their cause. Second, the focused efforts of NGOs allow their leaders to become specialized. Third, the loose structure of NGOs enables them to respond with greater speed and flexibility than the government.

Throughout the forty years of the modern environmental movement, NGOs have been crucial in bringing visibility to pollution problems affecting both the local and international communities. According to Peter Wil-lets, "Information is the currency of politics, and the ability to move accurate up-to-date information around the globe has been a key factor in the growing strength of environmental groups" (Willets, p. 114). The communication of information has been accelerated through the use of the Internet. In addition, NGOs also rely heavily on publications, media coverage, and conferences to collaborate with one another and to educate the public.

Although reformers of the Settlement House era of the late 1800s and early 1900s organized efforts for change within city neighborhoods, the formation of prominent mainstream organizations such as the Wilderness Society and Sierra Club are widely considered to be the first major environmental NGOs. Rooted in early-twentieth-century debates over the exploitation of land, these early NGOs lobbied the government by talking with local officials and publishing works on the importance of wilderness. One of the most notable efforts to drum up public support was a series of full-page advertisements taken out by the Sierra Club from 1965 to 1968 in the New York Times vilifying the prospects of building hydroelectric dams in and flooding the Grand Canyon.

Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace are two NGOs with international status that have fought to keep the public informed about pesticides and toxics pollution through direct action techniques. Their practices of physically obstructing or protesting industry has made them popular in the media since the groups' inception in the 1970s. In one particular instance, Friends of the Earth amassed a collection of Schweppes bottles and subsequently dumped them on the company's front steps. Their efforts to send a clear message to the beverage company about waste pollution attracted media coverage and brought about a rise in membership. Similarly, Greenpeace employed confrontational tactics by sailing the vessel Phyllis McCormack towards a French nuclear testing site to halt testing. In another campaign, Greenpeace members put themselves in small boats between whalers and whales.

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