Earth Month : a History of the Environmental Movement (part 1)April 7, 2021 · Aaron Burr
Here we find ourselves approaching yet another 🌍Earth Day. It’s 2021, and this will be our 51st Earth Day to date...which began in 1970. Many appoint this time period as the beginning of the environmental movement we see today. In a lot of ways that’s surely right. But haven’t humans had an appreciation for the environment far before? Haven’t we noticed the harm we’ve been doing for quite some time?
In a lot of ways the environmental movement has come so far, and in a lot of ways it has so far to go. But we must 🪞reflect on where we’ve been in order to make better judgements as to where we are going.
To the "decade of the environment", or even further?
Beginning our journey in the 1960’s and 70’s could be warranted, but it would be rather incomplete considering all that has led up to that point. So, where do we truly begin then? Perhaps we could go back thousands of years to those who originally roamed North America. Though western culture tends to blanket all Native Americans (and many other indigenous peoples) under one group, this is of course not the case. So, it would be incorrect to state that all Native Americans treated the environment, or thought of the natural world, in the same way.
However, many indigenous tribes in North America have had a strong reverence and connection to nature. And what is perceived as radical to many these days, has been the way of life for several tribes for thousands of years.
Alternatively, or in addition to, we could observe the ways of life in many African tribes. All around the world, many cultures who have depended greatly on nature have the utmost respect to it, which makes a lot of sense. Being constantly immersed in something allows us to better appreciate that of which we are immersed in.
We could fast forward to an era with a person who may be regarded as one of the first “modern” environmentalists. Enter 13th century Europe, where we meet a certain individual known as St Francis of Assisi. Largely deemed a radical for his views, Francis was a catholic who believed all creatures were a creature of god and should be treated with the utmost respect. A kitchen rat should be treated just as well as the pope. Although, embracing the natural world, going into the woods, and bonding with animals was typically seen as going against the church.
There were many other aspects of Francis’ life that made him radical, like self induced poverty. But his love for all living and natural things was unrelenting throughout the end of his days. We can make assumptions, from such popular figures like him, that many must have held similar views of the natural world and how we should be treating it.
As early as the 1300’s we were beginning to see policy changes in England such as Edward I banning coal temporarily. Through the 1600’s, people in Europe began to complain about the terrible air quality of cities, thus sparking a movement for better environmental living conditions. And according to Jacqueline Vaughn in Environmental Politics, before American states were even united there were regulations set on timber cutting, and then later even on hunting certain game.
Picking up steam
We of course cannot fail to mention the importance that major writing works and activism had on how the world viewed nature and the environment. Such works as Thoreau’s Walden, John Muir’s essays, or the work of Octavia Hill.
Regarded as the United States’ best idea, in 1872 the first National Park, Yellowstone, was established. While it surely protected the land from future development and harm, it also found its roots in the warfare and despicable treatment of Native Americans which was common of that era. The idea of national parks then spread quickly to the rest of the world.
The late 1800’s and early 1900’s sparked the first major wave of activism and environmental organizations. Organizations like the Sierra Club, which was started to defend parks like Yosemite; or The Wilderness Society which was started by Aldo Leopold, who later also authored several books such as A Sand County Almanac.
Further into the 1900’s marked events that served, arguably, as tipping points towards the modern environmental movement which began in the 60’s and 70’s. In Donora, Pennsylvania thousands were injured due to a massive smog event. Four years later, 4,000 people were killed in London as a result of a 5 day major smog event.
It begs the question: do we humans finally rise up to protect the environment only when it affects us, or can we do so solely from an appreciation of the natural world? Maybe it’s a combination of the two, and several other factors. But without a doubt, the influence of romanticizing nature mixed with degrading health conditions sparked much of the environmental movement we see today.
Phew, there’s so much to talk about regarding the environmental movement, and we will never cover all of it! But let’s give everyone a break and continue this trip down memory lane next week. It’s important we don’t get stuck in the past, but we can look to it for some rather important answers. Until next time!