“We are now so numerous, so powerful, so all-pervasive, and the changes we have brought about are so profound that future generations will scarce believe that we were as gods, having dominion over the animal world and the plant world too.”David Attenborough
These lines of Sir David Attenborough, a prominent biologist and natural historian, eloquently illustrate humanity’s significant impact on the planet. It enunciates our rapid population growth, influence, and transformative changes to the environment. Furthermore, it also elicits a sense of urgency underlining the importance of prioritising an environment that, if not taken care of, could lose its nurturing power.
Not just limited to environmentalists, even Romantics such as William Wordsworth and John Keats conveyed the significant relationship between nature and humans. Their poems evoked a sense of companionship in solitude and stimulated nature’s captivating beauty, energising the soul and mind.
This perspective highlights how the environment can provide a soothing “healing touch,” yet human actions often lead to its suffering and degradation. It serves as a poignant reminder that our understanding of nature’s rejuvenating potential should guide us towards responsible stewardship, lest we allow it to bleed and wither under the weight of our actions.
Early Environmental Movement
It all began at a time when human activities, such as industrialization, urbanization, and the burning of fossil fuels, began to dominate the planet Earth; the period of Anthropocene. This caused substantial and unprecedented changes to the planet’s climate, biodiversity, and geology. As a response to these undesirable events, environmental movements began to spur across the globe.
Environmental movements emerged as a collective action against the ecological imbalance caused by human activities. The advocates of the movement demanded, ‘sustainable management of resources and stewardship of the environment’. This new type of movement, came to be categorised as the New Social Movement, distinguishing itself from traditional political and economic movements. It prioritized environmental concerns and sought to address them through collective action.
The environmental movements in the 19th and 20th centuries were a backlash against the exploitation carried through instantaneous urbanization and mechanization resulting in ‘greenwashing’ of the environment. The expansion of cities, degradation of soil, increasing deforestation, and extension of wildlife sparked the conservation movement.
In the USA, this resulted in the establishment of Yellowstone National Park in 1872 as a step to preserve the natural areas and wildlife. The movement was further advocated by writers like David Thoreau and John Muir and his Sierra Club, which emphasised the preservation of wilderness areas of the environment.
Modern Environmental Movements
The defining moment in environmental history came in 1962 with the publication of Rachel Carson’s influential book, “Silent Spring.” This seminal work raised widespread concerns about the harmful effects of pesticides on the environment and human health, catalysing what is now known as the Environmental Awakening. This awakening culminated in the inaugural Earth Day on April 22, 1970, a landmark event that mobilised millions of people across the globe to demand environmental protection and sustainable practices.
The 1970s also witnessed the establishment of influential environmental organizations like Greenpeace, WWF, and Friends of the Earth, which continue to play pivotal roles in advocating for environmental conservation and influencing policy decisions. Sustainable Development and Climate Change (1990s – 2000s)
The 1990s and 2000s marked a critical juncture in global consciousness as the urgency of sustainable development and the escalating threat of climate change captured widespread attention.
The Brundtland Commission’s landmark report “Our Common Future” in 1987 defined sustainable development as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. The Rio Earth Summit in 1992 emerged as a seminal moment, giving birth to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Parallel to climate change concerns, the concept of sustainable development gained significant traction. In the 1990s and 2000s, sustainable development became a guiding principle in policy discussions, emphasizing a holistic approach that integrated economic, social, and environmental considerations.
Furthermore, The Kyoto Protocol, established in 1997, marked a landmark effort to combat climate change by setting legally binding targets for industrialised countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
In the recent past, Al Gore’s documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” (2006) played a pivotal role in disseminating information about the gravity of global warming and its potential consequences. This heightened awareness prompted greater civic engagement, sparking grassroots movements, youth activism, and calls for urgent action.
Present Shift in Movement
Currently, we are witnessing that eco-conscious consumerism has emerged as a powerful force driving market dynamics and influencing corporate practices. Consumers, armed with heightened environmental awareness, are making deliberate choices to support sustainable products, ethical production methods, and responsible supply chains. The shift has prompted businesses to reevaluate their operations, leading to the adoption of eco-friendly practices, reduced packaging, and increased transparency to meet the demands of an environmentally conscious clientele.
Simultaneously, grassroots movements have flourished, serving as potent agents of change at the local and global levels. Driven by impassioned individuals and community leaders, these movements tackle diverse environmental issues, from plastic pollution and deforestation to advocating for renewable energy and biodiversity conservation. The rise of social media and digital platforms has amplified the reach and impact of grassroots initiatives, enabling organisers to mobilise support, raise awareness, and effect change in ways previously unattainable.
These movements are demonstrating the power of individual choices and collective action in driving positive ecological transformation and creating a more sustainable future for generations to come.
Issues Addressed by the Environmental Movements
Escalating greenhouse gas emissions, mainly carbon dioxide is causing a global temperature rise which is, in turn resulting in the melting of polar ice and higher sea levels along with erratic weather events. These shifts impact ecosystems, food, and settlements.
The atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels reached around 414 parts per million (ppm) in 2021, the highest in millions of years. Sea levels have risen by about 8-9 inches (20-23 cm) since 1880 and are projected to continue rising. The movement is striving to counter climate change through renewable energy advocacy, emissions reduction, and international agreements like the Paris Agreement.
Biodiversity loss is another concern. Human actions, including deforestation, habitat destruction, and pollution, drive species extinction, disrupting ecosystems. The rate of species extinction is estimated to be 1,000 times higher than natural background rates due to human activities. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List classifies more than 30,000 species as threatened with extinction. Thus, it also becomes important to address biodiversity related issues at the global stage.
Resource depletion, linked to excessive consumption, threatens finite resources like water, minerals, and fossil fuels. An estimated 80% of global fish stocks are fully or over-exploited, contributing to declining ocean health. The overuse of natural resources harms future availability and worsens environmental harm. The environmental movement champions efficient use, recycling, and use of renewable alternatives.
Through extensive advocacy and awareness campaigns, the movement highlights the devastating impacts of deforestation, such as habitat loss, disruption of ecosystems, and increased greenhouse gas emissions. By pushing for stronger environmental policies and regulations, the movement aims to curb rampant deforestation practices and promote sustainable land use. Collaborative efforts with indigenous communities emphasise the importance of respecting their rights and integrating their traditional knowledge into forest conservation. Through initiatives promoting responsible sourcing and production, the movement encourages industries to adopt deforestation-free supply chains. Reforestation and habitat restoration projects demonstrate the movement’s commitment to reversing deforestation’s detrimental effects.
The world is witnessing various types of pollution which include water pollution, air pollution, thermal, noise, soil, ocean pollution etc. All these problems are systemic and need global cooperation. Thus, global environmental movements also seek to address these.
COP-27 of UNFCC
In 2022, the Conference of Parties (COP 27) of the UNFCCC was held in Egypt with the aim to build on previous successes, including the Glasgow Climate Pact of COP26 and pave the way for mitigation, adaptation and climate finance, focus on loss and damage, energy, financial system reform, and agriculture.
Development of a framework for the global goal on adaptation to be undertaken through a structured approach under the Glasgow–Sharm el-Sheikh work programme at COP28 (Nov-Dec. 2023).
New pledges, totalling more than USD 230 million, were made to the Adaptation Fund.
Sharm el-Sheikh dialogue launched on Article 2.1(c) of the Paris Agreement, which says “financial flows” should be aligned with global temperature targets.
Parties called upon to transition towards low-emission energy systems and accelerate efforts toward the phasedown of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.
Financial system reform
For the transformation of the financial system and its structures, multilateral development banks and international financial institutions have been encouraged to reform their operational model, channels and instruments to address the global climate emergency.
Furthermore, the Stockholm+50 held in 2022 placed the environment as a pressing global issue. The three dimensions of this conference were:
- Countries agreeing not to harm each other’s environment or the areas beyond national jurisdiction;
- Action plan to study the threat to Earth’s environment; and
- Establishment of an international body called the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) to bring cooperation among countries.
With the growing population, demand, future generations etc it is pertinent to give importance to the environment. The 2020s are the make-or-break decade since a lot is happening in every dimension of the world. As humans, we have been demanding much from nature but now is the time to protect nature for nature’s sake. As ostensibly echoed by Rachel Carson, ‘The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.’ Therefore harmonious coexistence with nature is the keynote for future endeavours.
‘The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.’Rachel Carson