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READ: Environmentalism

The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Before you read the article, you should skim it first. The skim should be very quick and give you the gist (general idea) of what the article is about. You should be looking at the title, author, headings, pictures, and opening sentences of paragraphs for the gist.

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

Now that you’ve skimmed the article, you should preview the questions you will be answering. These questions will help you get a better understanding of the concepts and arguments that are presented in the article. Keep in mind that when you read the article, it is a good idea to write down any vocab you see in the article that is unfamiliar to you.
By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. What intellectual and artistic movement rejected the Enlightenment idea that humans could control nature?
  2. Give at least two examples of environmental destruction and/or poor living conditions during the Industrial Revolution.
  3. Explain the difference between preservation and conservation.
  4. What is the EPA and why has it been the subject of debate?
  5. What is the Greenbelt Movement?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

Finally, here are some questions that will help you focus on why this article matters and how it connects to other content you’ve studied.
At the end of the third read, you should be able to respond to these questions:
  1. Take some time to consider the “pop quiz” from the beginning of the article. Choose an answer. What evidence from this article challenges or supports your answer? Is your answer different after reading the article?
  2. We all live in the same world and breathe the same air. So, is environmental degradation evidence for a “flat” world? Is there anyone who is hurt more by or benefits more from the exploitation of the environment? Who?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.


Photo of President Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, and their associates standing next to an enormous redwood tree in Yosemite National Park.
By Mike Burns
Humans have always changed their environments. But since the Industrial Revolution, change has accelerated, threatening the water we drink and the air we breathe. In the nineteenth century, networks of activists organized to address this problem.

Human environments through history

Pop quiz: You're walking through a forest—not just a park with trees, but an actual forest—away from noisy cars and human-made structures. You realize that the purpose of a forest is to be:
A. a distinct biome—meaning a community of plants and animals that have common characteristics for the environment in which they live
B. an area rich in natural resources that could be utilized for human benefit
C. a world inhabited by unseen creatures and spirits
D. a fragile system in need of protection
Humans throughout history have acted upon all of these ideas and beliefs, so there is no agreement on the right answer.
For much of our history, we've picked "B". Communities—whether small bands of foragers, farming villagers, nomadic pastoralists, or industrial consumers—have always sought to alter their environment to satisfy human needs. Then in the nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution rapidly increased our ability to reshape our environment. Since then, there have been networks of concerned people who want us to re-think how we interact with the environment. These networks launched a movement called Environmentalism.
Most human societies through history have connected with the environments where they lived, and many believed those environments were sacred (served a religious purpose). European forests, Indian rivers, Amazonian rainforests, and the Australian continent—all have been sacred places to people at different times. But as societies grew and developed new technologies, humans also needed to utilize the resources around them. So, these sacred places became resources. Their wood built homes and fed fires. Their flowing rivers became the water supply, power generator, and convenient waste disposal. Their metals were mined and smelted (extracting a metal from ore) to make tools and weapons. As technology advanced, so did our impact on the environment.
Photo of a bunch of trees from the Kaari Tree Forest in Western Australia.
Kaari Tree forest, Western Australia, taken by author, Mike Burns, October 2019.
Aerial photo showing the extent of deforestation along the border of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Areas where deforestation has occurred are brown and barren whereas areas where trees still stand are lush and green.
This image depicts deforestation near the border between Haiti (left) and the Dominican Republic (right). Public domain.

Romanticism and the Industrial Revolution

Conservation and environmental practices go back many centuries in different societies, but the roots of the modern environmental movement can be traced back to Romanticism in the late eighteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries. Romanticism was an intellectual and artistic movement that changed how many people thought about nature. Among other things, two key characteristics were a strong sense of emotion, and an awe of nature. Romanticism rejected many Enlightenment ideas, including the notion that humanity could, and should, control natural forces.
Painting of a man standing on a rock, looking down at the valley below him. He is high up enough that he can see the fog floating below him.
Painters during the Romantic period often portrayed humans as smaller than nature to create a sense of awe. Above, “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog”, by Caspar David Friedrich is a classic example. Public domain.
These changes began during the Industrial Revolution, and that's no coincidence. Industrialization required humans to extract and use more resources. Steel mills needed coal and iron ore, electrical wire needed copper, textile factories needed cotton. Rubber, tin, silver, sugar, coffee, wheat, paper, oil… you name it, and it was grown, harvested, mined, processed and consumed to meet human demands. Often, resources were extracted with forced labor and colonial violence. For example, in the Belgian Congo in Africa, the Congolese were forced to harvest set amounts of rubber-bearing vines. If you fell behind, the boss cut off your hand—to "motivate" others. Between 1885 to 1908, an estimated ten to fifteen million Africans died to satisfy Belgium's demand for rubber. That's how colonizers treated the Congolese humans they encountered, so you can imagine what happened to the forests.
The benefits of the Industrial Revolution came at a staggering environmental cost, and not just in colonies that were stripped for raw materials. In England's cities, the skies turned black with smoke, and the rivers stank with pollution. Life expectancy dropped from around age 40 in 1700 to about 30 amongst the urban poor by 1850.
Romantic art inspired people to compare the usually dirty and unpleasant conditions of urban factory life with an idealized vision of nature. As people saw once vast forests disappearing and clean air and water turned foul, they now wanted to protect and preserve these valuable resources. In the cities, a growing Socialist movement sought to improve the filthy living and working conditions of workers. The middle-class—gaining in numbers and influence—formed conservation groups all over the country, each targeting a particular cause. Before long, this loose network of activists began lobbying Parliament to legislate environmental protections, both in the countryside and cities. Through these efforts, things began to slowly change.

The environmental movement in the United States

Similarly, conservation groups formed in the United States during the nineteenth century. A young Scottish immigrant, John Muir, played a central role in starting the American environmental movement. In 1867, he walked 1,000 miles/1,600 km from the state of Kentucky to Florida and wrote of his experience in "A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf." Then he travelled to the West Coast, and promoted the preservation of Yosemite Valley in California. In 1872, Congress established Yellowstone National Park, when the very idea of a "national park" was a first for the United States and really for the world. This led to the creation of the National Park Service in 1916.
Muir's attitude points out an interesting convergence of common interests and a divergence of ideology. Gifford Pinchot was a friend and ally of Muir who also wanted to help protect the nation's forests. But the two had a falling out over how to reach that goal. Muir was a preservationist, wanting the federal government to protect the nation's wild areas from the effects of human development. Pinchot was a conservationist, who also wanted the government to protect these areas, but still allow "mixed-use" of the land, like cattle grazing, or the selective cutting of timber. Pinchot was better able to put his ideas into practice after he was appointed the first head of the U.S. Forest Service in 1905. This Muir-Pinchot argument is a philosophical clash that continues today in land management.
Photo of John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt riding horses through Yosemite Valley. Yosemite’s famed Half Dome can be seen in the background.
Several decades after Muir's early efforts, the 1960's saw the rise of a new American environmental movement. Rachel Carson sounded the alarm with her book Silent Spring in which she warned of the dangers of DDT (pesticide) use and the effects it was having on bird populations. Other writers, scientists, and activists soon joined Carson and the new environmentalist movement.
American environmentalism started with individuals like Muir and Carson, whose efforts convinced governments and politicians to take action. In 1970, politicians and activists organized the first Earth Day, which has since become a global awareness-raising celebration. In 1972, the United States established the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which was instrumental in improving air and water quality in the United States. But since its creation, the EPA has been the subject of debate. The same tension that divided Muir and Pinchot still exists today. The desire to protect the environment clashes with the desire to extract value and resources.
Whether to protect business or to protect the environment has become a balancing act that is especially relevant today. Short-term economic interests compete against overwhelming scientific evidence that human industry is responsible for warming the Earth. This has potentially catastrophic consequences, including rising sea levels and extreme weather.

The international environmental movement

American and British environmentalists played a large role in establishing the networks on which the movement was built, but the environmental movement has not been confined to Western industrial nations.
In 1973, for example, women in northern India took non-violent action to protest government policies that awarded large logging contracts to companies. Large-scale logging in India had resulted in deforestation that deprived the locals of cooking fuel (wood), livestock, and water. Known as the Chipko movement, activists argued that their government's logging policies were similar to colonial policies when India had been ruled by the British Empire (up until just 26 years earlier). British companies and the colonial government had extracted resources for the benefit of others far away. Employing Gandhi's principle of Satyagraha (non-violent protest and civil disobedience) women and men hugged trees to prevent them being cut. Actually, that's where the movement got its name—Chipko (Hindi for "stick to") refers to the act of tree-hugging. The inspiring movement spread through India quickly after the women won the support of the local government. As the network of Indian environmentalists grew, the Chipko movement helped implement national environmental reforms and empowered women in the affected areas.
A similarly inspiring success occurred in Kenya in 1977, when activist Wangari Maathai created the Green Belt Movement. This was an indigenous, grass-roots organization designed to counter the effects of deforestation, such as soil erosion and loss of cooking fuel. Her movement has planted over 51 million trees. Over 30,000 women have been trained in sustainable practices that help provide an income as they work to restore the landscape. Maathai's efforts were recognized in 2004 as she became the first African woman to win the Nobel Prize.
Photo of then Senator Obama walking with Kenyan political activist Wangari Maathai. Their security details are following along behind them.
Wangari Maathai with then Senator Obama, Kenya 2006. By Fredrick Onyango, CC BY 2.0.
Local communities have also led efforts to conserve rainforests in the Amazon River Basin in South America and in Southeast Asia. They find themselves facing corporations and farmers who want to expand cattle-raising (in the Amazon) and palm oil production (in Southeast Asia). Once again, these confrontations demonstrate the tension between environmental and business interests. In these cases, the local-led environmental movements have generally been losing ground over the past decades, despite assistance from global organizations. Southeast Asia has lost about a third of its rainforests in the past 50 years, and the Amazon has lost about 20% in the same period.
Other organizations have successfully tapped into networks of activists around the world. Perhaps the best known is Greenpeace. Founded in 1971, Greenpeace operates in over 50 countries. Although they are best known for their advocacy of the oceans and denuclearization (removal of nuclear weapons) they are active in a variety of other environmental and social justice causes.


You may have heard the expression, "There is no such thing as a free lunch." The bio-ecologist, Barry Commoner used it as one of his Four Laws of Ecology.
A simple example: coal. It can be burned to produce electricity, and it just sits in the Earth, "free" for the taking. So, many countries take it, and burn it. This can also produce extensive air pollution, harmful to humans and ultimately contributing to the dangerous warming of the Earth. Sure, "scrubbers" can be put on smokestacks to filter out the black exhaust before it pollutes the air. But scrubbers cost money, so that either lowers company profits or raises the cost to consumers. And that's just one very basic example. Virtually every environmental protection comes up against these competing interests. Societies and communities are forced to put a price tag on these decisions. Put another way, if the scrubbers don't absorb the sooty particles billowing up those smokestacks, then it's trees, animals—and human lungs—that will.
The challenges of trying to balance environmental protection with economic growth remind us that "There is no such thing as a free lunch." The cost may be hidden, at first, but eventually someone will pay.
Author bio
Mike Burns holds an MA in global history, and teaches world history and Big History. An AP world history consultant for the College Board, Mike has also served on the Executive Council of the World History Association. As an international educator, he has taught in Qatar, China, and Vietnam, and led workshops in Asia, Europe, and Africa.

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