How Grassroots Environmental Activism Has Changed the Course of History

September 1, 2021

Environmental activism is more mainstream today than ever before. In the last several years, activists like Greta Thunberg have become media stars and household names; national news outlets have ramped up their coverage of climate campaigns; and politicians have become increasingly outspoken about how environmental issues affect policy decisions.

The surge in awareness of environmental issues can largely be attributed to the influence of grassroots movements. Grassroots activism starts locally and unites people virtually anywhere to create change on a regional, national, or global scale.

What distinguishes grassroots activism from other forms of activism—and what makes grassroots movements effective—is the emphasis on collective action to address an acute problem, often at the local level. People from different backgrounds, who may not formally work on the issues they are seeking to address, come together to rally around a common cause, putting public pressure on elected officials, government bodies, and corporations to make change.

How the Environmental Movement Has Evolved

The history of the environmental movement is vast and nuanced, but there are three notable developments that have influenced the trajectory of environmental activism, particularly in the United States: the conservation movement, the environmental revolution, and the environmental justice movement. Each of these continue to iterate and evolve today, working hand-in-hand to enhance our understanding of our natural world and protect its resources.

Conservation

In the latter half of the 1800s, a new ideology emerged: conservation. Unlike its predecessor, preservation, which seeks to shield nature from human influence, conservation focuses on protecting natural areas and resources for human use and enjoyment.

The growth of the conservation movement was partly a reaction to the environmental concerns of the industrial revolution, and also a result of nature’s literary debut in romanticism. Writers and naturalists like Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, William Wordsworth, and Aldo Leopold wrote extensively about man’s connection to nature, inspiring the public to acknowledge the importance of protecting the natural world. Americans began to take an interest in their wilderness within the context of a new paradigm: the American West was not merely a frontier to conquer, but a natural landscape to document, protect, and savor.

Eventually, the conservation movement led to the founding of the national park system in the United States. Yellowstone National Park, established in 1872, was the first protected area of its kind in the world. The growth of the US park system prompted other countries to follow suit: Australia created Royal National Park in 1879, South Africa announced Kruger National Park in 1898, and Sweden established nine national parks in 1909.

Established in 1929, Wyoming’s Grand Tetons National Park is one of many national parks in the United States.

The Environmental Revolution

The 1960s and ‘70s saw a steep increase in public concern over the environment, particularly in the United States. The shift in public perception was marked by the publication, in 1962, of Rachel Carson’s bestselling book, Silent Spring, in which she revealed how pesticides damage the environment and harm local wildlife.

As the public became increasingly aware of and concerned about pollution, loss of natural resources, chemical use, nuclear testing, oil spills, species extinction, suburban sprawl, and freeway construction, grassroots environmental movements started to gain popularity. Organizations like the Scenic Hudson Preservation Conference and the Sierra Club united communities to protest the construction of hydroelectric plants and dams in natural areas, setting a powerful precedent for other grassroots groups.

Throughout the 1960s and ‘70s, Congress passed a slew of environmental legislation, including the Clean Air Act, the Wilderness Act, the Clean Water Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act. These new statutes enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress and were signed by presidents of both political parties.

Earth Day also began in 1970. The first celebration—prompted by a 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, California, that blighted the coast and killed thousands of marine animals—inspired nearly 20 million Americans to hit the streets to protest environmental destruction. Today, the Earth Day Network seeks to maintain the momentum established 50 years ago to safeguard our planet.

The Environmental Justice Movement

Meanwhile, the US industrial sector and the policies that bolstered it had another important reckoning. After decades of planning, building, and operating noxious industries in underprivileged communities across the country, a pattern of environmental discrimination began to emerge. In the 1980s, environmental consciousness expanded to include the concept of environmental justice, the idea that people of all cultures, races, and ethnicities deserve equal and fair treatment with respect to environmental policies and regulations.

Many historians consider a 1982 protest in Warren County, North Carolina, to be the starting point for the environmental justice movement in the US. More than 500 African American civil rights activists gathered to protest a polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) landfill located in a predominantly Black community.

Then, in 1987, a landmark study found that over 15 million African Americans, eight million people of Hispanic origin, and half of all Asian/Pacific Islanders and Indigenous Americans resided in communities with at least one abandoned or uncontained toxic waste site. The study illustrated the degree to which social issues are inherently intertwined with environmental issues and shed light on an unfortunate truth: marginalized communities often suffer the most from destructive environmental practices. In fact, race was the most significant correlation in the location of toxic waste sites.

Though marginalized communities have been fighting for their environments for centuries, the environmental justice movement has been slow to take hold in the larger public consciousness. Today, many Indigenous groups are still battling harmful ideologies such as fortress conservation, the theory that true biodiversity is only possible when you remove human influence from an ecosystem. Not only does this concept of conservation exclude Indigenous people from their own land, but it fails to take into account the fact that Indigenous communities are responsible for protecting 80% of the world’s biodiversityand are often the best stewards of natural resources.

Youth activists protesting against petrochemical pollution in St. James Parish, Louisiana, with RISE St James, a nonprofit founded by Sharon Lavigne (United States, 2021) to fight for environmental justice.

Grassroots Environmental Activism Today

Today’s grassroots environmental movement has evolved to embrace the current zeitgeist: that environmental activism must be inclusive, accessible, and global to be effective. This is very much the philosophy that inspired the founding of the Goldman Environmental Prize, in 1989, and continues to motivate it.

Thanks to the countless grassroots environmental leaders (including 206 Goldman Prize winners to date) who have spearheaded movements and advocated for change, more and more people today are aware of environmental issues—in their own communities and across the world. And, as the understanding of the existential threat posed by climate change grows, a greater number of individuals are taking an interest in environmental activism.

In fact, in a 2018 Pew Research Center study, half of all countries surveyed said they consider global climate change to be a major threat. This widespread and growing interest in the environment means that grassroots movements have become increasingly diverse, including people of all ages, races, nationalities, and backgrounds.

Social media has also played an integral role in the popularity and accessibility of grassroots activism. Online petitions, digital campaigns, trending hashtags, and helpful infographics have made it easy for everyday citizens to educate their social circles about environmental causes and motivate them to act. And, thanks to viral social media coverage of events like the Dakota Access Pipeline protests and the controversial shrinking of national monuments in Utah, more individuals are recognizing the key roles that Indigenous people play in protecting the environment.

Notable Grassroots Environmental Movements

There are many examples of grassroots environmental campaigns, but three movements—all led by Goldman Prize winners—have been particularly influential and instructive.

In the 1980s, lifelong environmental activist and inaugural Goldman Prize winner Lois Gibbs (United States, 1990) organized her community to speak out against the chemical waste buried in her neighborhood in Niagara Falls, New York. She formed the Love Canal Homeowners Association and pushed local, state, and federal governments repeatedly until her community was evacuated and cleanup began. Thanks to her efforts, the EPA created the Superfund Program, which works to identify and clean the nation’s most toxic waste sites.

Meanwhile, the late Professor Wangari Maathai (Kenya, 1991) spearheaded Kenya’s Greenbelt Movement, a grassroots tree-planting campaign dedicated to fighting against the effects of deforestation and desertification. She eventually also won the Nobel Peace Prize, in 2004, in recognition of her important work. The movement has since grown to include international work on environmental conservation, democracy-building, and community empowerment, inspiring communities and activists worldwide.

Gwich’in tribal leaders Sarah James, Norma Kassi, and Jonathon Solomon (United States, 2002) used grassroots campaigns to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska—and its native caribou—from oil drilling. They educated Congress about the Arctic’s importance, organized local assemblies, and helped native communities develop their own sustainable sources of energy. Their early and continued advocacy helped pave the way for organizing by Indigenous communities in Alaska and elsewhere. In June 2021, the US government suspended oil and gas leases in the Arctic Refuge, a testament to the enduring effect of Gwich’in grassroots activism.

Every One of Us Can Effect Change

Getting involved in a grassroots environmental movement is one of the most effective and accessible ways to drive environmental progress. Success depends on everyone playing their part—from the leaders who spearhead campaigns to the individuals who sign petitions, donate money, and spread awareness. The beauty of grassroots activism is that everyone is welcome, and there is a role for each to play.

If you want to participate in environmental change, look out for opportunities in your own community to get involved—and amplify the work and voices of others. Visit our website to learn more about this year’s Prize winners and find out how you can support their causes.