Environmentalism and Social Change

The vast majority of Americans consider themselves “environmentally friendly.” Furthermore, estimates show that some 14 million people in the United States belong to one or more of the 150 nationwide environmental organizations. A few of the best‐known of these organizations are Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Contemporary environmentalism has moved in several directions. Many local grassroots environmental groups have emerged to deal with alleged environmental hazards. And many large and influential environmental groups have become increasingly visible politically by lobbying for causes such as energy conservation, elimination of air and water pollution as well as safety and environmental hazards, and the protection of wildlife and natural resources. Both grassroots and large, influential organizations generally work for social change within the bounds of the law via education, electoral politics, lobbying, and lawsuits. Some smaller, more radical groups, however, may resort to illegal methods, such as threats and sabotage.

Sociologists have concerned themselves with what they call environmental racism. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has indicated that ethnic and racial minorities are disproportionately exposed to lead, dangerous chemicals, dust, carbon monoxide, ozone, sulfur, sulfur dioxide, and the emissions from hazardous waste sites. Activists within Hispanic‐, African‐, Asian‐, and Native‐American communities explain environmental racism in light of their poor neighborhoods that may sit close to industrial sites and dumping grounds. Such exposure leads minorities to suffer disproportionate rates of cancer, birth defects, and chemical poisoning. Awareness of the impact of such exposure has led many minority communities to mobilize their resources to eliminate environmental hazards.

The environmental movement, like other social movements, has encountered resistance. In fact, this resistance has grown into its own social movement. Founded in the late 1980s, the wise‐use movement calls for balance in society's need for clean air, drinkable water, and undisturbed wilderness areas with the equally important need for food, jobs, energy, and tourist sites. Proponents of wise‐use often take an anti‐environmental approach, decrying what they believe constitutes “nature worship” on the part of environmentalists. For instance, they do not oppose opening public lands to mining, logging, grazing, and energy development. They may also allow dumping of hazardous wastes into rivers, cutting down forests, and developing businesses in national parks. The wise‐use movement has traditionally received political and financial support from such groups as the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Cattlemen's Association.