(1) Environmentalism

The history of environmentalism is woven into the history of global ecological change. Before the 1960s, the word environment, in the relatively rare instances when it appeared in print, referred primarily to the home or work environment, not to nature, ecosystems, or the earth.

Efforts to balance human societies with nature’s capacity to adapt certainly has a much longer history than the more modern meaning of the word environment, extending back to when nomadic hunters and gatherers were allowing animals and plants to regenerate, settled indigenous communities were developing cultural practices of living within nature, and ancient Greek and Roman philosophers were reflecting on the consequences of different political and social orders for the natural world.

By the time of at least the 17th century, various scholars and state officials were already calling for greater efforts to preserve, conserve, and manage natural systems. By the 19th and early 20th centuries, as consumption of natural resources began to rise alongside industrial production and growing populations, more and more governments, including some colonizers, began to implement “scientific” management of resources (such as sustained yield management for timber) to try to ensure more efficient use of natural resources and lessen unnecessary degradation and unwanted consequences (such as soil erosion and flooding). Some governments, writers, and ordinary citizens began to worry, too, about the quality of air and unsanitary conditions in industrializing cities.

Many began to advocate for measures to preserve the “countryside” and “nature” by, for example, establishing national parks to preserve scenic beauty or species for viewing (e.g., birds) or hunting (e.g., bears) in natural settings.

Still, the word environment only began to take on its more modern political, social, ecological, and global meaning during the 1960s and early 1970s, as public demands for cleaner and safer living conditions became more vocal, as newly formed nongovernmental groups began to lobby governments and campaign to influence consumers and corporations, and as global-scale problems began to move up national and international political agendas.

Today, the concept of “the environment” is highly political, with definitions varying across and within societies. Some see the word environment as shorthand for natural ecosystem-for rainforests, oceans, deserts, and wetlands, as well as the atmosphere, climate, and ozone layer.

For them, protecting the global environment is about protecting the earth itself from growing numbers of people. For others, the word environment includes, or is more about, the living spaces for humans: the air in towns and cities, the garbage in streets, the rats and disease in dirty cities, the sewage in canals and oceans, and the industrial poisons in wells and lakes.

Thus, “managing” the environment is more about making the spaces where people reside cleaner, safer, and more pleasant; preserving “natural” beauty for hikers and birdwatchers; and ensuring efficient economic growth and sufficient resources for future generations.

The understanding of environmentalism is even more contested. Most would agree the “ism” connotes a movement advocating for change to reduce the impact of humans on the environment (with its multiple definitions). But who are the legitimate environmentalists?

Most would agree those ideas like “sustainable development” and the “precautionary principle”-as well as knowledge of the causes and consequences of escalating problems (deforestation, desertification, biodiversity loss, ozone depletion, and climate change) - infuse environmentalism with beliefs and values, shaping arguments and prescriptions. And most, too, would agree that an environmentalist, by definition, believes environmental problems are real and that some action is necessary (or, at least, potentially beneficial).

But what action? Here, little consensus exists among environmentalists on the best path forward. Some stress the need for better science and technologies, more trade, and more investment to reduce poverty and ensure more efficient production and distribution of environmental resources.

Others emphasize the need for stronger international laws and state regulations. Still others stress the need to reform the globalizing capitalist world order to eliminate South-North inequalities, foreign debts, and exploitative multinational corporations. And still others see the only way for lasting change to occur is to shift global consciousness to alter lifestyles, reduce human populations, and decrease consumption.

To capture this diversity within environmentalism, this dictionary takes a global tack with a focus on ideas, events, institutions, initiatives, and green movements since the 1960s. It strives to avoid a common error in many histories of environmentalism: to exaggerate the input of the wealthy countries of Europe and North America and understate the influence of Africa, Asia, South and Central America, Eastern Europe, and the polar regions. It aims as well for a more comprehensive analysis than most histories of the modern environmental movement, understanding environmentalism as emerging not only from grassroots and formal nongovernmental associations, but also from corporate, governmental, and intergovernmental organizations and initiatives.

This assumes the ideas and energy infusing environmentalism with political purpose arise from hundreds of thousands of sources: from corporate boardrooms to bureaucratic policies to international negotiations to activists.

Thus, environmentalists are not only indigenous people blocking a logging road, Greenpeace activists protesting a seal hunt, or green candidates contesting an election; an equal or larger number of environmentalists are working within the Japanese bureaucracy to implement environmental policies, within the World Bank to assess the environmental impacts of loans, within Wal-Mart to green its purchasing practices, or within intergovernmental forums to negotiate international environmental agreements.

Understanding environmentalism in this way reveals that, unlike in the 1960s, as a movement it is no longer on the political fringes but is now a driving global force reforming state policies, international law, business practices, and community life everywhere.

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