The Environmental Movement

The Environmental Movement in North America: A Brief History

Allyson Taylor
This section aims to provide historical context for the goals and activities of the Montreal Parks and Playgrounds Movement by engaging in a brief discussion of two incarnations of the environmental movement in North America: first in the late 19th and early 20th century, and secondly, in the 1960s and 1970s.

Late 1800s and Early 1900s: The Early Environmental Movement

The first incarnation of the environmental movement, of which the Montreal Parks and Playgrounds Association was a part, emerged in the late 19th and early 20th century and centred largely on efforts to better manage natural resources in order to conserve natural spaces, which were valued for moral and sometimes spiritual reasons. [1] Two distinct segments of the early environmental movement should be distinguished: firstly, hunters, naturalists, and explorers sought to promote conservation of the natural environment – including forests and other natural resources – either for its own sake, or for their personal enjoyment or gain. [2] These individuals correspond to the ‘preservationists’ described by the scholar David L. Sills, a group whose main interest lay in safeguarding a natural environment free from alteration by humankind. [3] Preservationists tended to associate themselves with voluntary organizations like the Sierra Club. [4] Meanwhile, urban reformers, doctors, and engineers constituted a second strand of the movement, and sought to ensure the safety and sanitation of city dwellers by creating systems to maintain clean water supplies and improve living conditions. [5] This group can be loosely equated with Sills’s “utilitarians,” who wished for the natural environment to be “used wisely, governed carefully, and renewed properly.” [6] This group tended to pursue its goals from such platforms as the National Park Service, the Forest Service, and the Soil Conservation Services in the United States. [7]

This time period, which coincided with the Progressive Era in the United States, was characterized by increasing government control and regulation of resources where it had not existed before. [8] The United States government generally followed the philosophy of Gifford Pinchot, the first director of the US Forest Service, who believed that efficiency should be prioritized in the consumption of resources so that the same land could be used for multiple purposes – for example, mining, logging, game protection, grazing, and recreation. [9] During this period, millions of acres of land were devoted to national forests and protected national parks in both the United States and Canada. [10]

The beginning of the twentieth century also saw the formation of the first voluntary associations committed to conservation, notably including the Audubon Society, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Sierra Club. [11] These groups represented the first strand of environmentalists, those whose ultimate goal was conservation. At the same time, agitation for improved city living conditions emanated from groups concerned with human health and well being, leading to the development of water and sewage treatment systems as well as municipal landfills. [12] Reform-minded individuals began actively promoting the beautification of cities through such efforts as the establishment of parks, clean-up efforts, and attempts to reduce the presence of industrial pollutants like smog and soot. [13]

Early Environmental Inclinations Overseas: A British Example

The environmental movement has by no means been confined to North America. The “Garden City” movement in the United Kingdom was one prominent incarnation of the environmental movement in Europe. [14] As in North America, the movement in Britain was a response to the rapid urbanization – and its attendant overcrowding, congestion, and sanitation issues – that followed the Industrial Revolution. [15] Sir Ebenezer Howard, a city planner born in 1850, is considered the founder of the Garden City movement in Britain, and in 1898 he authored “To-morrow: A Peaceful Path to Social Reform.” [16] This seminal work contained a proposal for the founding of ‘garden cities’ as an antidote to the myriad problems of urbanization. [17] These cities would be self-sufficient entities (rather than suburbs) each built to accommodate 30,000 people, owned by corporations and surrounded by an ‘agricultural belt’ of green upon which no development would be permitted to encroach. [18] Howard considered these carefully planned cities to be the ideal solution to the problems of the day, since they would provide all the conveniences of large cities while also providing ready access to nature through the ‘agricultural belt’ and parks and conservatories located within each city. [19] Howard’s vision had a notable impact on urban planning worldwide, and in his lifetime, two garden cities were founded – Letchworth and Welwyn, both in Hertfordshire, England – which then served as models for towns that the British government organized following the Second World War. [20]

An Important North American Figure: Frederick Law Olmsted and the City Beautiful Movement

Like the Garden City movement in the United Kingdom, the City Beautiful movement in North America emerged out of concern with urbanization and the growing numbers of people dwelling in increasingly concentrated spaces. [21] Many were concerned about how hospitable cities truly were, and the detrimental effects that city living could have on quality of life. There emerged a movement towards city beautification in the latter half of the 1850s which followed the theory that the more aesthetically pleasing a city was made, the happier people would be, and the more willing they would be to live in that city and contribute to its economy. [22] Frederick Law Olmsted was a key figure in the City Beautiful movement and played an important role in the realization of some of the movement’s goals. As a leading landscape architect, he designed many famed parks in North America, prominently including Central Park in New York City and Mount Royal in Montreal. [23]

Twentieth Century Revival

After decades of relative disinterest, environment began to receive widespread attention from the public in the mid-to-late 1960s. [24] Numerous factors contributed to the surge in attention to the environment. The prior existence of much activism and agitation surrounding the civil rights movement in the United States and opposition to the Vietnam War, especially on university campuses, helped to create an environment that was particularly receptive to concerns about the future of the planet. [25] Furthermore, a sense of disorientation resulting from societal changes including technological advancements that were perceived as happening too quickly for people to adjust fostered a “hostility toward change itself” and a longing for a simpler, more pastoral, cleaner time. [26] Some of these technological changes allowed people to experience the environment – and environmental change – in ways they had never imagined: with colour television, they were able to see brown smog and yellow water, which served to stimulate environmental concern. [27] One notable stimulus occurred when a match was tossed into Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River in 1967 – the resulting fire destroyed two bridges and caused much alarm. [28] Similarly, residents of Denver, Colorado who found that smog obscured their mountain views pursued environmental action; Los Angeles was another city whose air pollution became disturbingly bad and contributed to environmental agitation. [29] The testing of nuclear technologies was yet another contributing factor to increasing fears about environmental degradation. [30]

These events and others prompted a dramatic increase in the amount of mass media attention to the environment, and in the membership numbers of voluntary groups committed to environmental improvement or preservation, while also spawning a host of new organizations. [31] Such organizations as the Sierra Club, the National Audubon Society, and the Wilderness Society grew remarkably in prominence and membership during the 1960s. [32] Meanwhile, the publication of numerous works detailing the potential consequences of maltreatment of the environment, including Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, generated feelings of alarm and fed into the mood of social unrest. [33] The terms “ecology” and “environment” became ubiquitous in popular culture, and groups mobilized to pursue environmental goals through actions including demonstrations and protests, as well as through litigation. [34]

Thus the rise of environmentalism as a widespread political and social movement in North America began in the 1960s and 1970s. [35] The movement, rather than being elite-driven as previous conservation-oriented efforts had been, was remarkably grassroots-driven, in keeping with the era’s anti-establishment mood. [36] Part of the movement’s broad appeal derived from environmentalism’s framing as relating directly to the survival of the species and the earth as a fragile planet, a cause to which few could muster strong opposition. [37] Earth Day 1970 was emblematic of the much greater citizen participation and broader public base of support that the environmental movement of the late 20th century enjoyed in comparison to the earlier incarnation: more than 10,000 schools and 1,500 colleges held parades, demonstrations, and protests to celebrate the day. [38]

In response to the widespread public mobilization and concern, the United States began an era of “command-and-control” regulation in the 1970s, wherein numerous laws were introduced by Congress to set limitations on the exploitation of the environment. [39] The “cascade” of regulatory laws came in response to public mobilization and resulted in a system of laws at the national level that “control[s] toxic substances from the cradle to the grave.” [40]

Following this regulatory fervour, a transitional period emerged which pulled back from the regulatory frenzy of the 1970s in favour of a more flexible and efficient approach, especially at the urging of property owners and businesses whose interests were negatively impacted by the environmental laws. [41] While support for the environmental movement had built up significantly between 1968 and 1970 (in which year it reached its peak), it began to wane in 1972. [42] The Arab oil embargo and resulting energy crisis of 1973-74 is credited with dramatically worsening an already-present decline in interest in environmentalism. [43]

Since then, environmentalists have begun to conceive of the environmental movement as truly global in nature and scope, especially due to the transnational nature of many of the critical issues they faced, including climate change and overfishing. [44] The twenty-first century incarnation of environmentalism is especially attuned to questions of sustainable development and communities, having largely shifted away from rhetoric about the demise of the planet or the species. [45]


  1. Cary Coglianese, “Social Movements, Law, and Society: The Institutionalization of the Environmental Movement,” University of Pennsylvania Law Review 150, no. 1 (Nov., 2011): 89.
  2. Ibid.
  3. David L. Sills, “The Environmental Movement and Its Critics,” Human Ecology 3, no. 1 (Jan., 1975): 2-3.
  4. Ibid., 3.
  5. Cary Coglianese, “Social Movements, Law, and Society: The Institutionalization of the Environmental Movement,” University of Pennsylvania Law Review 150, no. 1 (Nov., 2011): 89.
  6. David L. Sills, “The Environmental Movement and Its Critics,” Human Ecology 3, no. 1 (Jan., 1975): 3.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Cary Coglianese, “Social Movements, Law, and Society: The Institutionalization of the Environmental Movement,” University of Pennsylvania Law Review 150, no. 1 (Nov., 2011): 89.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. “Sir Ebenezer Howard (British urban planner),” Encyclopaedia Britannica, accessed 15 March 2014, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/273428/Sir-Ebenezer-Howard.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid.
  21. “Frederick Law Olmsted,” FrederickLawOlmsted.com, accessed 10 March 2014, http://www.fredericklawolmsted.com/Lifeframe.htm.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Ibid.
  24. William D. Ruckelshaus, “Environmental Protection: A Brief History of the Environmental Movement in American and the Implications Abroad,” Environmental Law 15: 455.
  25. Ibid., 456.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Ibid., 457.
  29. Ibid., 458
  30. David L. Sills, “The Environmental Movement and Its Critics,” Human Ecology 3, no. 1 (Jan., 1975): 4.
  31. Ibid., 2.
  32. Ibid.
  33. Cary Coglianese, “Social Movements, Law, and Society: The Institutionalization of the Environmental Movement,” University of Pennsylvania Law Review 150, no. 1 (Nov., 2011): 91.
  34. David L. Sills, “The Environmental Movement and Its Critics,” Human Ecology 3, no. 1 (Jan., 1975): 2.
  35. Daniel A. Mazmanian and Michael E. Kraft, “The Three Epochs of the Environmental Movement” (USC Bedrosian Center on Governance and the Public Enterprise, Los Angeles, March 2008): 8.
  36. Cary Coglianese, “Social Movements, Law, and Society: The Institutionalization of the Environmental Movement,” University of Pennsylvania Law Review 150, no. 1 (Nov., 2011): 91.
  37. David L. Sills, “The Environmental Movement and Its Critics,” Human Ecology 3, no. 1 (Jan., 1975): 7.
  38. Cary Coglianese, “Social Movements, Law, and Society: The Institutionalization of the Environmental Movement,” University of Pennsylvania Law Review 150, no. 1 (Nov., 2011): 94.
  39. Daniel A. Mazmanian and Michael E. Kraft, “The Three Epochs of the Environmental Movement” (USC Bedrosian Center on Governance and the Public Enterprise, Los Angeles, March 2008): 8.
  40. William D. Ruckelshaus, “Environmental Protection: A Brief History of the Environmental Movement in American and the Implications Abroad,” Environmental Law 15: 457.
  41. Daniel A. Mazmanian and Michael E. Kraft, “The Three Epochs of the Environmental Movement” (USC Bedrosian Center on Governance and the Public Enterprise, Los Angeles, March 2008), 9.
  42. David L. Sills, “The Environmental Movement and Its Critics,” Human Ecology 3, no. 1 (Jan., 1975): 7.
  43. Ibid.
  44. Daniel A. Mazmanian and Michael E. Kraft, “The Three Epochs of the Environmental Movement” (USC Bedrosian Center on Governance and the Public Enterprise, Los Angeles, March 2008), 9.
  45. Ibid.

 

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