“The goal of life is living in agreement with nature.”
— Zeno ~ 450 BC (from Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers)
Awareness of our delicate relationship with our habitat likely arose among early hunter-gatherers when they saw how fire and hunting tools impacted their environment. Anthropologists have found evidence of human-induced animal and plant extinctions from 50,000 BCE, when only about 200,000 Homo sapiens roamed the Earth. We can only speculate about how these early humans reacted, but migrating to new habitats appears to be a common response.
Ecological awareness first appears in the human record at least 5,000 years ago. Vedic sages praised the wild forests in their hymns, Taoists urged that human life should reflect nature’s patterns and the Buddha taught compassion for all sentient beings.
In the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, we see apprehension about forest destruction and drying marshes. When Gilgamesh cuts down sacred trees, the deities curse Sumer with drought, and Ishtar (mother of the Earth goddess) sends the Bull of Heaven to punish Gilgamesh.
In ancient Greek mythology, when the hunter Orion vows to kill all the animals, Gaia objects and creates a great scorpion to kill Orion. When the scorpion fails, Artemis, goddess of the forests and mistress of animals, shoots Orion with an arrow.
In North America, Pawnee Eagle Chief, Letakots-Lesa, told anthropologist Natalie Curtis that “Tirawa, the one Above, did not speak directly to humans… he showed himself through the beasts, and from them and from the stars, the sun, and the moon should humans learn.”
Some of the earliest human stories contain lessons about the sacredness of wilderness, the importance of restraining our power, and our obligation to care for the natural world.
Early environmental response
Five thousand years ago, the Indus civilisation of Mohenjo Darro (an ancient city in modern-day Pakistan), were already recognising the effects of pollution on human health and practiced waste management and sanitation. In Greece, as deforestation led to soil erosion, the philosopher Plato lamented, “All the richer and softer parts have fallen away, and the mere skeleton of the land remains.” Communities in China, India, and Peru understood the impact of soil erosion and prevented it by creating terraces, crop rotation, and nutrient recycling.
The Greek physicians Hippocrates and Galen began to observe environmental health problems such as acid contamination in copper miners. Hippocrates’ book, De aëre, aquis et locis (Air, Waters, and Places), is the earliest surviving European work on human ecology.
Advancing agriculture boosted human populations but also caused soil erosion and attracted insect infestations that led to severe famines between 200 and 1200 CE.
In 1306, the English king Edward I limited coal burning in London due to smog. In the 17th century, the naturalist and gardener John Evelyn wrote that London resembled “the suburbs of Hell.” These events inspired the first ‘renewable’ energy boom in Europe, as governments started to subsidise water and wind power.
In the 16th century, the Dutch artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted scenes of raw sewage and other pollution emptying into rivers, and Dutch lawyer Hugo Grotius wrote The Free Sea, claiming that pollution and war violate natural law.
Perhaps the first real environmental activists were the Bishnoi Hindus of Khejarli, who were slaughtered by the Maharaja of Jodhpur in 1720 for attempting to protect the forest that he felled to build himself a palace.
The 18th century witnessed the dawn of modern environmental rights. After a yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin petitioned to manage waste and to remove tanneries for clean air as a public “right” (albeit, on land stolen from Indigenous nations). Later, American artist George Catlin proposed that Indigenous land be protected as a “natural right”.
At the same time in Britain, Jeremy Benthu, wrote An Introduction to Principles of Morals and Legislation which argued for animal rights. Thomas Malthus wrote his famous essay warning that human overpopulation would lead to ecological destruction. Knowledge of global warming began 200 years ago, when Jean Baptiste Fourier calculated that the Earth’s atmosphere trapped heat like a greenhouse.
Then, in 1835, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote Nature, encouraging us to appreciate the natural world for its own sake and proposing a limit on human expansion into the wilderness. American Botanist William Bartram and ornithologist James Audubon dedicated themselves to the conservation of wildlife. Henry David Thoreau wrote his seminal ecological treatise, Walden, which has since inspired generations of environmentalists.
A few decades later, George Perkins Marsh wrote Man and Nature, denouncing humanity’s indiscriminate “warfare” upon wilderness, warning of climate change, and insisting that “The world cannot afford to wait” – a plea we still hear today.
At the end of the 19th century, in Jena, Germany, zoologist Ernst Haeckel wrote Generelle Morphologie der Organismen in which he discussed the relationships among species and coined the word ‘ökologie’ (from the Greek oikos, meaning home), the science we now know as ecology.
In 1892, John Muir founded the Sierra Club in the US to protect the country’s wilderness. Seventy years later, a chapter of the Sierra Club in western Canada broke away to become more active. This was the beginning of Greenpeace.
“That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology,” wrote Aldo Leopold in A Sand County Almanac, “but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics … a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
In the early 20th century, the chemist Alice Hamilton led a campaign against lead poisoning from leaded gasoline, accusing General Motors of willful murder. The corporation attacked Hamilton, and it took governments 50 years to ban leaded gasoline. Meanwhile, industrial smog choked major world cities. In 1952, 4,000 people died in London’s infamous killer fog, and four years later the British Parliament passed the first Clean Air Act.
Ecology grew into a full-fledged, global movement with the development of nuclear weapons. Albert Einstein, who felt morally troubled by his contribution to the nuclear bomb, drafted an anti-nuclear manifesto in 1955 with British philosopher Bertrand Russell, signed by ten Nobel Prize winners. The letter inspired the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, in the UK – a model for modern, non-violent civil disobedience. In 1958, the Quaker Committee for Non-Violent Action launched two boats – the Golden Rule and Phoenix – into US nuclear test sites, a direct inspiration for Greenpeace a decade later.
Rachel Carson brought the environmental movement into focus with the 1962 publication of Silent Spring, describing the impact of chemical pesticides on biodiversity. “For the first time in the history of the world,” she wrote, “every human being is now subjected to contact with dangerous chemicals.” Shortly before her death she expressed the emerging ecological ethic in a magazine essay: “It is a wholesome and necessary thing for us to turn again to the Earth and in the contemplation of her beauties to know the sense of wonder and humility.”
Norwegian philosopher Arne Næss cited Silent Spring as a key influence for his concept of ‘Deep Ecology’ – ecological awareness that goes beyond the logic of biological systems to a deep, personal experience of the self as an integrated part of nature.
In The Subversive Science, Paul Shepard described ecology as a “primordial axiom,” revealed in ancient cultures, which should guide all human social constructions. Ecology was “subversive” to Shepard because it supplanted human exceptionalism with interdependence.
In India, villagers in Gopeshwar, Uttarakhand, inspired by Gandhi and the 18th century Bishnoi Hindus, defended the forest against commercial logging by encircling and embracing trees. Their movement spread across northern India, known as Chipko (“to embrace”) – the original tree-huggers.
In 1968, the American writer Cliff Humphrey founded Ecology Action. One media stunt involved Humphrey gathering 60 people in Berkeley, California, to smash his 1958 Dodge Rambler into the street, declaring, “these things pollute the earth.” Prophetically, Humphrey told Greenpeace co-founder Bob Hunter, “This thing has just begun.”
A year later, inspired by the writings of Carson, Shepard, and Naess, and by the actions of Chipko and Ecology Action, a group of Canadian and American activists set out to merge peace with ecology, and Greenpeace was born.
Co-founder Ben Metcalfe commissioned 12 billboard signs around Vancouver that read:
Look it up.
It’s hard to imagine now, but in 1969, most people did have to look it up. Ecology was still not a household word, although it soon would be.
In 1977, after two anti-nuclear bomb campaigns and confrontations with Soviet whalers and Norwegian sealers, Greenpeace purchased a retired trawler in London and renamed it the Rainbow Warrior, after a indigenous legend from Canada. The Cree story (recounted in Warriors of the Rainbow, by William Willoya and Vinson Brown) tells of a time when the land, rivers, and air are poisoned, and a group of people from all nations of the world band together to save the Earth.
Nearly a half-century after the foundation of Greenpeace, the global ecology movement has reached every corner of the world, with thousands of groups springing up to defend the environment. Meanwhile, the challenges facing us grow ever more daunting. The next half-century will test whether or not humanity can respond to the challenge.
Rex Weyler is an author, journalist and co-founder of Greenpeace International.
Resources and Links:
Environmental History Timeline: Radford University
Ramachandra Guha: Environmentalism: A Global History, 2000
The European Society for Environmental History: ESEH.org
Environmental History, Oxford Journals
Donald Worster: Nature’s Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas, 1977
J. D. Hughes: Ecology in Ancient Civilizations (U. New Mexico Press, 1975): Oxford Academic
Society for Environmental Journalists: sej.org
Letakots-Lesa (Eagle Chief) and Natalie Curtis on Pawnee songs: Entersection
William Willoya and Vinson Brown: Warriors of the Rainbow
Alice Hamilton, MD: Exploring The Dangerous Trades, 1943
Aldo Leopold: Sand County Almanac, 1949
Rachel Carson: Silent Spring, 1962
Barry Commoner: The Closing Circle, 1971
Paul Shepard: The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game, 1973
Gregory Bateson: Mind and Nature, 1978
Roderick Nash: The Rights of Nature, 1989
Deep Ecology for the 21st Century: A good survey of ecology writers, Arne Naess, Chellis Glendinning, Gary Snyder, Paul Shepard, and others
It's help me to understand what is the environment what's really going on the earth now
I'm disappointed that an otherwise engaging article inaccurately portrays the Rainbow Warrior legend, which, according to my internet research when I was curious to learn about it, was invented by the men this article credits with retelling it (ie, not an indigenous legend at all).
This is a very good
Quick research confirms Franklin died in 1790, and the yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia was in 1793. However, quick research additionally reveals Franklin and his neighbors supported the petition in 1739 (although a source claims that Franklin may not have signed the petition though he wrote in support of it in his Gazette). Therefore, it seems the author has mistakenly written "After a yellow fever epidemic in 1793 ..." rather than "Prior to a yellow fever epidemic...". Fact-checking, proof-reading, and corrections are important.
It pushes me to write more about ecocriticism. And i do. Well i appreciate your diction. I want to work with you.
I regret to note that there was no reference to the first modern environmentalist Alexander von Humboldt.
Interest in environmental activism is based on a few factors such as education, knowledge of future environmental consequences, and personal attitudes. For example, the person has to be informed about the environmental issue and its causes, needs to understand how he or she must behave in order to reduce his or her effect on the environmental issue and should know whether he or she has the ability to bring about change through his or her own behavior. On the one hand, environmental activism has become significantly important in terms of policy enforcement, compliance, and regulation. For instance, environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs), are widely used by state governments to help recognize, track, and prosecute environmental crime. In this context, environmental activism has evolved into a critical tool for preventing environmental crime. Environmental activists, on the other hand, have been labeled "eco-terrorists" and ideological warriors by state legislators and regulatory authorities that obstruct trade, economic growth, and private sector ambitions. As a result, protesting for the environment has become an exceedingly risky endeavor, with environmentalists being harassed, persecuted, and killed by both governments and businesses. Environmental activists are seen as a danger to companies and governments who benefit from the use of natural resources in these cases. Hence, it can be claimed that the partnership between environmentalists and the government is paradoxical, including both cooperation and exploitation, as well as dynamism and threat. My personal attitude towards the movement that aims to address environmental concerns is, of course, positive and I support those people who bring our attention to serious and important environmental issues. However, I believe that environmental activists should also need to act appropriately and ethically, they need to cooperate with all groups concerned in order to gain a successful result instead of just demanding. The world needs to, and actually has the potential to, bring the "kind" of humanity to the fore for everyone's sake, but particularly for the benefit of our natural resources and the environment in these times and in the future.
I would like to get more involved with Greenpeace. UMC.org has a platform called EarthKeepers/CreationCare that I recently learned about, as a Christian for over 30 yrs, and I separated my passion as an an environmentalist and called myself a Creationist to appeal to Christians, and it is refreshing to see that Churches are getting on board with eco issues and even using evolution and science as proof. Please email me more information on how I can help. [email protected]
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A little disappointed that I didn't see anything about the world's greatest problem - overpopulation - on your site. It is really sad that the most influential organization on the planet still refuses to meet population head on. That is why we haven't seen any improvement in critical world issues - because even Greenpeace is treating population like a taboo issue. With almost EIGHT BILLION consumers on the planet, why can't we talk about population??
Hello Valorie and thanks for your comment. Here is what we think. Population matters. But talking about overpopulation is a red herring. Reducing our population won't solve the enormous problems of overconsumption and inequality we're facing. There are enough resources on our planet to provide for everyone, if they are fairly distributed under a sustainable economic model. Reducing our population won't solve the enormous problems of overconsumption and inequality we're facing. According to Oxfam, the richest 10% account for almost 50% of consumption emissions, so reducing resource use and consumption are key to a sustainable future. We have to live within our means and reduce our dependence on an extractive economy. Please find below a few quotes and press articles for your consideration: - "Actually, resource consumption and environmental transformation are accelerating much more rapidly than population growth. Population is now the least important driver of environmental degradation, overtaken by disproportionately high consumption patterns in developed economies." Source: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jul/29/population-climate-change-and-inequality - "To understand why the above version of the overpopulation narrative is problematic, let’s run through a simplified example. Ten people live in a house. Fifty cans of food are delivered each week. This works fine for a while, but slowly food consumption increases. They are now eating 60 cans of food each week, and running low on their stockpile. Jon (a member of the house) declares that “there are too many people eating too much food too fast”, and suggests that they must kick people out of the house, or everyone might starve! What Jon fails to mention is how many cans of food each person is eating. Three people are eating two cans per week, three are eating three cans per week, two are eating five cans, one is eating ten, and one is eating a full twenty-five. In fact, it is Jon who is eating twenty-five cans per week! Viewed in this light, you can see that the problem is not “too many people” in the house, because different people consume wildly different amounts of food. If Jon cuts back to ten cans of food a week, the house would be totally fine! Population control is unnecessary when everyone gets their fair share." *Source*: https://medium.com/climate-conscious/michael-moores-planet-of-the-humans-offers-dangerous-solutions-to-the-climate-crisis-c25d59c96270 - "If everyone on Earth lived the lifestyle of a traditional Indian villager, it is arguable that even 12 billion would be a sustainable world population. If everyone lives like an upper-middle-class North American (a status to which much of the world seems to aspire), then even two billion is unsustainable. Population decline is welcome news, but it needs to be considered in a larger context. Population stability or decline is not an environmental panacea if it is accompanied by continued growth in consumption. (...) This means that overpopulation is a red herring. Of course, at some point, preferably soon, population growth must end, but overpopulation is a diversion from more fundamental issues. Lurking behind the spectre of population growth lies a more challenging problem: economic growth." *Source*: https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/blog/concern-overpopulation-red-herring-consumption-problem-sustainability - "If you are concerned about the growth in population, make yourself a champion of female empowerment in the developing world. You will be contributing to the most effective solution to the problem without any of the moral baggage. (...) Some population units consume and emit more than others. If your concern is the creation of new consumers and emitters, your gaze should be drawn to those who will consume and emit the most, i.e., the wealthy." *Source*: https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2017/9/26/16356524/the-population-question
While this is all quite interesting - there is an error in your "Environmental Rights" section. The yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia happened in 1793, Franklin died in 1790, so there is no way that he petitioned to manage waste, etc...
i love this website, it has helped me to finally become a vegan. i have been a vegan helping this planet for 4 years not and i love every second of it.
Very interesting the article about the origins of the ecological movement. I noticed that the symbol for the Esperanto language is very similar to the ecological symbol. I particularly liked the part of the article related to the Cree story about the union of peoples from different nations to save the planet. Thank you for the great article. Alvaro