Environmental Movement in Four Waves



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Environmentalism’s Fourth Wave: A Reimagination

Companion Notes for the 11th Hour



Dr. Ari Santas

Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies

Valdosta State University
Environmental Movement in Four Waves: One can conceive of environmentalism in four waves or generations, every wave emerging from the previous and living through the next.
First Wave: Signs of Distress and Rediscovering the Wilderness (late 19th Century)
The first wave of environmentalism came from visionary thinkers who saw early on in our national history the directions we were taking and the consequences that might ensue.

  • H. D. Thoreau’s Walden (1854) saw the madness of war and oppression, the incessant busy-ness of his neighbors and that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” And he saw nature as a cure and remedy for the madness

  • John Muir’s (1838-1914) Preservationism founded the Sierra Club and was instrumental in establishing Yosemite and Sequoia Parks National Park Preserves

  • Gifford Pinchot’s (1865-1946) Conservationism was the first head of the US Forest Service

These visionaries were the impetus to important early steps in American Wildlife Preservation and Conservation. They saw the early warning signs of over-consumption and development and implored us to redirect our habits and energies back to wise use of resources and appreciation of natural beauty


Second Wave: Serious Cracks and a Rethinking Progress (mid 20th Century)
The second wave came half a century later, and brought with it a radical challenge to our cultural ideals of progress and growth without earthly limits.

Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac (1949) and the “Land Ethic

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring(1962) and the “Miracle” of DDT

Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb (1968) and a Future of Famine 1950: 2.6 B; 2009: 6.6 B
Counter Movement and Radical Environmental Activism: organized resistance to change and the marginalized strike back with (mostly) non-violent direct action

Greenpeace (NGO, founded in 1971) –originally anti-nuke, now a broad ongoing initiative

Greenpeace Mission: to change attitudes and behavior, to protect and conserve the environment and to promote peace



Earth First! (founded in 1979 by Dave Foreman et al), inspired by Carson, Leopold, and Edward Abbey’s the Monkey Wrench Gang

Monkeywrenching, ecotage, (tree spiking, etc.)

PETA (501c3 founded in 1980) and the Animal Rights Movement

PETA slogan: "animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, or use for entertainment."


Like their predecessors in the first wave or generation of environmentalism, these men and women were activists seeking a change in direction; what they brought that was new to the movement was a radical challenge to the main tenets of their society. As such, they have found themselves on the margins of discourse and often at odds with the mechanisms of state.
Yet during this era we passed the Wilderness Act (1964) created the EPA (1970), passed The Clean Air Act (1970) and Clean Water Act (1972)
Third Wave: Limitations in the Movement: Radical Environmentalism as a Radical Rethinking Culture and Environment (late 20th Century)
A third generation or wave of environmentalism came quickly after the second, as a confluence of scientific findings, philosophical and spiritual “rethinkings,” global scale events, and intersecting peoples movements.


  • Deep Ecology (Arne Næss, 1973): Environmentalism as a spiritual journey to rethink all our relations—to nature, each other, and all of creation (ecosophy)

  • Ecofeminism (coined in 1974): A challenge to the Movement

  1. Connection between male domination of women and human domination of nature

  2. male bias in environmental movement: patriarchal impulses

  • Social Ecology (Murray Bookchin, 1960’s-)

  1. connection between social ills stemming from exploitation and environmental degradation

  2. environmentalism as a critique of capitalism, rugged individualism, and progress as unending growth

  • Environmental Racism, Classism and the Environmental Justice Movement (Robert Bullard, 1994)

  1. NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard—but theirs?)

  2. Class and racial bias in early environmentalism

  • Intergenerational Inequity (Bryan Norton, 1987): third generation environmentalism and our current predicament

  1. Today’s environmental problems are not only global, but inherently intergenerational

  2. We have plenty – forgetting our progeny?

  • Non-Western and Indigenous Peoples Critiques

  1. Bearers of the greatest brunt of global environmental degradation are non-westerners

  2. Biases of Western environmentalism: preservationism, veganism—seem to be ideals of the privileged?

Third wave environmentalism brought conflict, pause, and redirection to the movement. I see two primary reasons, obviously related to one another:


first, the confluence of different peoples and movements brought environmental issues to the table from many different corners—too many to dismiss as special interests;

second, the environmental degradation and collapse of ecosystems on a global scale were impossible to ignore, and our politicians were largely ignoring them


Fourth Wave: Rethinking Our Socio-Techno-Cultural Way of Being in the 21st Century
Necessity is Upon Us. We are in the Environmental Age whether we like it or not. Drastic changes seem inevitable. Our experts are telling us that they are. In the coming years we most likely will have to deal with immense ecological changes on a global scale.


  • We are, as William James might say, “flying into the teeth of the facts.”

  • We are as Daniel Quinn said, in a freefall, though we may think we are flying; but more and more of us can see that the ground is coming up fast

  • So where do we go from here? Wander back Into the Wild? Go into the woods, put on animal skins, and eat roots and berries?

  • This used to be more of a plausible option (Thoreau, Muir, Leopold), and even recently some have tried to do this (Christopher McCandless of Into the Wild)

  • But most of us haven’t the opportunity or skills for such an undertaking, and in a world of 6.6 billion people this is no longer a viable option. We have little choice but to move on.



So what do we do? What will the fourth wave of environmentalism look like?


  • Our job will be to Reimagine—another visionary look to the future and a wise remembrance of the past.

  • As Paul Hawken puts it, ours is the generation that gets to completely change this world—to reimagine everything

      • Reimagining Energy and Transportation

  1. Disposed towards renewable and carbon neutral; Onus of justification on non-renewable energy ; carbon taxes

  2. Disposed towards earth friendly design: Mass Transit, pedestrian and bike trails




  1. rethinking factory farming—not just animal rights, but quality of life

  2. rethinking shipping (the same) food back and forth across the continent and world

  3. imagine a garden at your place (square foot garden, potted veggies, edible hedges)




      • Reimagining Consumption, Use, and Waste of Commodities

  1. Imagine what Ray Anderson calls a waste free industrial system, where one member’s waste is another’s food

  2. Imagine what it means to use something (not so hard—we used to do it when we made most of our own stuff and had no dump to cart things off to)




      • Reimagining Manufacturing, Architecture and Design

        • Imagine what it would be like to redesigning design itself (William McDonough)

          • Following Nature’s operating principles

          • Sustainable design, Ecological Designing (Bruce Mau and John Todd), Biomimicry (Janine Benyus)

          • Building Planning now starts with a tree map and builds symphonically with what’s already there


These Proposed Practices all use Existing Science and “off the shelf” Technologies, but they require Political Will based on another Reimagination. Shifting fundamentally the way we perceive our world is what will make all the little things possible

      • Reimagining Our World and Place Therein: Leadership is not Dominion

  1. Imagine with Daniel Quinn and indigenous leaders all over the globe how we would act if we didn’t assume the world belongs to us, but that we belong to the world?

  2. Imagine with Thom Hartmann creating a culture that interacts with science and the natural world in a sustainable fashion

  3. Imagine with Janine Benyus a world in which we take care of the place that will take care of our offspring far into the future

  4. Imagine with David Suzuki an Interconnectedness: where we literally are the Earth

  5. Imagine with our own Dr. Lovern incorporating the needs of “all my relations” into all decision-making

  6. That is, it’s time to Reimagine what it means to be a human being


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