Collective Behavior the Environmental Movement

The American environmental movements are commonly viewed as originating in the stereotypical left wing, hippie and outsider movements of society. But the actual origins of wide scale American attention to the effects of man on the environment lie in the movement to the West, with the accompanying damage to stunningly beautiful land through development, ravaging of seemingly unlimited natural resources, and industrialization that began in earnest during the 1870s.

Western America was viewed behaviorally an unlimited, vast, and thus self healing source of minerals, land to graze, land that could tolerate single crop farming, sheep husbandry, timber grabbing, water diversion and land speculation.

Highly destructive mining and logging operations combined with water wars,desertification from overgrazing and bad crop management to leave lasting scars. The disastrous 1901 Salton Sea water diversion program, where the California Development Company meddled with diverting water from the Colorado River, created a permanent body of entirely unusable water that remains today, enhanced by agricultural runoff. Amazingly, the Salton Sea is now a thriving ecosystem.

 During the late 1800s and early 1900s, the West took the lead in identifying and developing agricultural and other management programs and policies. In the early 1900s, the environment entered the political arena, thanks to President Roosevelt, who ordered that environmentalism be the focus of resource strategies. This was also the era of the origins of lobbying and of industry support agents who had their say.

At this time, the division between preservationists, who believed that resources could be used, with cautions and programs and the conservationists, who believed that land should not be viewed solely in terms of its resources, but some should be protected and preserved completely in a natural state. It was John Muir (preservationist) against Gifford Pinchot (conservationist).

As a result, “mainstream” environmental movements of today had their origins in the 1800’s!  From the romanticism of Wordsworth to the religious orientation ofThoreau; from the Audobon Society to the Sierra Club; from superstars such as John Muir to an American President, the American public has been for quite some time, in love with preserving our natural resources and in maintaining our stunningly beautiful lands.

But the origins of American environmentalism were in conservative movements. In the 1960s, the more liberal orientations developed, as the women’s movements, civil rights and student movements were making great changes possible.

The greatest behavioral shift involved the rising power of the consumer and of the average citizen, especially women and people of color who had previously been considered to be disenfranchised. The issue of “environmental racism”, where impoverished and minority neighborhoods were subjected to forms of pollution that were not allowed in more “mainstream” neighborhoods and areas is an example of more groups beginning to feel as if they were included in the national conversation.

Behaviorally, It was no longer required to go along with the powers that be, but to demand and get change by starting from the people’s will. Grassroots politics and grassroots environmentalism combined with diversity to reverse the tradition of of “top down” national and local leadership.

The current shifts in behavior are partially based in the development of technology, public education, and information systems and partially in the rise of extremist movements that resort to illicit, illegal and even violent and destructive means in order to get their viewpoint across.

It is not difficult to publicize and describe an environmental challenge or issue today. It is instantly controversial when such national plans as offshore drilling and disposal of nuclear waste are in the news. It is rapid change that comes from public education programs, policies and laws that help the public to stop wasting water or to stop throwing used engine oil down storm drains.

The public’s collective experience with ecological disaster, along with collective knowledge, values, norms, attitude and behavior has historically been more favorable toward policies that preserve the environment, prevent activities that are known to cause great damage, and that maintain protected lands.

In the immediate future, given the economic challenges that lie ahead, there may be a rise in resistance to the more costly policies and programs of preservation and conservation, since more pressing national financial obligations will exist for a time. But grassroots and established environmental movements, including extremist movements and movements that counter complex and singular environmental issues are here to stay. New concepts, issues and concerns will crop up as challenges to existing standards arise.

In summary, environmentalism is institutionalized and is part of the national conscious. Generally behavior and mood is intolerant of undoing progress, but is now capable of becoming conservative in relation to more pressing social issues.

The Salton Sea

Stacy L. Silvera, “The American Environment Movement: Surviving Through Diversity”, PG497