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How the Environmental Movement Has Changed

Leon Neal/Getty Images

On April 22, 1970, 20 million people joined rallies across the United States to celebrate the first Earth Day. One-hundred thousand people in New York City joined in what The New York Times called “an ecological carnival,” swarms overtook the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and schools in small towns held trash pick-ups. When the fanfare subsided, the grassroots show of support was a boon to environmental groups, who saw their membership surge 38 percent between 1969 and 1972. Major organizations like the Sierra Club grew in stature and quickly assumed the mantle of the environmental movement in Washington. And for the past 50 years, the mainstream portrait of the environmental movement has been dominated by large organizations lobbying officials and advocating legislative change in the nation’s capital.

Media coverage and popular opinion often paid little mind to frontline and indigenous groups quietly fighting power plants, polluters, or land appropriators in their own communities. This limited view has always been damaging to the movement, as was apparent even back in 1970. On CBS News, Walter Cronkite spoke bluntly. “By one measurement, Earth Day failed,” he said following the marches. “It did not unite. Its demonstrators were predominantly young, predominantly white.” After its first celebration, Earth Day became emblematic of the modern environmental movement, and its narrow symbolism—which left little room for the communities most affected by environmental ills—would continue to haunt the movement’s progress.

Recently, however, the environmental movement has found a way to bring together onetime disparate groups—overcoming its too-centralized political exterior to unite the scattered and diverse actions that are its strength. “You have big green groups and frontline local environmental justice groups and trade unions, that have a complex history but are now talking, putting aside their differences,” said Iain Keith, campaign director for Avaaz, one of the organizers of the major climate marches that had been scheduled to take place in Paris during the U.N. climate conference. “That was unthinkable two years ago.”

The Paris marches, which French authorities called off in the wake of the terrorist attacks in the city, were meant to be the coming out party for this new face of the environmental movement. In organizing the events, partners focused on engaging intersectional groups concerned with human rights, labor, and religion. “It will take everyone to change everything,” became the activists’ rallying cry. “No one organization, no constituency, no sector, not even one aspect of the movement is going to build enough power to take on all the various interests that keep the status quo,” said Paul Getsos, national coordinator of the People’s Climate Movement, a group that formed in 2014 to build on energy from that year’s People’s Climate March in New York. And though the environmental movement still suffers from homogeneity, “there’s a growing acknowledgment that we need each other, that one single strategy won’t solve the problem,” said May Boeve, director of, an organization that began with a grassroots group of Middlebury College students and now has staff in 15 countries. “Collaboration is born out of necessity.”

In the past, environmental groups have found much to disagree about. The Sierra Club blossomed out of a desire to protect wildlife and national parks for its predominantly white members to enjoy. (A 1972 study of 1,500 environmental volunteers found that 98 percent were white.) But for communities directly impacted by toxic waste or poor air quality, focusing on pollution over conservation and human health over wilderness was less a choice than a necessity.

The question of how best to pursue justice for the Earth has also been divisive. Many big green groups like the Sierra Club have traditionally favored the courtroom and steered clear of civil disobedience, while others, such as, have made high-profile protests—often leading to arrests—a central part of their strategy. Frontline groups like California’s Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice and communities like Dimock, Pennsylvania apply pressure in different places, calling media attention to their plight through demonstrations or conducting environmental health surveys in their neighborhoods.

Diversity of ideals has fractured not a few movements, but for environmentalism, different approaches have proven effective attacking a complex issue. These days, too, the lines dividing goals and tactics are losing their rigidity, and environmental groups have worked to present a more unified front. “Groups are more willing to choose to trust, to collaborate,” Keith said. According to Debbie Sease, the Sierra Club’s senior lobbying and advocacy director, in the last 15 years the group has focused on the nexus of justice, pollution, and wilderness. “We don’t think of the environment as narrowly as our founder did,” Sease said. Other organizations echoed her comments. “The folks that are going to be most impacted by these issues deserve to be at the table advocating for these solutions,” said Jenny Bock, economic justice campaigner at Friends of the Earth. “They should be driving it really, the change-making process.”

In October, the People’s Climate Movement sponsored the National Day of Action, with 204 events in 47 states. The main goal, however, was not mobilizing huge numbers, but fostering connections between communities and major environmental groups ahead of Paris. “Too much of the work that we’re doing is happening in silos,” said Kaydrianne Young, an organizer and youth leader with the voting rights organization New Florida Majority. “To build inclusive movements, frontline communities need to be in the room.” Young helped organize an environmental march in Miami on the National Day of Action, an example of the diverse groups now joining the movement.

While environmentalism has often been skewed as an issue for those privileged enough to consider environmental issues over economic or racial ones, the modern movement aims to reveal this reasoning as suspect. At a November 21 climate justice march in Oakland, local groups like Xochipilli, a Latino men’s group, and the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 5 rallied alongside the Sierra Club and Participants in the 2014 New York march and the October National Day of Action were not just major groups like Greenpeace, but also the SEIU, religious organizations like Chicago’s Faith in Place, and immigrant advocacy groups like One America in Seattle.

The cancellation of the Global Climate March in Paris has left organizers scrambling to find alternate ways to make activists voices heard. In an effort to keep the march’s symbolism, Avaaz began collecting shoes from those who had intended to march in the French capital. The group will install the shoes at the march’s planned starting point, the Place de la Republiqué. Organizers say they’re also working to bring activism inside Le Bourget, the site of the conference, with video, social media, and photos of worldwide actions.

Other groups have planned supporting demonstrations in cities as far flung as Dhaka, Mexico City, Budapest, and Ottawa. A bicycle ride in Kampala will course through Bwaise Slum, an impoverished area likely to be heavily impacted by extreme weather resulting from climate change. In Beirut, thousands will march for “affordable electricity, for clean water, for a solution to the solid waste crisis, and for a secure job creation strategy.” Though the original activist vision for Paris has been diminished, Keith said that it’s important not to lose sight of the bigger agenda. “Having that massive mobilization around the world … was always the answer,” he said. “The cancellation of one march does not stop a movement.”

More than ever before, carrying the message of climate change’s effects will rest on the world’s communities sitting at the front lines of climate change. “Climate change is starting to be understood as a people’s movement.” Boeve said. “Part of what those connections facilitate is a bigger and more powerful movement.”