5 environmentalist-led movements that changed the world

In a world where environmental challenges loom ever larger and the need for sustainable action grows more pressing every day, it helps to pause and reflect on the monumental efforts of environmentalists in the past. 

For many, the climate crisis is so great and daunting that doing anything seems trivial and useless.

Yet, the five movements below are only a tiny sample of tireless campaigning led by environmentalists that have had a profound impact on the world.

These movements were led by brave and fearless campaigners who not only raised awareness about pressing environmental issues but also triggered immense policy changes, influenced corporate practices, and sparked widespread awareness of these issues.

If you haven’t been inspired yet, prepare to be amazed by how working together and standing up for the planet can change the world:

1) Earth Day 

The first Earth Day was on the 22nd April 1970. The movement was launched by US Senator Gaylord Nelson as a campaign to raise awareness about environmental issues after watching the impact caused by oil spills the year prior in Santa Barbara, California.

Nelson collaborated with the media and with students to maximize the participation of students across America, reaching 20 million Americans in the first year.

The campaign went global in 1990 and today, over a billion individuals continue every year to celebrate the planet and to raise continual awareness about climate issues worldwide.

The climate campaign has led to immense outcomes and legislatives such as the Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts (1970s), and the Environmental Protection Agency (1970). 

Earth Day has a lasting and astounding impact on environmental awareness as the largest civic event in history and continues to bring people together to address climate challenges. 

2) Anti-Whaling Movement

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) was set up in 1946 following a dramatic decline in whale catches to assist in whale conservation and protection. 

Yet, it took more than 20 years for the countries involved in the commission to finally agree to stop killing blue whales, which they did in 1966.

In light of the backlash to calls to end whaling, Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund campaigners made whaling and dolphin hunting one of the forefronts of their campaigns in the 1970s. 

As they broadcasted horrifying images of whales being terrorized and killed to the general public, calls for a ban grew louder. 

Commercial whaling for a profit was finally banned in 1986 which has protected and saved the lives of many sea creatures. 

Yet despite this ban, Japan, Norway, and Iceland continue to hunt and kill whales, having killed an estimated 40,000 large whales and largely rejecting the ban outright. 

3) Chipko Movement

The nonviolent protest staged in 1973 in the Himalayan region of India was led by women who were ready to die protecting the endangered trees in a final embrace.

‘Chipko’ means literally “to hug”, with the movement aptly named after the demonstrator’s tactic of hugging the trees targeted by government approved logging and deforestation

The movement was staged by women to preserve forests and maintain ecological balance. It was partially led by Chandi Prasad Bhatt, Gandhian social and environmental activist who admired the women’s nonviolent approach and dedicated his time to training them and improving their campaign approach.

These trees in the Uttarakhand district were vital to women who were solely in charge of farming livestock and cultivating crops. They could not continue to work on the land once it had been deforested due to the growing number of floods and landslides that followed deforestation.

The Chipko movement has gone on to become a heralded example of the impact non-violent protesting can have, and led to numerous governmental tree felling bans. 

4) Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP)

Ogoniland in Nigeria has become one of the most polluted places in the world since Shell began oil extraction operations in 1957. 

It has also been one of the most profitable areas, producing over $30 billion since the discovery of its oil stores.

In 1990, in response to the continual violation and desecration of the land by these oil conglomerates, Nigerian activist and writer Ken Saro-Wiwa founded the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP). This movement united 700,000 Ogoni people in their campaign for environmental, social, and economic justice.

The group published the Ogoni Bill of Rights aimed to reinstate the autonomy of the Ogoni people and their land, and called on international governments to take action and stand in solidarity with them.

However oil mining companies and the Nigerian government worked together to put Ken Saro-Wiwa and 8 of his fellow leaders on trial as the ‘Ogoni Nine’, falsely accused of having incited the murder of 4 Ogoni chiefs. All 9 were executed in 1995.

The MOSOP movement led to the suspension of Shell’s operations in Ogoniland in 1993, with the pipeline remaining inactive to this day.

Despite the inactivity, oil spills continue to affect the region, with the UN predicting that it will take up to 30 years to clean up the current state of the Niger Delta.

5) Anti-Nuclear Movement 

The first atomic bomb was dropped by the United States on the Japanese city of Hiroshima in 1945, the second on Nagasaki three days later. 

The deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians both in an instant and over an extended period owing to the physical and mental horrors triggered by the nuclear bombs led to the emergence of antinuclear activists.

It was not just pacifists that argued for the end of nuclear weapons but also atomic scientists who had participated in the building of the bomb and government advocates alike. 

Widespread campaigns not only mass shifted public opinion to oppose nuclear energy but also led to the negotiation and signing of crucial arms control agreements such as the Treaty of the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).

Without the campaigning of thousands of activists, you might question if we’d even be here today. Some of the efforts included:

  • Humanitarian Albert Schweitzer heavily condemned atomic bombs in a 1957 speech. He was later awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.
  • Physician Helen Caldicott dedicated much of her professional career to campaigning against nuclear weapons and spreading awareness and also received a Nobel Peace Prize for her work.
  • The 1 million people who rallied against nuclear weapons and called for an end to the Cold War in New York in 1982.
  • The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament united thousands of campaigners. What you might consider the peace symbol is known as such because it remains the CND’s logo and is a small representation of the colossal effect of their campaigns.

The group was diverse in its participants yet has had a monumental effect on global politics and on reducing the number of nuclear weapons and preventing a nuclear war (although complete nuclear disarmament has yet to be achieved).

Picture of Liv Walde

Liv Walde

London-based writer with big thoughts, big dreams, and a passion for helping others.

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