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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : Winter 2006 : Guest Column

Guest Column

The History of Environmentalism
How we got where we are today.

by Dennis Walsh

When it comes to preserving our great planet, the question should be, can we expect technology to continue making progress in its quest to optimize Earth’s resources—to get more and more while expending less and less?

We have known for centuries that each individual’s actions create conditions and situations that affect the world. For centuries, we have carelessly avoided environmental issues. What we do now will be predicated as similarly on how much time we have left to turn the ship around as it will on how we finance the “greening” of American ventures.

Often unfairly, business has become a key target for anyone wanting to achieve social change. The perception is that business always maximizes returns to shareholders at the expense of the environment and without concern for the social impact. The truth is, environmentalism is undergoing fundamental change. Business leaders who may have once ignored the demands of activists now see a green/sustainable corporate reputation as a competitive advantage. It is altering how environmentalists and business executives view one another. Green alliances are forming between corporations and environmental groups, motivated by consumers angry over environmental deterioration. This sort of cooperation is making the business sector part of the ecological solution, as business has found that the foremost corporate advantage offered by green alliances is an opportunity to do some good.

Every day we hear doomsday prophets saying that we’re in the 11th hour; that the world is about to come to a catastrophic end. Others claim the Earth will simply shrivel up like a balloon running out of air. Prophesies aside, we have a lot of thinking to do.

We’ve been watching the Earth grow old for years. Now it is covered with scars. Twinges of pain express themselves as earthquakes, hurricanes and floods. The creaking joints and aching muscles of a deteriorating environment are screaming to be heard. The time for debate has passed—we are fast approaching the point of impact.
The environmental clock has been ticking since the dawn of time. When European settlers first colonized North America, forests were thick, game was abundant, freshwater teemed with life, and air was pure and clean. In the latter half of the 1800s, America’s railroad expansion greatly affected frontier settlement patterns and spurred the growth of cities. But settlement necessitated logging that led to clear-cut forests, barren landscapes, and crops that were grown until the land could no longer nourish them.

The 1860s saw the beginning of environmental preservation. It was then that people began to realize that natural resources were finite. American scientists and business leaders began to worry about soil and mineral depletion. Shortages in water and timber drove the establishment of grassroots organizations to safeguard our resources and protect wildlife. Well-known planters like George Washington began experimenting with crop rotation in an effort to develop soil-conservation techniques. Some better-known environmental efforts continue, such as the forerunner to the Audubon Society, which began in 1886 to protect the birds of America. The Sierra Club was founded six years later to study, preserve and enjoy the Sierra Nevada. Years later, the Izaak Walton League was founded to combat water pollution, and the Wilderness Society was created soon after.

A turning point in history was the Industrial Revolution. It changed the Western world from a basically rural and agricultural society to an urban and industrial one. Industrialization brought material benefits, but it also created problems that included dirty air. Early American cities needed heat and power. Coal provided inexpensive and plentiful energy, but it also caused air contamination. Preceding the Civil War, industry discharged foul, sometimes toxic solid, liquid and gaseous waste into the air and water, and onto the land. Coal- and oil-burning power plants, factories, steel mills, foundries and processing plants increased; and smoke, soot and other particulates spewed into the air, darkening city skies and disturbing the ecosystem.

Industrialism broadened the impact of environmental degradation. Food was shipped to cities to satisfy the needs of the burgeoning population as soils became depleted of nutrients. In the nation’s fastest-growing cities, the demand for food produced garden farms around cities and established cattle ranches. Metropolitan areas needed freshwater supplies to exist, so water works were built with water-intake pipes that drew from neighboring lakes. To obtain water, engineers dammed and diverted rivers and streams. Residues of food waste—mainly human sewage and garbage—fouled the rivers. Solid-waste removal became a challenge. Cities would set up waste sites that polluted air, land and the water. Similarly, industry began consuming clean water and disposing dirty water; sewer systems were developed that dumped wastewater into freshwater resources.

Two centuries ago, wood and coal burned to power production processes that sparked the first significant wave of industrial-pollution litigation in American history. People began turning to the courts for compensation for the damages industrial pollution inflicted on them. Reformers campaigned for urban environmental clean-up. Seeds of the environmental movement were already being sown in the late 1800s, as numerous writers, intellectuals and politicians sought to reform many of the ills that plagued American society. Their combined efforts made up a movement known as progressivism. These men and women attempted a wide range of reforms, from instituting safer conditions at factories to cleaning up perceived government corruption.

Founded in 1880 by George Eastman, Eastman Kodak was one of the first companies that tried to do away with pollution. To this day, Kodak sets aside money for energy reduction. One of the company’s manufacturing sites in Rochester, N.Y., meets almost 100 percent of its energy needs in-house. In recent years, Kodak has achieved 30 percent of its carbon dioxide reductions through switching from coal to gas.

The environmental movement message was as clear then as it is now. If we continue to waste our natural resources, we will exhaust them. Of course, there is hope. Technological innovation has taken great leaps forward toward the “greening” of America, and gratefully, we are discovering ways to profit without depleting our resources or destroying the environment.

Dennis Walsh has worked for companies such as Levi Strauss and Indy Racing. He has a great interest in environmental issues and the history behind them. He can be reached at

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