1969 – Transnational environmental warriors emerge

From protecting oceans, halting deforestation and saving endangered species, to preventing global warming, the environmental movement has for decades tackled huge and complex challenges. In the late 1960s, two organisations in particular, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth International, emerged as distinctive transnational organisations, trialling new campaign tactics, inspiring a new wave of environmental activism and significantly influencing public opinion and policy.

The modern US environmental movement can be traced back to Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring, which awoke millions to the threat posed to the Earth by human action. The movement’s impact can be seen in a number of ways, not least a growing awareness of the environmental costs of industrialization but also through the birth of groups such as Friends of the Earth International (FOEI) and Greenpeace.

Founded in 1969 in San Francisco, Friends of the Earth (FOE) emerged as a bold, political grassroots movement with a focus on legislative lobbying, litigation and political campaigning. In 1971 FOE US joined with environmental campaigns in France, Sweden, England and US to set up Friends of the Earth International. In the 1980s, groups in Asia, Latin America and Africa joined FoEI, bringing a more integrated perspective by connecting environmental issues with those of ecological and cultural diversity, human and peoples’ rights, sovereignty, and social, economic and gender justice.

Its numerous national and local-level campaigns on issues have addressed desertification, whaling and tropical rainforest protection, in addition to successfully lobbying on recycling in the 1970s, banning the dumping of nuclear waste in various countries in the 1980s to mobilizing pressure on governments to stop acid rain in the 1990s, to building a powerful movement for climate justice in the early 21st century.

Greenpeace, with its more centralized structure, is a global campaigning organization specializing in high-profile, nonviolent direct action. Officially founded in 1971, it set out to expose the transnational nature of environmental issues and to counter their root cause – corporate and government misuse of power. Over 40 years Greenpeace has deployed a mix of non-violent direct action, investigations and mobilisation to highlight environmental threats. They pioneered creative direct action stunts that directly targeted corporations, won media attention and put key issues such as whaling or dumping of toxic waste at sea on the political map. They also followed up with and influenced international laws and agreements that have sought to end corporate environmental abuses in different sectors of the economy.

Both networks modeled a form of transnational organising that influenced subsequent more spontaneous grassroots networks that emerged in the 1990s.