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close this bookPartners in Time? Business, NGOs and Sustainable Development (UNRISD, 1999, 85 p.)
close this folderPart 1: The changing nature of business-ngo relations
close this folderNGO Responses to Sustainable Development
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentDefining NGOs
View the documentThree or Four Waves of Environmental NGOs?
View the documentFour Generations of Development NGOs
View the documentSouthern NGOs
View the documentNGO Diversity and Tension
View the documentCase Studies of Business-NGO Relations

Three or Four Waves of Environmental NGOs?

In the North, environmental NGOs have evolved toward a sustainable development orientation through three waves of environmentalism (Murphy and Bendell, 1997). The first began at the turn of the twentieth century as a residue of the Romantic Movement, which had championed a return to nature in the wake of the industrial revolution. People were primarily concerned with preserving what was “wild” or “natural”. It was a Western-centric concept of a divide between humans and nature and led to the creation of the first national parks.

The second wave in most Northern, industrialized countries began in the 1960s. Due in part to the socio-economic changes that supported a variety of new social movements at the time, this environmentalism stressed the oneness of humans and our environment. The emerging science of ecology and the Apollo pictures of the Earth in space helped create this environmental consciousness. The first major environmental campaigning groups were set up around this time and focused primarily on increasing regulation to protect people from industrial pollution.

The third wave began in the mid - to late 1980s. With increasing resources but insufficient progress at the international and national policy levels, environmental NGOs began to seek practical ways of moving forward and implementing solutions. The global environmental problematique began to be broken down into everyday issues with practical remedies. Third-wave environmentalism places increasing emphasis on market-oriented campaigns. Recently there have been calls for a fourth wave of environmentalism, particularly from Mark Dowie, who describes this fourth wave as:

... a broad-based, multi-ethnic movement that takes a long-term global view, challenges prevailing economic assumptions, promotes environmental protection as an extension of human rights, and engages in direct action when necessary (1991 - 92:90).

We accept Dowie’s suggestion that Northern environmental groups should integrate “the lessons of the grassroots” into their strategies (ibid.). However, in many respects third-wave environmentalism has already begun to adopt environmental justice and sustainability ideals and strategies, the latter including direct action, consumer boycotts, corporate dialogue and North-South NGO alliances.