A belief in and concern for the importance and influence of environment within a society.
‘Environment’ is derived simply from the French verb environner, to surround. Our environment, literally, is no more and no less than our surroundings. The concept of the environment, though, arose in the mid‐nineteenth century. It was given force by a range of new ideas that human beings are, to an important degree, formed by their surroundings. These included Darwin's discovery that the survival of species depends on their suitability to their surroundings and the German geographers' theories of the importance of the environment (Umwelt) in determining economic and cultural differences between peoples.
In the second half of the twentieth century environmentalism has come to refer to a combination of beliefs in the value and fragility of the environment, and a tendency to be conservationist with respect to it, leaving the expression ‘environmental determinism’ to cover the old meaning of the word. Unfortunately, what was intrinsically a very broad concept has been further stretched to the point of meaninglessness. Just as ‘environmental studies’ can embrace geography, biology, chemistry, law, history, politics, and many other disciplines, the concerns of environmentalism can range from architecture to the stratosphere, from the water supply to the diversity of species on the planet. Environmentalists can base arguments on virtually any known discipline or philosophical assumption, including those which are anthropocentric (concerned only with benefits to human beings) and those which are studiously opposed to anthropocentrism, and insist that non‐human entities have value in themselves. Fortunately, some constructive limitation has been suggested by the eco‐philosophers, principally Arne Naess, who, since the 1970s, have expressed suspicion of ‘mere environmentalism’ which criticizes existing practices and policies affecting our surroundings only in terms of criteria derived from their effects on human interests. This suggests that environmentalism occupies a middle ground between those (rare) minds who see no disadvantages to current practices because of their effects on our surroundings and those eco‐philosophers who seek to orient our entire approach away from anthropocentrism. See also ecology.