The first wave of modern environmentalism was associated with the counter-culture movement of the 1960s and 1970s. It grew out of traditional nature conservation concerns into an awareness of the potential for a global ecological crisis and was clearly a protest movement.
Environmentalists at the time argued that the exponential growth of populations and industrial activity could not be sustained without seriously depleting the planet’s resources and overloading the ability of the planet to deal with pollution and waste materials. Some argued that new technologies and industrial products, such as pesticides and plastics, also threatened the environment.
Issues such as resource depletion, wilderness preservation, public health concerns, population growth, ecology, energy conservation, pollution control, and occupational hazards became part of environmentalism.
First-wave environmentalists, following the protest mood of the times, did not hesitate to blame industry, western culture, economic growth and technology for environmental problems. Although many of the key writers at the time were scientists or industrialists themselves (for example, the Club of Rome), the environment movement was easily characterised as being anti-development. Nevertheless their warnings captured the popular attention, resonating with the experiences of communities facing obvious pollution in their neighbourhoods.
Although many governments did not recognise the importance of global environmental problems, they were forced by community pressure to respond to local pollution problems. During the 1970s many countries introduced new environmental legislation to cope with the gross sources of pollution. Around the world nations introduced clean air acts, clean water acts, and legislation establishing regulatory agencies to control pollution and manage waste disposal.
The decade that followed saw a backlash against the early environmentalists. Various writers argued that global catastrophe was the fantasy of doomsday forecasters and that scientific discoveries and technological innovations would easily cope with any problems that might arise. Government departments and agencies found it extremely difficult, in this new climate of opinion, to administer properly the legislation that had been put in place at the height of the first wave of environmentalism and businesses did their best to ignore the laws or get around them.
Sustainable development enabled environmentalists to succeed in arenas of influence denied to the first wave of modern environmentalists because of its central idea that environmental protection is not necessarily opposed to development. The concept of sustainable development accommodated economic growth, business interests and the free market and therefore did not threaten the power structure of modern industrial societies.
The renewed interest in ‘sustainability’ in the 1980s marked a shift from first to second wave modern environmentalism. Earlier environmentalists had used the term 'sustainability' to refer to systems in equilibrium: they argued that exponential growth was not sustainable, in the sense that it could not be continued forever because the planet was finite and there were limits to growth. ‘Sustainable’ development however seeks to make economic growth sustainable, mainly through technological change.
The second wave of modern environmentalism, sometimes referred to as third wave environmentalism or liberal environmentalism, which began in the late 1980s, had much broader support and involved governments, business people and economists in the promotion of sustainable development. Scientific evidence about the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and the depletion of the ozone layer made it difficult for anyone to deny the threat of global environmental problems. Many of the concerns of environmentalists were taken up by senior politicians (including prime ministers and ministers of foreign affairs, of finance and agriculture) from countries around the world, as well as eminent scientists, jurists and international bureaucrats.
the compatibility of environmental concern, economic growth, the basic tenets of a market economy, and a liberal international order is now coventional wisdom among many policy makers, diplomats, and a large number of nongovernmental organizations throughout the world. It is easy to forget that this formulation of the environmental problematique differs substantially from those dominant when the first concerted efforts at wide-scale global responses to environmental problems began in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
This new formulation of environmental problems, also referred to as "ecological modernization" and "constructive engagement", aimed to "solve environmental problems by making capitalism less wasteful", polluting and damaging "while retaining the basic system of capitalist production and consumption" and enabling it to grow. It advocated market-based solutions instead of tougher regulation.
The essence of third-wave environmentalism is the shift of the battle for the environment from the courtroom to the board room. Many of the same organizations that were once eager to take environmental offenders to court now wish to sit down and hammer out a deal that allows each party to declare victory and appear green. It is an attempt to "get rid of the combativeness between activists and corporations,"... In fact, third-wave environmentalism represents nothing so much as the institutionalization of compromise.
Despite the predominance of the latest wave of environmentalism, there are still many smaller environmental groups that are closer to local communities, more activist, and "generally suspicious of electoral politics, cynical about government, and wary of large organizations". Often they have arisen to fight some threat to their neighbourhood such as pollution. Such groups are often labelled "NIMBYs", for "Not-In-My-Back-Yard by targeted industries and companies. Because their own health or neighbourhoods are at stake they are less likely to compromise and more likely to be confrontational.
Since the 1970s, there has emerged, distinct from the mainstream groups, a powerful current in contemporary environmentalism focused on issues of empowerment, environmental justice, equity, and urban and industrial restructuring... This alternative movement is predominantly local in nature, more participatory and focused on action, and critical of the roles of expertise and lobbying in defining environmental agendas... drawing on such critical concetps as citizen empowerment and the prevention (rather than mangement or control) of pollution.