What Is Environmental Activism and Why Does It Matter?

View all blog posts under News and Articles


Environmental activists demonstrate against global warming.

The conversation about protecting the environment is broad in scope: Pollution, climate change and natural resource depletion are all important topics that urgently need to be addressed. Activists taking the initiative to drive change often inspire these discussions.

For example, assistant professor Jennifer Willett from the University of Nevada, Reno School of Social Work utilized a grant from the Corporation for National and Community Service to work with 15 high school students to gather photographic evidence of the impact of environmental disasters in their communities. The students and Willett then led community discussions about the photographs and developed a legislative bill as a way to learn firsthand about environmental activism.

This project demonstrates the importance of getting people involved in advocating on the environment’s behalf. While Willett’s project involved youth, environmental activism needs engagement from all age groups. Activists young and old can work together to bring us closer to protecting the planet for future generations to enjoy.

What Is Environmental Activism?

The term “environmental activism” is defined as the actions of individuals or groups that protect or aid the environment. Those involved in the movement identify issues that threaten the planet’s viability, from community to global concerns, and then develop strategies to promote awareness or produce solutions that directly address the problem.

There are several ways to undertake this, from local grassroots strategies to nationwide campaigns. In some cases, advocating for the environment can also include other important activism, such as civic and social justice.

Environmental activism can also be executed creatively. In the project Planet Ocean, artist Thirza Schaap highlights the problem of plastic waste by building sculptures made exclusively from plastic debris collected from South African beaches.

Regardless of how it’s performed, the goal of environmental activism is clear: to create a harmonious living environment that can be handed down from generation to generation without succumbing to poor human stewardship.

How to Get Involved in Environmental Activism

The first step toward environmental advocacy can be small and simple, such as undertaking a volunteer project planting trees or cleaning up beach pollution. This can help an individual get comfortable with activism and identify a particular environmental cause that engages them.

Then they may be ready to join a larger movement or be inspired to build awareness themselves. Working with community leaders and politicians can empower people to use their own voices to engage in activism and can help paint a clearer picture of the government’s role in protecting the environment.

The students involved in the University of Nevada, Reno’s research project, for example, were trained by Willett on research techniques, phenomenology and gathering photographic data. They then went out into their communities and gathered stories from residents about their experiences with environmental hazards and natural disasters.

The students then led critical dialogues in their communities to discuss their findings and brainstorm strategies for change, backed by training in civic engagement, legislative advocacy and shaping public policy. By the end of the research project, the students created an action plan and sought legislative sponsorship of a bill based on their photo research.

Willett’s work is a prime example of the nontraditional jobs for social workers that a Master of Social Work (MSW) can lead to, from activism to health education.

Why Is Environmental Activism Important?

Environmental activism can bring important attention to serious issues, mobilizing others to use their voices — and their votes — to influence political leaders. Activists can also help shape environmental legislation. The teen-led activist coalition Zero Hour, for example, has held climate change protests at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and met with lawmakers to discuss its platform and inspire other teens to join the cause.

This kind of activism can also have an impact at the corporate level. Increased awareness of environmental concerns may cause companies to develop more sustainable practices, adopt green strategies and proactively engage in corporate social responsibility.

Environmental activism can also lead individuals to become involved with other critical forms of civic engagement, particularly in relation to social and racial justice issues.

Prepare to Leave a Positive Mark

Future generations are in danger of inheriting a planet ravaged by environmental damage. While today’s youth may be particularly motivated to find solutions that can benefit their own future, being effective stewards of the planet is a responsibility for people of all ages. Professionals in positions of public leadership can use their skills and knowledge to engage people in environmental advocacy and help create a better planet for everyone.

There are many different types of social workers, and for those interested in becoming agents of change, the online Master of Social Work from the University of Nevada, Reno is designed to help you gain the knowledge to address complex problems across a range of disciplines. Learn more about how the MSW program can help prepare you to make a lasting impact in diverse environments and underserved communities.

Recommended Reading:

The Role of IT in Helping Social Workers Serve Rural Communities

Understanding the 12 Grand Challenges for Social Work

What Can You Do With a Social Work Degree Besides Social Work?


Conserve Energy Future, What Is Environmental Activism?

DoSomething.org, “7 Volunteering Ideas to Help the Environment”

Fast Company, “It’s Worse Than You Think: The Case for Creating Climate Change Panic”

Investopedia, “Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)”

NBC News, “Why ‘I Can’t Breathe’ Is Resonating With Environmental Justice Activists”

Pew Research Center, “Gen Z Looks a Lot Like Millenials on Key Social and Political Issues”

The Goldman Environmental Prize, “How Grassroots Environmental Activism Has Changed the Course of History”

The Guardian, “Beachcombed Sculptures Made of Ocean Plastic — in Pictures”

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Environmental Topics

Zero Hour, Who We Are