Nowadays, we face unprecedented environmental threats, from melting glaciers to raging wildfires. Addressing these threats is a considerable task, and will take the concerted efforts of various governments and corporations. But meeting environmental challenges will also take the work of non-governmental organizations, or NGOs.
While most everyone has a notion of how governments and corporations impact the environment, the role of NGOs can be harder to understand. But exploring the world of environmental NGOs is a worthwhile task—after all, you might want to fund, join, or create one!
What is an NGO?
The general definition of an environmental NGO is straightforward: any non-governmental, non-profit organization, working towards an environmental goal. Environmental NGOs can operate at local, state, national, or even international levels, and they can focus on issues ranging from soil erosion to ocean acidification.
This definition can seem overwhelmingly broad—but most environmental NGOs actually fall into one of several buckets. By understanding each of these categories, the larger environmental NGO landscape comes into better focus.
Conservation districts go by many names—natural resource districts, land conservation committees, soil and water conservation districts. This handy image shows the terminology used in different regions of the United States:
The locations of conservation districts are as diverse as their names. In fact, according to the NACD, there are about 3,000 conservation districts in the US—or approximately one for every county. Most district share similar goals: “to work directly with landowners to conserve and promote healthy soils, water, forests and wildlife.” Obviously, there are many different ways in which this can be done. For instance, a district could partner with a community organization to oversee street tree planting (to improve a community’s air quality). Or a district could organize volunteer efforts in order to preserve a historic wetland.
One great, real-world example of the work of conservation districts is the NYCSWCD’s Green Buffers Initiative. In this initiative, green infrastructure is being introduced into a five-block industrial area in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. By working collaboratively with the community, the project will not only beautify the area, improve waste management, and purify the air—it will also foster increased environmental engagement within the community.
If getting involved in such a project appeals to you, good news: it’s easy to join the ~17,000 people already working with conservation districts. All you have to do is visit the national directory, find a local district, and reach out! The membership of most districts consists primarily of concerned citizens just like you, and you don’t need any specialized knowledge or tools to begin making a contribution.
Trusts, generally, refer to legal structures wherein one party holds something owned by another party. Environmentally-focused land trusts are no different: they are charitable organizations that acquire land in order to perform stewardship tasks and engage in conservation easements, wherein a land owner allows another organization to take control of their land, so as to achieve a conservation goal.
Many of the stewardship tasks and conservation goals that land trusts engage in are similar to those of conservation districts: monitoring air quality, combating erosion, improving water quality, etc. However, land trusts often operate at a larger scale. For instance, in the U.S., land trusts cover around 56 million acres—or twice the amount of land in all of our National Parks combined! Because they cover larger areas, land trusts can target large-scale projects like maintaining trailways or hosting extensive research studies. Land trusts are also interesting in that they have actual or effective ownership over their land for long periods of time. This means they are highly focused on actions which bring long-lasting environmental improvements.
Obviously, one of the best ways a land trust can improve the environment is through continually acquiring more land (and thereby saving it from development or other ecologically harmful fates). The timeline of the Adirondack Land Trust is a great example of this. Almost every year, the Trust acquires more acreage, and is therefore able to steadily expand its impact:
Of course, one challenge of land acquisition is that it comes at a high price. For that reason, land trusts are often particularly dependent upon charitable donations; if you’re looking for an environmental NGO to help, they can be a great candidate. And with over 1,300 environmental land trusts in the United States, the model is clearly working!
One of the major environmental news stories over the past few months has been the legal struggle around Alaska’s Pebble Mine. The proposed site of the mine contains one of the world’s largest deposits of copper, gold, and molybdenum. Proponents of going forward with extraction argue that developing the area won’t have significant ecological impacts, which, unsurprisingly, is a strongly disputed claim. The Pebble debate—or any number of similar issues of environmental law—demonstrates the importance of having ecologically conscious lawyers.
Therefore, the work of environmental NGOs involved in the legal space is best summed up by the motto of one of the most well-known organizations, Earthjustice: “Because the Earth Needs a Good Lawyer.” Without these NGOs, it would be far more challenging to draft sound environmental law, as well as hold corporations and polluters accountable when they break it. What might be surprising is just how successful organizations like Earthjustice have been—for instance, over the past three years, Earthjustice has filed more than 100 lawsuits “defending environmental and health protections.” They’ve won an admirable 80% of the cases that have been decided so far.
Environmental law is vast, including areas ranging from water quality enforcement, to waste management, to mineral rights. The breadth of the field is attractive in that interested individuals can likely find an organization operating in an area they’re particularly concerned with. If this interests you, here’s an excellent list of 20 environmental law organizations from around the world.
Many environmental law organizations also have educational arms, which center on outreach around environmental regulations and violations—for instance, through creating toolkits like this one. Since law can seem esoteric, it’s important to inform the public about regulations, violations, and advances in the area. You can even take online courses to improve your environmental law knowledge.
Environmental centers, often called nature centers, aim to increase the public’s environmental literacy and connection with nature. Often, this is done through real-world exploration, as centers are typically located in preserved areas of land.
It’s a good thing that nature centers exist, because environmental education is important: 31% of people in the United States still report that they don’t believe in climate change. A majority don’t recycle. Only 25% say that they consistently make decisions that protect the environment (although many more say they do so occasionally). Further, a significant portion of people want to do more to help the environment, but aren’t sure what to do, or if they’ll have an impact.
But environmental centers don’t simply educate the public on why they should care and how they can help—they also provide a sense of neighborhood pride, a space for leisure activities, and a forum for community building. Additionally, they help close what is called the “nature gap”: the inequitable distribution of green space access that exists along economic and racial lines. This is an important issue to address, given that exposure to nature has profound impacts on health and mood. For instance, one study found that “nature sounds and even outdoor silence can lower blood pressure and levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which calms the body’s fight-or-flight response.” Exposure to nature can even have cognitive benefits—one study demonstrated that subjects who walked in nature performed better on a memory test than those who walked down a city street.
Certain environmental NGOs work with industry, encouraging companies to engage in environmentally friendly practices. Oftentimes, these organizations center around a certain segment, and work to improve common industry practices in that area. Given that companies have such a massive impact on the environment—with just 100 companies being responsible for 71% of all carbon emissions—the impact of environmental professional organizations cannot be overstated.
One excellent example of an environmentally focused professional organization is the U.S. Green Building Council, or USGBC. The council is best known for its Leadership in Environmental Design (or LEED) certification. LEED certification indicates that a building has met certain standards in terms of “energy savings, water efficiency, CO2 emissions reduction, improved indoor environmental quality, and stewardship of resources and sensitivity to their impacts.” Often, certification is not seen as an impediment, but rather as an admirable goal for which to strive—leading to notable environmental improvements in the construction space. For instance, Washington D.C. recently introduced a variety of initiatives that helped it become the first platinum-certified city.
Green professional organizations often engage in conferences, trade shows, and education initiatives. All of these serve to help professionals and companies get up to speed with recent developments in their field. For instance, the Indoor Air Quality Association offers a curriculum focused on helping professionals understand how building science, home safety, HVAC units, and mold assessments play a role in ensuring healthy indoor air.
If you’re familiar with a particular industry, getting involved in a professional organization focused on your specialty can be a great way to contribute knowledge, learn from others, and ensure that you’re incorporating green practices into your work.
Putting It All Together
Hopefully, this post has been a helpful exploration of how different types of environmental NGOs work to improve the environment. It’s important to note, too, that these distinctions, while informative, are blurry—for instance, a land trust might be home to a nature center, or an environmental law nonprofit might collaborate with a professional organization. So if you’re interested in getting involved with multiple types of environmental NGOs, you might not have to choose!
In fact, joining an organization has never been easier. Candid, an information services provider specializing in nonprofits, has created a fairly exhaustive list of environmental NGOs operating within the U.S. You can almost certainly find an organization located near you, operating in an area that you care about. Once you do, most websites have straightforward links that explain how you can get involved.
And, if you or an organization you’re involved with are interested in understanding the environment and fostering community engagement through data, Temboo would love to help. Please don’t hesitate to reach out!