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25 Environmentalists Ahead Of Their Time

Monday, December 13, 2010 3:21
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Alice Waters

Going green” is an almost nauseatingly cliche mantra that’s been picked up –sometimes falsely — by corporate America, soccer moms, and the least granola people you can think of. But through the hard work, research studies and dedication of some very persistent individuals, being more conscientious about how humans impact the environment and making more sustainable choices in the way we feed, transport and fuel ourselves and our daily lives, we might finally be on track to getting on Mother Earth’s good side. While we ignored them for decades — or even centuries — these conservationists, naturalists, writers, artists, explorers, politicians, and even royals have worked tirelessly to protect our natural world and clue us into the interconnectedness of life, way before “going green” became trendy. Here are 25 environmentalists who’d probably love to say “I told you so.”

  1. Alice Waters: Chef Alice Water owns Chez Panisse, a Berkeley restaurant that’s well-known for locally grown and acquired menu items, expertly cooked according to the Slow Food movement. Waters opened the restaurant in 1971, way before sustainable, local food choices were popular in the mainstream. She’s helped support local farmers, ranchers and growers, who now thrive because of the awareness she’s brought to cooking with fresh ingredients, even in the restaurant world. Her Chez Panisse Foundation — started in 1996 — helps schools develop their own sustainable gardens and learn about gardening, cooking and better school lunch choices.
  2. Julia Butterfly Hill: The young Julia Butterfly Hill was offhandedly dismissed as a tree-hugger back in 1997, when she sat in a Redwood Tree in California as part of a larger protest against Pacific Lumber Co. loggers. Hill ended up sitting in the tree for 738 days, exercising up and down the trunk of the tree and using solar-powered cell phones and information systems to talk to TV stations and give interviews. Since she left the tree — after Pacific Lumber Co. agreed to preserve her Redwood and other trees — Hill has continued to support environmental causes around the world, and was even jailed in Ecuador after protesting against a plan to build an oil pipeline through a cloud forest in the Andes.
  3. John James Audubon: The legacy of the naturalist, writer, painter and bird watcher John James Audubon is evident in the many bird sanctuaries, parks, bridges, museums and even towns named after him. Born in Haiti in 1785, Audubon moved to the U.S. in the early 1800s to operate a farm, which he did unsuccessfully. Audubon preferred instead to go on collecting excursions, studying nature and sketching birds. He published five volumes of his Ornithological Biography in the 1830s and began giving lectures and educating the public on different bird species, nature’s diversity, and environmental protection.
  4. Prince Charles: Prince Charles, future king of England, is sometimes dismissed as a piddling royal who ditched Princess Diana and stands dutifully next to his mother at official engagements. But in fact, The Prince of Wales is an avid philanthropist and has been studying and supporting environmental issues for decades. He’s sort of an expert on global warming, and is a huge proponent of gardening and the sustainable food movement — something he’s been trying to get the rest of us to support for years. His home farm has been organic since 1986 and even sources the Duchy Originals firm with ingredients so that they can make organic foods for charities. His new documentary, Harmony: A New Way of Looking at Our World is a culmination of Prince Charles’ research and work on global warming, urging us to consider our relationship with nature in an economical sense: we’ve got to give back when we want to take something.
  5. Charles Darwin: The man who shed light on what’s now the predominant theory of evolution was a true visionary when he went on his expeditions in the 19th century. Traveling around the world — most famously to The Galapagos Islands — Darwin published his controversial work On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859, maintaining that humans are also animals, clinching our integral relationship with nature.
  6. Ansel Adams: Ansel Adams wasn’t just a photographer who liked taking pictures of the outdoors — he was a true conservationist. Supporting the preservation projects of big parks like Yosemite, Adams also worked as a custodian for The Sierra Club, eventually becoming the organization’s official photographer. His pictures were used on behalf of the Club to gain support for a national park in the Sierra Nevada, and Adams himself lobbied Congress for the cause, too. He was honored with the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Conservation Service Award in 1968.
  7. Al Gore: Laugh — or grumble — all you want about An Inconvenient Truth — but former U.S. Vice President and Nobel Prize winner Al Gore was on to something, way before the rest of us. He was actually interviewed by Prince Charles in 1988 as an expert on global warming, and it’s a cause that he’s been passionately pursuing since his days at Harvard. Now a powerful figure in the movement to protect the environment and slow global warming, Al Gore is still considered a bit of a joke by some factions, which is too bad, considering what he’s done for bringing awareness to the issue.
  8. Henry David Thoreau: If you’ve ever read Walden, you know Thoreau was a transparent naturalist. Also a devoted transcendentalist and abolitionist, Thoreau championed the underdog his whole life, including the environment. Living around Concord, MA, for most of his life, Thoreau also traveled extensively in Maine, taking pleasure in spending time in the mountains and woods as he studied botany, ecological patterns, and the personality of nature.
  9. Ralph Nader: Another U.S. politician who’s been laughed off by mainstream political parties as being a granola crunching radical is Ralph Nader. He’s run for president four times and lost, twice running as the official Green Party candidate, in 1996 and 2000. Even as a young activist, Nader backed important groups and causes that still haven’t been resolved today, like water pollution, air pollution, the presence of chemicals and hormones in food, and the destruction of forests. In 1970, Nader committed himself to educating the public on issues surrounding ecology and environmental protection.
  10. Sir David Attenborough: British natural history filmmaker David Attenborough’s voice is instantly recognizable to anyone who’s been hypnotized by documentaries and BBC series like The Living Planet and Life in the Undergrowth. From his first days with the BBC in the 1950s, Attenborough started a TV show, Zoo Quest, which allowed him to feature animals and ecosystems around the world. He’s even visited The Galapagos Islands and is President of the Royal Society for Nature Conservation.
  11. Wendell Berry: Poet and essayist Wendell Berry has written extensively about human’s relationship with the Earth, publishing works like A Continuous Harmony: Essays Cultural and Agricultural as early as the 1970s. Berry has a B.A. in English as well as an M.A. from the University of Kentucky but has also worked as a farmer — his father was a lawyer and tobacco farmer in Kentucky. Some of the philosophies he’s known for include local economics, frugality and the interconnectedness of life.
  12. Felix Dodds: Dodds considers himself a futurist, and he’s written numerous articles and essays on energy, climate change, and our impact on the Earth. Also a consultant in the music business, Dodd is “helping to bridge the gap between popular culture and the UN and sustainable development,” and has been working closely with the UN since the 1980s.
  13. Jane Goodall: Jane Goodall is an icon for for conservationists and a pioneer in chimpanzee social studies. The Jane Goodall Institute was established in 1977, which now brings awareness to the plights of all types of endangered or threatened species, including the indigenous people living in the same regions as the chimpanzees Goodall first began studying.
  14. Wangari Maathai: Wangari Maathai won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her work in conservation. Besides being the first woman to earn a doctorate degree in East and Central Africa, and the first woman to serve as chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy and an associate professor at the University of Nairobi, Maathai mobilized communities to support her Green Belt Movement, planting more than 20 million trees alongside other women. By 1986, Maathai took her movement across the continent, inspiring others to plant trees as African forests are destroyed.
  15. Carl Sagan: As the founder and first president of The Planetary Society, Carl Sagan is best known for his contributions to astronomy and space exploration and research. But he’s also one of the first scientists to bring up the global warming issue. Credited with being the first to correctly analyze Venus’ climate and decoding the moons of Jupiter in the early 1960s, Sagan applied his research on atmospheric characteristics of those planets to Earth’s climate and a possible greenhouse effect.
  16. Rachel Carson: Carson was a biologist, writer and ecologist who worked as a feature writer and editor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, educating the public on topics like natural resources, conservation and ocean life before retiring to focus on her own writing. Committed to helping the public understand the natural world, Carson was a huge advocate for resolving the rampant use of pesticides in agriculture after World War II.
  17. Rene Jules Dubos: French scientist, humanist and environmentalist Rene Dubos is the man behind the now-trendy phrase, “Think globally, act locally,” which he wrote while serving as an advisor for the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in 1972. His book So Human an Animal, published in 1968, won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction and comments on the interconnectedness of all living things.
  18. William Bartram: Called America’s first native born naturalist, William Bartram was also an artist and author who wrote both scientific descriptions and moving accounts of nature in states like Tennessee, Mississippi, Florida, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Caroline and Georgia. His first major work, called Travels, was published in 1791 and became popular both in the U.S. and in Europe. The Bartram Trail Conference, Inc., was established in 1976 to recreate Bartram’s journey and conserving the gardens and environment around his trails.
  19. John Muir: Like Audubon, John Muir’s legacy lives on through national parks, a state holiday in California, historic sites, and through The John Muir Trust, a Scottish organization that purchases large pieces of land for purposes of protection and conservation. Born in Scotland, Muir’s family emigrated to the U.S., and Muir devoted much of his life to saving national parks, protecting forests in the Western United States, and generally acting as “one of the patron saints of twentieth-century American environmental activity,” his biographer noted. By lobbying Congress, Muir helped establish Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks, and has even been nicknamed the “Father of the National Parks.”
  20. Jimmy Carter: Named one of the 10 greenest presidents in U.S. history by The Daily Green, Jimmy Carter created the Department of Energy in an effort to promote safe, clean, alternative fuels. In what was surely a radical move — it’s still not a mainstream system yet — Carter also installed solar panels in the White House and was a stickler for keeping the thermostat low during the cold months to save energy.
  21. Jacques Cousteau: Perhaps one of the most important scientists of the sea, Jacques Cousteau was invaluably instrumental in teaching the world about the life underwater. Creating his own documentaries as a young man during WWII, Cousteau won a prize for making the first French underwater film ever. By 1950, he founded the French Oceanographic Campaigns to support his research, traveling around the world to study and bring awareness to sea life, the need for conservation, and the human impact on marine biology and ecosystems.
  22. William O. Douglas: Best known as the longest-serving Supreme Court Justice, William O. Douglas used his position to defend nature. He once declared that “the river, for example, is the living symbol of all the life it sustains or nourishes,” and that all nature, even inanimate objects, should be granted “standing” in court. He’s also said to have hiked the 2,000-mile trail between Georgia and Maine.
  23. Bob Marshall: A lover of nature and a member of the Adirondack Forty-Sixers, Bob Marshall received a doctorate degree in plant physiology but also used his position in public service to advance environmentalist causes. He was chief of forestry in the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the head of recreation management in the Forest Service, both in the 1930s. Marshall believed that the wilderness wasn’t just an environmental concern but a social idea, and he helped to found The Wilderness Society, and organization that lobbied for the passage of many acts including the National Trails System Act, Wilderness Act, and National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act.
  24. Aldo Leopold: Sometimes called “the father of wildlife management and of the United States’ wilderness system,” Aldo Leopold graduated from the Yale Forest School in 1909 and subsequently joined the U.S. Forestry Service. He led the campaign to declare the Gila National Forest as a wilderness area, and also published the first ever textbook on wildlife management. He has taken on personal projects, as well, planting trees and conserving whole tracts of land in the name of research and giving back to nature.
  25. Edward Abbey: Like Thoreau, Edward Abbey was considered an anarchist, and today he’s a hero of the Green Left, according to The American Spectator. An opinionated writer, Abbey explored the American West, traveling the backcountry of Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and surrounding regions. He wrote books and Hollywood screenplays, and is considered to have written one of the most important nature narratives in American literature, Desert Solitaire. His controversial style still offends some today, preferring to enrage fellow activists than to conform to the trendy granola environmentalists befriending the political left.

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