It’s Earth Day today. Happy Earth Day! What better way to celebrate the day than to honour those remarkable environmentalists, conservationists and activists who have advocated for the planet and used their lives to preserve and protect the natural environment, precious wildlife and ecosystems.
Each one of the people listed has worked tirelessly to promote a greater understanding of our natural world, have helped to implement government policies and regulations that would protect it from human harm or rallied against business and government projects that would cause irreparable damage to the environment.
Environmental activism as we know it today was made possible with these early pioneers, who brought these environmental issues to the table at a time when it was unfashionable to do so. With climate change and global warming one of the most pressing concerns of our time, we draw inspiration from these remarkable individuals who have come before us.
1. Rachel Carson
An American marine biologist, conservationist and nature writer, Rachel Carson mobilised the environmental movement with her ground-breaking and controversial 1962 book “Silent Spring” which has now sold in excess of 2 million copies. The book focusses on the environmental impacts of pesticides and chemical pollutants, particularly DDT. It brought to light issues of groundwater contamination, river pollution, human health issues, poisons in the food chain and impacts on wildlife and the wider ecosystem.
“Sprays, dusts and aerosols are now applied almost universally to farms, gardens, forests and homes – non-selective chemicals that have the power to kill every insect, the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’, to still the song of the birds and the leaping of fish in the streams, to coat the leaves with a deadly film and to linger on in the soil – all this though the intended target may be only a few weeds or insects.” – Rachel Carson writes in Silent Spring.
The book sparked nationwide debate over the use of synthetic chemicals and insecticides and drew heavy criticism and scrutiny of Carson’s credibility as a scientist, unsurprisingly from those profiting from its use, namely those from the industrial chemical and agricultural industries. But the book also catalysed the masses into environmental action.'...the central problem of our age has, therefore, become the contamination of man's total environment with such substances of incredible potential harm...' - Rachel Carson, Silent SpringClick To Tweet
Within a decade of the release of Silent Spring, Earth Day was launched, so too the US Environmental Protection Agency and even though environmental issues have taken a turn for the worse; the climate change dilemma, species extinction, and the global ocean plastic problem to name a few, we can at least thank Carlson for the role she played in igniting the modern environmental movement and opening up the new field of environmental science.
2. Evaristo Nugkuag
Born in 1950, Evaristo Nugkuag an Arguarunan Indian from Peru studied medicine in Lima before becoming an activist for environmental causes and the rights of indigenous people. In 1981, he set up an organisation called ‘Alliance of the Indian Peoples of the Peruvian Amazon (AIDESEP)‘ that brought together different tribal groups representing more than 50 percent of Peru’s 220,000 Amazon Indians. From the very beginning, the collective had been concerned with the Western capitalist systems and its disregard of their history, culture and customs and the rainforest systems on which their lives depend. The organisation now represents more than 300,000 people helping to defend their rights, their land and their resources.
Nugkuag didn’t stop there. In 1984, he went further afield, encouraging tribal people outside of Peru to join forces. He formed the organisation ‘Coordinadora de las Organizaciones Indígenas de la Cuenca Amazónica (COICA)’ which represents tribes in the Amazon basin countries: Peru, Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador and Bolivia. The organisation speaks on behalf of member Amazon Indians to promote the joint welfare of all Amazonian peoples. The COICA now represents over a million people from 219 different indigenous groups who continue to face threats from oil and mineral exploration on their lands.
For his dedication to seeking environmental and social justice, Evaristo Nugkuag received the 1991 Goldman Environmental Prize.
3. Dr Jane Goodall
She had no formal scientific training prior to moving, having grown up in the middle-class suburb of Bournemouth, the expectation was that she would marry, as was commonly expected of women of her generation. Instead, she left for the plains of Africa with her mother’s full support.
Goodall made an unlikely scientific pioneer but gained the respect of her peers with her landmark 55-year research study of chimpanzees in the wild. Initially scoffed at by other scientists for breaking away from scientific convention by giving chimps names instead of numbers, and her observations that animals have distinct personalities, minds and emotions, Goodall single-handedly transformed her field of research through her observations that chimps used tools much like humans. This rocked the scientific world because until then, scientists held the view that only humans used and made tools. Goodall’s research prompted a review of man’s relationship to animals.
The primatologist went on to establish the Jane Goodall Institute in 1977 to advance her conservation work globally and in 1991 established the Roots & Shoots program, which aims to raise awareness and action for endangered species and vulnerable habitats. Today, Dr Goodall travels the world, speaking about the issues facing primates and inspiring individual and collective action to dealing with environmental crises.
4. David Brower
If Rachel Carson is attributed to birthing the modern environmental movement, David Brower is often considered its father. An American environmentalist who was known for his uncompromising environmental activism and militant’s view of conservation, David Brower founded several environmental organisations, including Friends of the Earth (FoE) in 1969 (which has become a prominant environmental organisation now located in over 50 countries), the League of Conservation Voters, the John Muir Institute for Environmental Studies, Earth Island Institute, North Cascades Conservation Council, and Fate of the Earth Conferences.
The environmental campaigner was also the first Executive Director of Sierra Club, the conservation organisation founded in 1892 by the naturalist John Muira. Brower served on its board several times but given his hard line on conservation, he would find himself either being voted out by the board or resigning due to disagreement over the organisation’s stance on various environmental issues.
Credited with pioneering the use of advertising and the media to communicate conservation issues, Brower successfully fought to stop dams from being built near the Dinosaur National Monument and Grand Canyon, and led campaigns to establish new national parks, and protect shores and other marine areas. His strong influence also led to the legislative passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964, which protects millions of acres of public lands and wildlife habitat.
David Brower was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize twice and was a world-class mountaineer achieving 70 ‘first’ ascents.
Polite conservationists leave no mark save the scars upon the Earth that could have been prevented had they stood their ground.” — David Brower via Earth Island website. Click To Tweet
Polite conservationists leave no mark save the scars upon the Earth that could have been prevented had they stood their ground.” — David Brower via Earth Island website.
5. Dr Sylvia Earle
Dr Sylvia Earle is an American marine biologist, oceanographer, author and educator who has been an explorer-in-residence at National Geographic since 1998.
In the 60s, she inspired other female scientists to challenge gender stereotypes by fighting to participate in male-only ocean expeditions (and winning of course!). Earle was also the first female chief scientist of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and was named as TIME Magazine‘s first ‘Hero for the Planet’ in 1998.
“The bottom line answer to the question about why biodiversity matters is fairly simple: The rest of the living world can get along without us, but we can’t get along without them.” ? Sylvia Earle in her book
Holding a PhD. from Duke University, Earle has extensive experience as a field research scientist of marine ecosystems, has led more than 70 expeditions, authored more than 190 publications, and serves as a director for corporate and nonprofit organisations such as Mission Blue, an organisation that advocates for the protection of marine areas around the world (what they nicknamed “Hope Spots”).
Dr Earle now travels around the world speaking about climate change’s impact on oceanic biodiversity and how we can all help to protect the oceans and marine ecosystems.
6. Wangari Maathai
Professor Wangari Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977, a project that focussed on reducing environmental degradation through tree planting as well as maximising opportunities for Kenyan women and empowering them to create change within their communities. She received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 and was the first African woman to do so for her tireless efforts in conservation.
“I found myself not just a woman wanting to plant trees to provide food and firewood. I found myself a woman fighting for justice, a woman fighting for equity. I started planting trees and found myself in the forefront of fighting for the restoration of democracy in my country.” —Wangari Maathai
So far, the organisation has planted more than 51 million trees in Kenya, helping to reduce the impacts of widespread degradation and deforestation, restoring the environment, keeping desertification at bay and ensuring that responsibly-grown trees provide a source of sustainable income for women.
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Title image of Sylvia Earle diving at Cabo Pulmo taken by Kip Evans and accessed via Brett Garling at Mission Blue.