Let me say at the outset that it’s probably not a great idea to honor environmental heroes by blowing up a mountain and carving people’s heads into it. But humor me: Who would be the history-changers, the pioneers and the heroes we’d honor? To keep it simple, we’ll limit it to Americans (sorry, Jacques Cousteau, Jane Goodall, Wangari Maathai and many more), but here’s my crack at a list of nine nominees:
1) Ted Turner: OK, let’s do my old boss first so we can get the full-disclosure stuff out of the way: He’s my old boss, and probably the only billionaire I’ve ever rooted for. Ted was a visionary about cable TV and 24-hour news, but also still a visionary about global issues -- particularly the environment. He has said that one of his influences was driving down the restricted highway that bisects the government’s Savannah River Site, the heavily contaminated nuclear weapons facility in South Carolina. Ted’s been on the stump for more than 20 years on overpopulation, nuclear threats, global warming and habitat protection. Not to mention he created Captain Planet. He has protected habitat by buying scads of it, and is now one of the largest private landowners in the world, restoring habitat for bison and the black-footed ferret. And he’s always put his famous money where his equally famous mouth is. You go, ex-boss.
2) Marjory Stoneman Douglas: Talk about staying power. Douglas began a 29-year fulltime career of saving the Everglades at age 79. But she was active, and eloquent, long before that. The Minnesota-born Douglas started as a reporter for her father’s Miami Herald when there were few women reporters. Her father had locked horns with Florida’s governor, the spectacularly named Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, over Broward’s single-minded push to drain the Everglades. Marjory took up the fight, and in 1947 published The Everglades: River of Grass. The best-selling book changed many minds about the intrinsic value of an ecosystem like the Everglades as something more than a swamp. Douglas founded the group Friends of the Everglades in the late 1960s, and they took on the sugarcane industry, developers, the Army Corps of Engineers and more in an effort to restore part of her River of Grass. She kept up the fight till the end of her life, at age 108.
3) David Brower: He was thoughtful, passionate and cantankerous, all at the same time. He led three environmental groups, two of which he founded, and two of which he was tossed out of. Brower led the Sierra Club for nearly two decades as it grew from a niche organization to one with national political clout. Deemed too radical, he was dismissed by the Sierra Club Board in 1969, and promptly started Friends of the Earth. By the mid-1980s, after establishing FOE as a global force for the environment, he got the boot once again. His third group, Earth Island Institute, continues to do pioneering work to protect marine mammals, sea turtles and more. Brower’s last public gesture was to express his disdain for the 2000 presidential candidates, including Al Gore, by casting an absentee ballot for Ralph Nader. Difficult to the end, Brower died a few days before the election, making him, under California law, a perfectly legal dead voter.
4) Martin Litton: He is a kindly tree of a man who likes trees a whole lot. Particularly if they make him look tiny. At the age of 18 (he’s now 92), Martin wrote a letter to the Los Angeles Times calling for protection for Mono Lake. Sixty-four years later, he became the oldest person to navigate the Grand Canyon -- and in a wooden boat no less, a la John Wesley Powell, the legendary one-armed explorer. In between, Martin worked tirelessly (with Brower and others) to oppose the Glen Canyon Dam (unsuccessfully) and another dam to be built downstream from the Grand Canyon (successfully), as well as fighting successfully to end logging of his beloved Sequoia redwoods in the Sierra Nevadas.
5) Rachel Carson: She was a quiet government scientist with a knack for prose. Trained as a zoologist, Carson was the head of publications for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service when she began a trilogy of books about the ocean. Under the Sea Wind, The Sea Around Us and The Edge of the Sea established Carson as a world-class nature writer, but they didn’t prepare her for what would happen when she changed her focus to the impact of pesticides. When Silent Spring was released in 1962, Carson unleashed a torrent of concern about the indiscriminate use of DDT, Dieldrin and other pesticides. Most striking was the dramatic drop in bird species, from bald eagles and peregrine falcons to tiny hummingbirds. It was revealed that DDT thinned birds’ eggshells. Carson also endured a ruthless counterattack from the pesticide industry, who raised questions not just about her science, but about her patriotism and her personal life. (See next Friday’s column on all-time environmental villains for more on this.) Rachel lost a battle with breast cancer in 1964, and thus didn’t live to see DDT banned in the U.S. eight years later.
6) Sylvia Earle: She is in her 73rd year of childlike enthusiasm for the oceans. Her good-natured sermons on the wonder of ocean exploration make her the world’s most prominent advocate for ocean protection. Bestowed nicknames like “Her Deepness” and “The Sturgeon General,” Earle has joined Marjory Stoneman Douglas and Rachel Carson as advocates for both the environment, and for breaking gender barriers.
7) E. O. Wilson: He may be the only person in North America who owes a debt to fire ants. With two Pulitzer Prizes for nonfiction, he is certainly the best-suited person to shoot down the conventional wisdom that scientists don’t know how to express themselves. At the age of 13, he documented an invader colony of fire ants near the Alabama State Docks in his native Mobile. A few years later, when Alabama farmers began to get to know fire ants personally, he was asked to lead a study on their spread. The study worked, but then again, so did the spread, and now we have fire ant colonies, in some cases, surviving the winter all the way up to the Mason-Dixon Line. Wilson challenged major conventional wisdoms, publishing on how ants communicate by pheromones -- that is, by sense of smell. He also got picketed by other science buffs for challenging the conventional wisdom for his findings that higher species, including humans, establish hierarchies in response to environmental conditions. At first blush to many, this seemed to apologize for sexism, racism and more, but Wilson’s views are now widely accepted. And his take, starting with his fascination with ants, has broken much ground in understanding how nature works.
8) Dian Fossey: She had a reputation for being difficult, like David Brower. Many of the best activists are. From her perch in central Africa, she studied and defended some of the world’s last mountain gorilla populations. She set up anti-poaching patrols while also protecting gorillas from their admirers -- the lure of gorilla-based tourism could also threaten their fragile habitat. One group or the other -- the poachers or the tourist enterprises -- was likely responsible for Fossey’s brutal murder. Her biographer, Farley Mowat, speculates that pro-tourism interests wanted to remove Fossey as an obstacle to bigger paydays, making Dian Fossey an environmental martyr.
9) Al Gore: He may not have gotten David Brower’s vote in 2000, and as for the rest of the outcome of the 2000 election, let’s not go there right now. No one has done more, or worked harder, to move the world out of inaction on climate change. For his work, he’s won a share of the Nobel Prize, and produced a movie that won an Oscar. He’s also become a target for relentless personal attack from those who have nurtured the unfortunate idea that attacking Al Gore and denying the science of climate change is somehow an act of patriotism.
Peter Dykstra is the former executive producer of CNN's Science, Tech and Weather Unit. He writes three columns for MNN: Media Mayhem on Mondays, Political Habitat on Wednesdays, and Green States on Fridays. (Yes, he writes a lot.)