Environmentalism or environmental rights is a broad philosophy, ideology, and social movement regarding concerns for environmental protection and improvement of the health of the environment, particularly as the measure for this health seeks to incorporate the impact of changes to the environment on humans, animals, plants and non-living matter. While environmentalism focuses more on the environmental and nature-related aspects of green ideology and politics, ecology combines the ideology of social ecology and environmentalism.
Environmentalism advocates the preservation, restoration and improvement of the natural environment and critical earth system elements or processes such as the climate, and may be referred to as a movement to control pollution or protect plant and animal diversity. For this reason, concepts such as a land ethic, environmental ethics, biodiversity, ecology, and the biophilia hypothesis figure predominantly.
At its crux, environmentalism is an attempt to balance relations between humans and the various natural systems on which they depend in such a way that all the components are accorded a proper degree of sustainability. The exact measures and outcomes of this balance is controversial and there are many different ways for environmental concerns to be expressed in practice. Environmentalism and environmental concerns are often represented by the colour green, but this association has been appropriated by the marketing industries for the tactic known as greenwashing.
Environmentalism is opposed by anti-environmentalism, which says that the Earth is less fragile than some environmentalists maintain, and portrays environmentalism as overreacting to the human contribution to climate change or opposing human advancement.
Environmental Activists, Heroes, and Martyrs
The following profiles on environmental activists, heroes, and martyrs were curated by the Ethics Center’s Environmental Ethics Fellows.
Environmentalists You Should Know
Throughout history, environmentalists have had a great impact not only on natural spaces, but also on our individual lives. Environmentalists are the founders of public lands, the brains behind regenerative agriculture, the authors of seminal literature, and the voices of people, wildlife, and centuries-old trees.
Here’s a list of 17 influential scientists, conservationists, ecologists, and other rabble-rousing leaders who have been central to the ever-growing green movement.
John Muir, Naturalist and Writer
John Muir (1838–1914) was born in Scotland and emigrated to Wisconsin as a young boy. His lifelong passion for hiking began when he hiked to the Gulf of Mexico in 1867. Muir spent much of his adult life wandering in—and fighting to preserve—the wilderness of the West, especially California. His tireless efforts led to the creation of Yosemite National Park, Sequoia National Park, and millions of other conservation areas. Muir was a strong influence on many leaders of his day, including Theodore Roosevelt. In 1892, he and others founded the Sierra Club “to make the mountains glad.”
Rachel Carson, Scientist and Author
Rachel Carson (1907–1964) is regarded by many as the founder of the modern environmental movement. Born in rural Pennsylvania, she went on to study biology at Johns Hopkins University and Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory. After working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Carson published “The Sea Around Us” and other books.
Her most famous work, however, was 1962’s controversial “Silent Spring,” in which she described the devastating environmental impacts of pesticides. Though pilloried by chemical companies and others, Carson’s observations were proven correct, and pesticides such as DDT were eventually banned.
Edward Abbey, Author and Monkey-Wrencher
Edward Abbey (1927–1989) was one of America’s most dedicated—and perhaps most outrageous—environmentalists. Born in Pennsylvania, he is best known for his passionate defense of the deserts of the Southwest. After working for the National Park Service in what is now Arches National Park, Utah, Abbey wrote “Desert Solitaire,” one of the seminal works of the environmental movement. His later book, “The Monkey Wrench Gang,” gained notoriety as an inspiration for the radical environmental group Earth First!, which has been accused of eco-sabotage by some.
Jamie Margolin, Climate Justice Activist
Jamie Margolin rose to fame in her early teens, when she and other environmental activists co-founded Zero Hour, a youth climate action organization and movement. A Colombian-American, Margolin was moved to take action against the climate crisis after experiencing the effects of wildfires firsthand in her home state of Washington. In 2018, she and 12 other youths sued the state over those fires—and while they didn’t win, the Zero Hour organization went on to garner national attention as it led dozens of youth climate marches, of which Margolin was at the forefront.
Margolin has testified before Congress alongside Swedish activist Greta Thunberg and written a book, “Youth to Power: Your Voice and How to Use It,” about being a young activist. She has also been outspoken about being a member of the LGBTQ+ community.
George Washington Carver, Scientist
Enslaved at birth, George Washington Carver (1864 – 1943) went on to become one of the most prominent scientists of the 20th century. He was an educator at the Tuskegee Institute and a prolific inventor known for making dyes, plastics, fuel, and more out of the humble peanut.
George Washington Carver was also a champion of crop rotation and urged farmers to plant crops like peanuts and sweet potatoes to bring nutrients back to the soil during the cotton off-season. Largely thanks to him, peanuts became a $200-million-per-year crop by the end of the ’30s. Later in life, he was named Speaker for the United States Commission on Interracial Cooperation and head of the Division of Plant Mycology and Disease Survey for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Aldo Leopold, Ecologist and Author
Aldo Leopold (1887–1948) is considered by some to be the godfather of wilderness conservation and modern ecologists. He went to Yale University and worked for the U.S. Forest Service. Though he was originally asked to kill bears, cougars, and other predators on federal land because of demands of protesting local ranchers, he later adopted a more holistic approach to wilderness management.
His best-known book, “A Sand County Almanac,” remains one of the most eloquent pleas for the preservation of wilderness ever composed. In it, Leopold wrote his now-famous quote: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
Winona LaDuke, Native American Land Rights Activist
Winona LaDuke (born 1959) is a Harvard-educated Ojibwe Tribe member who has dedicated her life to issues of climate change, Native American land rights, and environmental justice. She helped found the Indigenous Women’s Network and Honor the Earth, which played an integral role in the 2016 Dakota Access Pipeline protests. She alone founded the White Earth Land Recovery Project, which seeks to buy back indigenous land from non-Natives and create jobs for First Nations peoples.
LaDuke ran for vice president with Ralph Nader on the Green Party ticket twice—in 1996 and 2000. Today, she operates a 40-acre industrial hemp farm on the White Earth Indian Reservation in Minnesota, where she lives.
Henry David Thoreau, Author and Activist
Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) was one of the U.S.’s first philosopher-writer-activists, and he is still one of the most influential. In 1845, Thoreau, disillusioned with much of contemporary life, set out to live alone in a small house he built near the shore of Walden Pond in Massachusetts. The two years he spent living a life of utter simplicity was the inspiration for “Walden; or, Life in the Woods,” a meditation on life and nature that is considered a must-read for all environmentalists. Thoreau also wrote an influential political piece called “Resistance to Civil Government” that outlined the moral bankruptcy of overbearing governments.
Julia Hill, Environmental Activist
After nearly dying in an auto accident in 1996, Julia “Butterfly” Hill (born 1974) dedicated her life to environmental causes. For two years, Hill lived in the branches of an ancient redwood tree (which she named Luna) in northern California to save it from being cut down.
She eventually vacated the 200-foot-tall tree after striking a deal with the Pacific Lumber Company. Luna would be preserved and so would all other trees within a 200-foot buffer zone. In exchange, the $50,000 that was raised by Hill’s supporters was given to the Pacific Lumber Company, which donated it to Humboldt State University for sustainable forestry research. Her tree sit became an international cause célèbre, and Hill remains involved in environmental and social causes still today.
Theodore Roosevelt, Politician and Conservationist
Though he was a known big-game hunter, Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919) was one of the most active champions of wilderness preservation in history. As governor of New York, he outlawed the use of feathers as clothing adornment in order to prevent the slaughter of some birds. While president (1901–1909), he set aside hundreds of millions of wilderness acres, actively pursued soil and water conservation, and created more than 200 national forests, national monuments, national parks, bird sanctuaries, and wildlife refuges.
Chico Mendes, Conservationist and Activist
Chico Mendes (1944–1988) is best known for his efforts to save the rainforests of his home Brazil from logging and ranching activities. Mendes came from a family of rubber harvesters who supplemented their income by sustainably gathering nuts and other rainforest products. Alarmed at the devastation of the Amazon, he helped to ignite international support for its preservation. His activities, however, drew the ire of powerful ranching and timber interests. Mendes was murdered by cattle ranchers at age 44.
Penny Whetton, Climatologist
Penny Whetton, who died in 2019, was an Australian climatologist who raised a flag about the climate crisis as early as 1990. That year, she was recruited to be a climate scientist for the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. She soon became the organization’s senior researcher, co-authoring several assessment reports for the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, one of which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017.
Whetton was a transgender woman and staunch LGBTQ+ advocate. She was married to senator Janet Rice and focused most of her research on her home country of Australia.
Gifford Pinchot, Forester and Conservationist
Gifford Pinchot (1865–1946) was the son of a timber baron who later regretted the damage he had done to America’s forests. At his father’s insistence, Pinchot studied forestry at Yale University and was subsequently appointed by President Grover Cleveland to develop a plan for managing America’s western forests. His career in conservation continued when Theodore Roosevelt asked him to lead the U.S. Forest Service, but his time in office was not without opposition. Pinchot publicly battled John Muir over the destruction of wilderness tracts like Hetch Hetchy in California, while also being condemned by timber companies for closing off land to their exploitation.
Wangari Maathai, Political Activist and Environmentalist
Wangari Maathai (1940–2011) was an environmental and political activist from Kenya. After studying biology in the U.S., she returned to her home country to begin a career in environmental and social activism. Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement, which, by the early 21st century, had already planted some 30 million trees, provided jobs, and secured firewood for rural communities. She was appointed Assistant Minister in the Ministry for Environment and Natural Resources. In 2004, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize while continuing to fight for women, the politically oppressed, and the planet.
Gaylord Nelson, Politician and Environmentalist
After returning from World War II, Gaylord Nelson (1916–2005) became an environmental activist and politician. As governor of Wisconsin, he created an Outdoor Recreation Acquisition Program that saved about a million acres of parkland. He was instrumental in the development of a national trails system (including the Appalachian Trail) and helped pass the Wilderness Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and other landmark environmental legislation. He is perhaps best known as the founder of Earth Day.
Hilda Lucia Solis, American Politician
Another U.S. politician, Hilda Lucia Solis (born 1957) has championed environmental causes while on the Committee on Energy and Commerce, the Committee on Natural Resources, and the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming as a congresswoman. In 2009, under the Barack Obama administration, she became the first Latina woman to serve in the U.S. Senate.
Driven by a childhood spent smelling the nearby Puente Hills Landfill in Los Angeles, Hilda Lucia Solis worked to pass legislation to protect low-income and minority communities from newly located landfills. It was vetoed, but her subsequent bill calling for “the fair treatment of people of all races, cultures, and incomes with respect to the development, adoption, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws” passed and is today considered a landmark.
David Brower, Environmental Activist
David Brower (1912–2000) has been associated with wilderness preservation since he began mountain climbing as a young man. He became the Sierra Club’s first executive director in 1952, then, over the next 17 years, club membership grew from 2,000 to 77,000. It won many environmental victories under his leadership. Brower’s confrontational style, however, clashed with other board members and eventually led to his resignation. He nonetheless went on to found other environmental groups like Friends of the Earth, the Earth Island Institute, and the League of Conservation Voters.