Four Environmentalists Every Millennial Should Know
The environmental movement does not lack heroes. Ever since this country began to take shape, there have been men and women brave enough to speak out against reckless development, greed and depredation. Campus Progress spoke with Paul Sutter, professor of history and environmental studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, about four such people and why they remain relevant to young environmentalists today.
John Muir (1838-1914)
Few people have worked so tirelessly to protect the American wilderness as John Muir, and fewer still have left such an enduring legacy. Muir was born in Scotland, but found his true home in the Sierra Mountains of California. For most of his life he traveled, explored, wrote and advocated. The list of his accomplishments is long, but visitors to Yosemite, Mount Rainier, Sequoia and the Grand Canyon owe Muir a tip of the cap. He believed in self-reliance and a sense of universal respect gained through a relationship with the natural world.
“Muir was a champion of protecting wild landscapes as public spaces protected from the rampant commercialism of his era – he wanted to keep the money changers out of our natural temples,” Sutter said. “This might be his most relevant quality to today's activists.”
Rachel Carson (1907-1964)
Rachel Carson is probably best remembered for her 1962 book “Silent Spring,” which many consider to be the genesis of the modern environmental movement. The book called into question the indiscriminate use of pesticides—particularly DDT(dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane)—in American agriculture, citing the unmeasured risk to the environment and human health. Though she was initially ostracized for her scientific criticism, Carson’s work helped lead to a reassessment of agricultural practices in the United States, including the eventual ban of DDT. She was a prolific writer, avid ecologist and unflinching advocate for the protection of nature.
“In the midst of the Cold War, when Americans were imbued with a technological optimism, [Carson] urged Americans to ask critical questions about technological progress and its costs,” Sutter said. “To the extent that modern environmentalism emerged as a critique of a particular version of progress [blind progress], hers was the founding voice of the tradition.”
Edward Abbey (1927-1989)
“Cactus Ed” made a lot of enemies in his life, and it’s safe to say he was proud of each one. Abbey made a name for himself writing about the American Southwest, a region he held dear. Many regard his novel “The Monkey Wrench Gang” as the literary precursor to the radical eco-defense movement. A self-proclaimed anarchist, Abbey criticized the poor government management of public land and promoted civil disobedience and individual resistance as the only effective means of challenging it.
“For Abbey, freedom was the goal, and he saw a world in which Americans were becoming trapped in a technological webs they created…[he] is diagnostic of an American environmental culture that venerates wild spaces but has a hard time reining in property rights freedom in the name of environmental protection,” Sutter said.
Watch an interview with Edward Abbey here.
Julia Hill (1974- )
In 1997, Hill climbed into the branches of an old-growth California redwood to save it from clear cutting. She stayed there for nearly two years, living on a makeshift platform. After a lot of bad press, Pacific Lumber finally agreed to spare the tree, which Hill nicknamed “Luna.” Back on solid ground, Hill started writing, and continues to advocate for environmental justice through lectures, training and direct action.
“[Hill is] certainly a model for the individual who, in acting with commitment and dedication, can make a difference,” Sutter said, adding that he believes modern environmentalism requires a multi-faceted approach. “… I think we need political mobilization as much as direct action.”
Watch a documentary about Julia Hill here.
Cody Bond is a reporter with Campus Progress.