14 Environmental Activists Who Changed the World: Their Stories and Legacies

Environmentalists have significantly influenced natural areas and how we conduct our lives throughout history.

Environmentalists are the individuals responsible for creating public lands; they are the masterminds behind regenerative agriculture; they are the authors of important literature; and they are the advocates for people, wildlife, and trees that have stood for hundreds or even thousands of years. In this article, we highlight some of the most popular environmentalists.

What’s an Environmental Activist?

Environmental activists are the “people who promote the protection of the environment” and “oppose any destructive human activity that threatens to cause harm to the environment.” 

They do this through educating the public on environmental issues, holding demonstrations, protests, and lobbying politicians to pass legislation to protect ecological resources. 

Environmental activists work in various areas to protect natural places and resources, including forests, rivers, oceans, and animals.

The Evolution of Environmental Activism

At the heart of the environmental movement is the environmental activist, a champion advocating for the preservation and restoration of our planet. Environmental activism has progressed significantly over time, and while its core remains the same, its scope and reach have expanded immensely. This section delves into the layered journey of environmental activism, touching upon various facets and figures that have been instrumental in shaping its course.

A Brief Look into the Origins

The environmental movement, as we recognize it today, began to take shape in North America during the late 19th century. Environmental activists like John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt were pioneers, advocating for wilderness preservation. Their efforts laid the foundation for future environmental activists.

Earth Day, now celebrated worldwide, was established in the 1970s as a beacon to elevate environmental awareness. This period marked a global awakening to the pressing environmental problems we faced, such as global warming.

The Rise of Global Witness and Defenders

In the global sphere, organizations like Global Witness have been pivotal. As an environmental activist group, they spotlight the links between the environment, human rights, and conflict. Alongside them, numerous environmental groups and defenders, including many environmental activists from Latin America, work tirelessly. They advocate for environmental protection, emphasizing its importance not just as a policy matter but as a fundamental human right.

The Intersectionality of Environmental Justice

Environmental justice and the environmental activist are intertwined in modern advocacy. The movement addresses the uneven impacts of environmental issues on marginalized communities. For instance, African American communities in the US have historically borne the brunt of environmental injustices, from polluted localities to limited access to clean resources.

Similarly, Native American communities and environmental activists within these groups have faced challenges related to their lands and resources. Environmental activists like Leah Thomas have passionately championed the integration of racial justice with environmental causes.

The Role of Media and Press

Media outlets, including the Associated Press, have played a crucial role in amplifying the voices of environmental activists. Through press releases and investigative reports, they’ve emphasized the struggles of indigenous people, youth activists, and the broader environmental justice movement. Amnesty International, renowned for its dedication to human rights, has also highlighted the importance of environmental rights as an integral part of human rights, supporting the work of environmental activists globally.

Leaders and Their Legacy

Prominent environmental activists like Paul Watson, Bill McKibben, and many others have been at the vanguard of addressing the climate crisis. These activists stress the significance of climate justice, which seeks to confront the societal repercussions of climate change. The United Nation, recognizing the vital role of environmental activists, has been proactive in pushing for global environmental policies and spotlighting the contributions of youth activists in the fight against global warming.

Embracing a Collective Approach

Today’s environmental activism transcends merely safeguarding the environment. It’s about ensuring environmental justice, rights, and forging a world where every individual, irrespective of their background, can thrive in a safe environment. Organizations, both regional like those in North America and global, are collectively striving towards this vision. They ensure that the environmental activist movement remains diverse, inclusive, and influential.

In conclusion, the road ahead is challenging, but the unified spirit of environmental activists, groups, and defenders worldwide offers hope. As awareness continues to grow, the passion and commitment of environmental activists will undoubtedly remain a guiding light in the years to come.

List of Influential Environmental Activists

Here is a selection of 14 notable environmental activists and leaders who have been instrumental in expanding the green movement today.

1. Greta Thunberg

Greta Thunberg is still just an 19-year-old Swedish environmental activist who rose to fame worldwide. She addressed the United Nations General Assembly in September 2019 and urged leaders to take urgent action on climate change. She has become one of the world’s most famous figures and has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

“You are never too small to make a difference.”

Greta Thunberg

Her advocacy began at home when she persuaded her parents to adopt eco-friendly garbage bags, reusable bags, and other sustainable items to lessen their carbon footprint. Despite her youth, Greta has become one of the most well-known female environmental activists.

Greta Thunberg 1

2. Leonardo DiCaprio

Leonardo DiCaprio, environmentalist, philanthropist, and actor, has devoted his platform and voice to environmental issues over the past two decades, pushing for the urgency and need to act quickly to combat the most significant threat facing humanity: climate change.

“Climate change is real, it is happening right now. It is the most urgent threat facing our entire species, and we need to work collectively together and stop procrastinating.”

Leonardo DiCaprio

From campaigning for climate action with President Obama and President Trump to talking at the Paris Agreement summit meeting to contributing his Golden Globe to vulnerable areas, Leonardo DiCaprio has effectively roused the public to preserve our environment before it’s too late.

Leonardo DiCaprio

3. David Attenborough

Attenborough, a revered natural historian, author, and broadcaster, has long been associated with the BBC Natural History Unit and the iconic Life Collection. While he’s primarily been known for his captivating narrations and deep understanding of the natural world, in recent years, Attenborough has taken on the role of an environmental activist. 

He has become more outspoken about pressing environmental issues, passionately advocating for the planet. His environmental activist endeavors are evident in his most recent Netflix documentary, “Our Planet.” This documentary, an eye-opener for many, delved deep into the intricacies of climate change and its profound consequences on the natural environment. Through such initiatives, Attenborough continues to use his platform to highlight the urgency of environmental conservation.

4. Al Gore

Al Gore, in full Albert Arnold Gore, Jr, the 45th Vice President of the United States, is the co-founder and chairman of Generation Investment Management. He also founded The Climate Reality Project, a nonprofit devoted to solving the climate problem. 

Gore is arguably best recognized in today’s political context for his environmental efforts. The ecological issues piqued his interest before he even was in Congress. As a rookie member of Congress in 1976, he attended hearings on hazardous waste and climate change. Even back then, several experts warned of rising temperatures caused by increased carbon dioxide levels.

al gore

“Solving the climate crisis is within our grasp, but we need people like you to stand up and act.”

Al Gore

5. Chico Mendes

Chico Mendes, in full Francisco Alves Mendes Filho (Xapuri/Acre 1944-1998), was a labor leader, rubber tapper, and environmentalist who worked for the conservation of the Amazon rainforest, indigenous peoples, river inhabitants, and rubber tappers.

Mendes was a climate change activist who advocated for environmental reform and conservation. His fight was primarily on behalf of rubber tappers, the Amazon rainforest, and humanity. On December 22, 1988, one week after his 44th birthday, Chico Mendes was murdered by landowners who opposed his cause.

6. Julia “Butterfly” Hill

On December 10, 1997, Hill began living atop a redwood tree that she had dubbed “Luna.” She did it with the purpose of preventing the Maxxam Corporation from cutting down the tree. She received supplies from 8 members of her crew and endured extreme conditions over two years, including freezing rains, winds of 64 kilometers per hour brought on by El Nio, helicopter harassment, a 10-day siege by company security guards, and intimidation by loggers. In 1999, the Pacific Lumber Company pledged to protect Luna and any trees within a 61-meter buffer zone.

Julia Butterfly Hill

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

ulia “Butterfly” Hill

7. Li Quan

London-dwelling, Beijing-born Li Quan is a well-known conservationist who created the rewilding technique. Quan believes that animals thrive in their natural surroundings when left alone. To achieve this objective, she works to establish self-sustaining sanctuaries by introducing predators and keystone species to protected wildlife habitats. The procedure helps captive-born animals to acquire the abilities necessary for survival in the wild. Thus, they can pass on these talents to future generations, which can be “rewilded.”

Scientists scoffed at Quan’s concepts at first. But she didn’t give up and could get South China tigers back into the wild in a South African reserve. Conservation groups now use Quan’s methods, and her techniques for rewilding are now used worldwide.

8. Vandana Shiva

Vandana Shiva is an Indian environmentalist who has devoted much of her life to protecting biodiversity. She started Navdanya in 1991, a research center whose mission is to preserve the diversity and purity of local seeds while supporting fair commerce. Her research center is committed to tackling the most pressing environmental and social justice concerns.

9. Prince Charles

Prince Charles is one of the world’s most prominent conservationists. He initially mentioned conservation in the late 1980s. The future king was appointed head of the World Wildlife Fund’s UK chapter in 2011. In this position, Prince Charles has addressed the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s World Conservation Congress and won various environmental awards, including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds Medal and Harvard’s Global Environmental Citizen Award.

Prince Charles

10. Berta Caceres 

Since the 2009 coup, Honduras has seen the rise of ecologically harmful megaprojects that relocate indigenous populations. Nearly 30 percent of the nation’s territory was designated for mining concessions, creating a need for inexpensive energy to fuel future mining activities. To accommodate this demand, the government allowed hundreds of dam projects across the country, privatizing rivers and property and displacing populations.

In a country with increasing socioeconomic disparity and human rights violations, Berta Cáceres organized the indigenous Lenca people of Honduras and conducted a grass-roots campaign that ultimately persuaded the world’s largest dam builder to abandon the Agua Zarca Dam. She was killed in her own home in 2016 after accepting the Goldman Environmental Prize.

11. Jane Goodall

Dr. Jane Goodall, DBE, is an ethologist and environmentalist, the founder of the Jane Goodall Institute, and a United Nations Messenger of Peace. Through her nearly 60 years of groundbreaking work, Dr. Jane Goodall has demonstrated the urgent need to protect chimpanzees from extinction and the importance of incorporating the needs of local people and the environment into species conservation.

Jane Goodall

12. Wangari Maathai 

Wangari Maathai was a prominent environmentalist, political activist, and author widely recognized as the foremost environmentalist in Africa and the developing world. She was a founding member of the Green Belt Movement in Kenya, an environmental project of reforestation meant to minimize oil erosion, supply inexpensive and readily available fuel, to employ and empower Kenya’s nearly mainly female rural laborers. 

Furthermore, she was an outspoken advocate for civil rights, the rule of law, free speech, and public political responsibility. In 2004, Maathai won the Nobel Peace Prize for her life’s work, making her the first African woman and environmentalist to receive the honor. 

Wangari Maathai

13. Isatou Ceesay 

Isatou Ceesay is a Gambian activist and social entrepreneur commonly known as the “Queen of Recycling.” She launched the One Plastic Bag recycling program in the Gambia. Through this initiative, she taught women in The Gambia how to recycle plastic garbage into goods that could be sold for profit.

“Environmental conservation is not just for the future; it’s a gift we can give ourselves and the generations to come.”

Isatou Ceesay 

In 1997, with four other women, she co-founded the Recycling Centre of N’Jau in her ancestral village in Northern Gambia. This project’s initial objective was to educate local villagers on the significance and advantages of plastic recycling, reducing the practice of littering with plastic garbage. Over the years, the program has developed and today empowers women by providing them with assistance and income. 

14. Homero Gomez

Homero Gómez González was a prominent figure in Mexican politics and an environmental activist and agricultural engineer. He managed the El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Preserve, a Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve component. He coordinated marches, rallies, and anti-logging patrols to keep loggers out of the reserve.

He also collaborated with the government to boost the incentive for local farmers to preserve trees and stop the timer and avocado industry from destroying the habitat of the Monarch Butterfly. He was murdered in 2020.

Did you know?

Environmental activists have a long and impactful history. Some of the earliest environmental activists include John Muir, who advocated for the preservation of natural spaces like Yosemite National Park in the United States, and Rachel Carson, whose book “Silent Spring” played a significant role in raising awareness about the dangers of pesticides.

Environmental activism has evolved over the years, with individuals and organizations working globally to address pressing issues such as climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution. These activists play a crucial role in driving positive environmental change and inspiring others to take action.

Final Thoughts

Each of the people and their works are shown on our list has devoted their lives to advocating and fighting for environmental conservation. From Al Gore, who came up with organizations to combat climate change, to Chico Mendes, who gave his life to fight for the Amazon and humanity, every single individual on this list has contributed to our planet in one way or another. While there is still a lot that needs to be done in the fight to preserve Earth’s ecosystem and curb climate change, and while pioneers like Al Gore have already contributed so much, we as individuals can always do better.

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