The Men Who Embraced Mother Earth

In honor of Earth Day today, we look back at the “founding fathers” of environmentalism who laid the foundation of one of the most vital issues of our time.
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We live in a peculiar time where science and its fact-based findings are suddenly up for debate. You could blame it on our cantankerous politics, but it feels like there’s a pervasive air of conspiracy, distrust, and suspicion polluting the atmosphere—can you sense it?

Despite the U.N.’s recent dismal report about climate change and the developing world’s need to reduce its carbon emissions drastically, statistics show that most people are still slow in taking any immediate action on the threat. Never mind the freakish weather patterns these past few years, the rising cost of food, and the literal haze of foreboding that London, Beijing, New Delhi, and Mexico City have been facing.

Has this perpetual ecological doom and gloom given us Save-the-Earth fatigue?  

Well, today’s a reminder to put that extra activist pep in our carbon foot steps! Since 1970 Earth Day was established to recognize our need to honor, protect, and preserve our planet. And over the decades, environmental advocates like Al Gore, Sir David Attenborough, Bill McKibben, Jane Goodall, and the like have helped give ecological conservation a mainstream voice in America and around the world.

In honor of Earth Day today, we look back at the “founding fathers” of environmentalism who laid the foundation of one of the most vital issues of our time.

1. George Perkins Marsh

George Perkins Photo

(Photo: Wikimedia)

Considered to be America’s first environmentalist, George Perkins Marsh saw first-hand the effects of America’s blossoming, and destructive Industrial Revolution during the 19th century. While he focused mostly on diplomacy and the study of language, Marsh broke from his comfort zone to write one of the earliest works of ecology in 1864. This book—Man and Nature; or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action—was one of the first works to record the effects of human action on the environment, describing in detail the industrial plunder of forests.

In one of the book’s most punchy assertions, he writes that human industrialization “has brought the face of the earth to a desolation almost as complete as that of the moon.” For this claim to come so soon after the Industrial Revolution took off, you can only wonder what Marsh would think about the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Although Marsh died in 1882, his criticisms outlived him, setting the stage for a revolution.

2. Ralph Waldo Emerson

In the 1830s, a new philosophical movement was budding, but it started out with just a handful of thinkers at first. This movement grew out of a general protest to conventional views of spirituality, morality, and humans’ relationship with the natural world. It was called Transcendentalism, and Ralph Waldo Emerson became its leader, soon after the publication of his influential essay Nature.

Born in Boston in 1803, Emerson grew to hold views that many considered radical at the time: he felt that all things were divine since everything was connected to God; he was wholly opposed to slavery, even dreaming of abolitionism as a boy; and he held a quasi-religious reverence for nature and solitude, claiming that “the happiest man is he who learns from nature the lesson of worship.” Metaphorical, poetic, and now taught at universities across the nation, Emerson’s Nature elevated Transcendentalism into mainstream discourse and paved the way for future environmentalists who saw the deep connection between humans and their surroundings.

3. Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau Photo

(Photo: Getty Images)

If you’ve ever wanted to ditch your iPhone or set your out-of-office reply to I’m never coming back, then you may have a little Henry David Thoreau in your blood. “Thank God men cannot fly,” Thoreau once wrote, “and waste the sky as well as the Earth.” Born in 1817 in Concord, Massachusetts, Thoreau was of course writing before Wilbur and Orville Wright forever changed modern transportation, allowing men to waste the sky as they please. In Walden; or, Life in the Woods, Thoreau’s most enduring and celebrated work, the prominent transcendentalist and protégé of Emerson documents his life at Walden Pond, where he immersed himself in nature and used personal introspection to understand society more fully.

While most people during his time were clamoring for more resources, Thoreau desired fewer, writing, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” During his two years at Walden Pond, Thoreau set the stage for modern environmentalism by touting simple living over materialism, claiming, “I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself than be crowded on a velvet cushion.” Since his death in 1862, Thoreau’s ideas on simple living and self-sufficiency have become almost biblical for many modern-day environmentalists.

4. John Muir

John Muir Photo

(Photo: Getty Images)

If you are currently breathing, then it’s highly likely that, at some point, you’ve stumbled across an advertisement for the Sierra Club, one of the oldest environmental organizations in America. Founded in 1892, the organization was progressive for its time, much like its founder, John Muir, a Scottish-American naturalist. Born in 1838, Muir spent his early years as a shepherd, forging deep connections with nature at a young age. In 1849, he took his first botany lesson, later claiming that the experience “charmed me and sent me flying to the woods and meadows in wild enthusiasm.”

Over the next two decades, Muir undertook countless wilderness adventures, once walking 1,000 miles from Indiana to Florida to explore the “wildest, leafiest, and least trodden way” he could find. During these years, he also became part of the Transcendentalist movement and was greatly influenced by the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. In 1871, Emerson and Muir finally met, and Emerson promptly offered Muir a Harvard teaching position. Muir declined, not wanting to be indoors that much. Muir was a passionate advocate for environmental preservation, believing it was his mission to “save the American soul from total surrender to materialism.” To this day, Muir’s Sierra Club continues to lobby politicians to support green policies and environmental protection.