Featured

Environmental Heroes

Entitled PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change (ISBN 978-1633882256), our book begins with the mounting evidence for climate change as seen in rising carbon dioxide levels, higher global temperatures, melting ice sheets, and sea level rise.

Next we review the history of the US environmental movement—focusing on the key people who changed our understanding of the human impact on our natural surroundings. Our past environmental heroes include John James Audubon, Henry David Thoreau, John Burroughs, George Perkins Marsh, Harriet Hemenway, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, Bob Marshall, Roger Tory Peterson, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, David Brower, Barry Commoner, Donella Meadows, and many more.

Turning to the present, we explore the activities of people like James Hansen, Michael Mann, Bill McKibben, James Balog, Al Gore, Naomi Klein, Joe Romm, Thomas Lovejoy, Paul Hawken, Naomi Oreskes, Mark Jacobson, Gus Speth, Elizabeth Kolbert, Elon Musk, and Leonardo Di Caprio who are currently pursuing remedies for climate change. Much of this information is based on personal interviews we conducted with our new environmental heroes.

Finally, we conclude with a set of actionable strategies—demonstrating that there are many excellent reasons to believe that we can achieve a sustainable lifestyle, protect our planet as our home, and ensure the quality of life for our children and grandchildren.

This is your very first post. Click the Edit link to modify or delete it, or start a new post. If you like, use this post to tell readers why you started this blog and what you plan to do with it.

post

OP-ED—Now Is the Time!

In the overall history of human life here on Earth, we have never faced more broad-based and existential environmental threats than those posed by the climate emergency and biodiversity loss. On a geologic time scale, we are accelerating toward our own oblivion at laser-focused warp speed. Right now—every day—the world is adding more layers of atmospheric pollution and species disintegration to the enveloping shroud that may eventually doom our own species (Homo sapiens) to extinction. 

These twin towers of environmental degradation are not something that might become a problem in the future—maybe by 2030 or 2050 or 2100. They are problems right now—and they’re getting worse every day that we sit by and pretend that nothing important is really happening. 

But now—with a new administration that will make decisions based on solid science instead of insouciant lies—there is hope. The climate crisis and biodiversity loss do not have to remain problems. In fact—if we focus and work together—both of these conundrums can be well on their way to full resolution in as little as ten years.

If we play our cards right, we can use the perpetual, inextinguishable energy of Earth—the sun’s glorious rays, the wind’s constant breezes, and the water’s endless waves—to work for us all. And, in the process, we’ll leave the polluting fossil fuels right where they belong—buried in the ground, never to see the light of day.

Think about it: Renewable energy here on Earth is abundant and omnipresent. Each time you go outside, you see and feel it everywhere. It’s like an endless symphony written by a master composer and played by a world-class orchestra. The golden rays of streaming sunlight are the strings—always there, maintaining the basic rhythm of the interwoven movements. The wind provides the percussion—rising from gentle whispering breezes of the snare drum to bold resounding gusts of the tympani. Then moving water blends in with the woodwinds and the brass—transitioning from gently lapping melodic notes of the flute to lazy ripples of an oboe’s dulcet tones and concluding with rolling waves of trumpet blasts.

We are right on the cusp of what will be the Renewables Revolution,—providing a mighty parallel to the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution resulted in the transformation of our nation from a rural agrarian society to an urban, manufacturing society. Now we are about to transform ourselves again—from a hard-edged, fossil-fuel driven economy to a softer-sided renewable energy world.

The transformation from fossil fuels to renewable energy is already possible. The Solutions Project (www.thesolutionsproject.org) lays out immediate plans for converting each of our states—plus many countries—from fossil fuels to renewable resources. And we can accomplish this at the same time as we create numerous new industries in wind, solar, and water power.

In fact—right now—“Big Oil” has the wherewithal to lead the transformation from fossil fuels to renewable energy. They know it’s coming—they’ve known for more than 30 years. They’re already planning for the transition. They just want to delay things as long as possible because—in the short term—they will take a financial hit. But—in the long run—they will actually make more money from renewables than they are currently making from fossil fuel production and processing. The sooner we can make the fossil fuel giants acknowledge this fact and make the switch, the better off we’ll all be. 

Overall, the mighty impetus created by nationwide conversion to renewable energy will bolster every sector of our economy. As the old adage goes: “A rising tide lifts all boats.” This renewable energy boom will create millions of new jobs—leading to increased financial security for everyone. And that’s a “win-win scenario” we can all live with. Plus, our children, grandchildren, and all future generations will look back and be forever grateful to us for being proactive in tackling and resolving our current climate and biodiversity dilemmas.”

So, now—finally—the decision is in our hands. The issue is about preserving the existing quality and character of the human species here on Earth. Will we decide to make the changes that will save our ice sheets, oceans, coral reefs, rain forests, and polar bears? Or will we just watch while our world slides into oblivion—at least for Homo sapiens?

Budd Titlow is a professional wildlife biologist, wetland scientist (emeritus), nature photographer, and author of four books. His most recent book—written with his daughter, Mariah Tinger— is PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change.

Now Is the Time!

In the overall history of human life here on Earth, we have never faced more broad-based and existential environmental threats than those posed by the climate emergency and biodiversity loss. On a geologic time scale, we are accelerating toward our own oblivion at laser-focused warp speed. Right now—every day—the world is adding more layers of atmospheric pollution and species disintegration to the enveloping shroud that may eventually doom our own species (Homo sapiens) to extinction. 

These twin towers of environmental degradation are not something that might become a problem in the future—maybe by 2030 or 2050 or 2100. They are problems right now—and they’re getting worse every day that we sit by and pretend that nothing important is really happening. 

But now—with a new administration that will make decisions based on solid science instead of insouciant lies—there is hope. The climate crisis and biodiversity loss do not have to remain problems. In fact—if we focus and work together—both of these conundrums can be well on their way to full resolution in as little as ten years.

If we play our cards right, we can use the perpetual, inextinguishable energy of Earth—the sun’s glorious rays, the wind’s constant breezes, and the water’s endless waves—to work for us all. And, in the process, we’ll leave the polluting fossil fuels right where they belong—buried in the ground, never to see the light of day.

Think about it: Renewable energy here on Earth is abundant and omnipresent. Each time you go outside, you see and feel it everywhere. It’s like an endless symphony written by a master composer and played by a world-class orchestra. The golden rays of streaming sunlight are the strings—always there, maintaining the basic rhythm of the interwoven movements. The wind provides the percussion—rising from gentle whispering breezes of the snare drum to bold resounding gusts of the tympani. Then moving water blends in with the woodwinds and the brass—transitioning from gently lapping melodic notes of the flute to lazy ripples of an oboe’s dulcet tones and concluding with rolling waves of trumpet blasts.

We are right on the cusp of what will be the Renewables Revolution,—providing a mighty parallel to the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution resulted in the transformation of our nation from a rural agrarian society to an urban, manufacturing society. Now we are about to transform ourselves again—from a hard-edged, fossil-fuel driven economy to a softer-sided renewable energy world.

The transformation from fossil fuels to renewable energy is already possible. The Solutions Project (www.thesolutionsproject.org) lays out immediate plans for converting each of our states—plus many countries—from fossil fuels to renewable resources. And we can accomplish this at the same time as we create numerous new industries in wind, solar, and water power.

In fact—right now—“Big Oil” has the wherewithal to lead the transformation from fossil fuels to renewable energy. They know it’s coming—they’ve known for more than 30 years. They’re already planning for the transition. They just want to delay things as long as possible because—in the short term—they will take a financial hit. But—in the long run—they will actually make more money from renewables than they are currently making from fossil fuel production and processing. The sooner we can make the fossil fuel giants acknowledge this fact and make the switch, the better off we’ll all be. 

Overall, the mighty impetus created by nationwide conversion to renewable energy will bolster every sector of our economy. As the old adage goes: “A rising tide lifts all boats.” This renewable energy boom will create millions of new jobs—leading to increased financial security for everyone. And that’s a “win-win scenario” we can all live with. Plus, our children, grandchildren, and all future generations will look back and be forever grateful to us for being proactive in tackling and resolving our current climate and biodiversity dilemmas.”

So, now—finally—the decision is in our hands. The issue is about preserving the existing quality and character of the human species here on Earth. Will we decide to make the changes that will save our ice sheets, oceans, coral reefs, rain forests, and polar bears? Or will we just watch while our world slides into oblivion—at least for Homo sapiens?

Budd Titlow is a professional wildlife biologist, wetland scientist (emeritus), nature photographer, and author of four books. His most recent book—written with his daughter, Mariah Tinger— is PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change.

George Perkins Marsh—Telling It Like It Was!

Cherub-faced, with granny glasses and a slight paunch, George Perkins Marsh would today be called the ultimate environmental nerd—a real tree-hugger. However, Marsh was the first true environmentalist with the guts to stand up and say, “Hey folks, we are really making a mess of things here on Earth!” In 1864, he published Man and Nature, followed by a revised edition in 1874 entitled The Earth as Modified by Human Action: Man and Nature. Taken collectively, these two books are widely regarded as the first modern discussion of our planet’s environmental problems.

Born in 1801 in Woodstock, Vermont, Marsh grew up in an egalitarian household full of the trappings of wealth and prosperity, and he attended the finest schools—Philips Exeter Academy, Dartmouth College, and Vermont Law School. Possessing boundless energy, endless enthusiasm, and immense intelligence, Marsh was definitely a Renaissance man.

During his eighty years, Marsh held many positions. At various times, he was a newspaper editor, lawyer, mill owner, sheep farmer, lecturer, politician, and diplomat. A master of linguistics, he knew twenty languages. Plus he wrote a definitive book on the origin of the English language and often was referred to as the foremost Scandinavian scholar in North America. Always using his creative mind, he invented tools and designed buildings—most notably the Washington Monument. In his “spare time,” Marsh served his country in several important capacities, including as a member of the US House of Representatives from Vermont (1843–1849), Minister to the Ottoman Empire (1850–1853), and Ambassador to Italy (1861–1882).

As we discussed earlier, the United States was dominated by rapid westward expansion in the second half of the nineteenth century. The California Gold Rush and the massive economic upheaval spawned by the start of the Industrial Revolution fueled this burgeoning expansion. No one felt much of a sense of environmental accountability to the American landscape until 1864, when Marsh published Man and Nature.

Man and Nature advocated a new way for evaluating human progress. Marsh realized that natural-resource use—for energy production, forest products, hydropower, fisheries stocks, and the like—was essential to sustain economic progress. But he also warned that unrelenting and unmitigated overuse of our natural treasures would lead to significant problems down the road.

Given his unique—at the time—understanding of Earth and its processes, Marsh was the first person to document systematically how human activity could have a cumulative and destructive effect on ecosystems and on the ability of those ecosystems to support human culture. Before Marsh came along, humans assumed that nature existed outside of human culture and was unchanged by human acts and works. Most appallingly, the basic belief was that nature was infinitely capable of providing the resources that human economy extracted from it. Marsh worked to change these basic beliefs, becoming the first person to suggest that human actions on Earth could be having negative effects on the world’s natural resources and climate.

To demonstrate his points, Marsh conducted extensive surveys of the benefits of natural forests, including their capacities to moderate local and regional climates. In this frighteningly portentous passage based on his research, Marsh writes:

“Even now . . . we are breaking up the floor and wainscoting and doors and window frames of our dwelling, for fuel to warm our bodies and seethe our pottage. [As a result, our planet is] fast becoming an unfit home for its noblest inhabitant. . . . Another era of equal human crime and human improvidence . . . would reduce it to such a condition of impoverished productiveness, of shattered surface, of climatic excess, as to threaten the depravation, barbarism, and perhaps even extinction of the [human] species.”

We can only be left to believe that Marsh—writing more than 150 years ago—could see the handwriting on the wall for what we are now facing from the threat of climate change. Watching the “Doomsday Clock” (see chapter 21 for more on this) now ticking ever closer and closer to midnight, we can bear witness to the premonitory truth of Marsh’s words.

As earnest climate-change analysts, we all need to pay special attention to George Perkins Marsh’s beseeching writing about working toward a harmonious blend of human activities and ecosystem health. Even while the United States still contained an enormous bounty of natural wealth, Marsh emphasized that we should be paying close attention to the effects our actions were having on the planet and working diligently to improve the sustainability of our lifestyles. Marsh’s words can be used to eloquently drive home the point that concerns about climate change are not just some “new kids on the block.” They have, in fact, been around for a very long time.

 

Harriett Lawrence Hemenway—High Society Goes to Bat for the Birds

The next past environmental hero we want to tell you about requires a bit of a backstory to set the stage. In 1886, Frank Chapman—founder of Audubon Magazine—decided to take a stroll from his uptown Manhattan office to the heart of the fashion district on 14th Street. Along the way, Chapman, a talented birder, counted a total 174 birds comprising 40 species, including woodpeckers, orioles, bluebirds, blue jays, terns, and owls. A pretty impressive array of birds for the middle of New York City—right? Hardly. You see the problem was that all the birds Chapman counted that day adorned the hats that sat on the top of women’s heads.

In the late nineteenth century, America’s hat craze was in full swing. To satisfy this overwhelming fashion demand, millinery companies needed countless colorful and flowing bird feathers. This spelled doom for millions of North American wild birds, which were slaughtered in droves. The greedy practice became so lucrative that plume hunters would often wipe out all the birds in a rookery (nesting area)—taking just the feathers and leaving eggs to rot and newly hatched chicks to starve to death. The going feather rate was $32 per ounce—more valuable than gold at the time.

In 1896, nearly five million birds, representing fifty different species, were killed for fashion. Entire populations of shorebirds and wading birds—including herons, egrets, spoonbills, gulls, and terns—along the Atlantic Coast were wiped out. But this despicable situation was about to change in a very dramatic way. Enter Harriett Lawrence Hemenway!

Most successful environmental organizations owe their starts to individuals with a deep and abiding respect for and dedication to the natural world. This is certainly the case with the Massachusetts Audubon Society. For much of her life, through early adulthood, Harriet Lawrence Hemenway lived a life of luxury and privilege at the pinnacle of Boston society, in a family dominated by accomplished men.

Although she escaped to watch birds along the Charles River whenever she could, Hemenway spent most of her time as a prominent socialite, moving gracefully through all the right places while always decked out to the nines in the latest trendy fashions. That was until she sat down on a cold winter day in 1896 and read a newspaper story that made her blood boil and caused all hell to break loose within the confines of polite Boston society.

When Hemenway read about thousands upon thousands of magnificent wading birds being slaughtered just for feathers to decorate women’s hats, she knew she had found her life’s calling. From that day forward, she became a true “Champion of Conservation” and girded herself for the battle she knew would soon follow with the male-dominated world.

Hemenway’s portrait by the famous artist John Singer Sargent shows an arrestingly handsome woman, with a deep-set gaze that practically shouts out “don’t trifle with me . . . no matter who you are!” Soon after she read the bloodcurdling account of entire rookeries being wiped out in Florida, many of the cocky men who thought they ruled the roost in Boston were being called on the carpet to atone for the sins of the millinery trade.

The first thing Hemenway did was to contact her cousin Minna B. Hall. Together, they organized a series of ladies’ teas, with the intent of discussing much more than the latest social goings-on. Hemenway and Hall first told the women about what was happening to wild birds just to assuage society’s haute couture needs. Then they beseeched their guests to start refusing to buy hats with bird feathers and to rally everyone else they knew to do the same.

Their strategy worked like a charm. Using their social networks as a springboard, Hemenway and Hall reached out to hundreds of scientists and businesspeople and soon had gathered enough support to establish the Massachusetts Audubon Society (MAS) in 1896. MAS was the oldest Audubon Society in the country, leading to the creation of many state-level Audubon societies which eventually united into the National Audubon Society in 1905. [Note: As an ironic exception, the MAS still prides itself on being totally independent of all other Audubon societies, including the National Audubon Society (NAS)].

In less than a year, the MAS had applied sufficient pressure to convince the Massachusetts legislature to outlaw the wild bird feather trade in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Within two more years, bird lovers in New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Maine, Iowa, Texas, Colorado, and the District of Columbia had followed Hemenway and Hall’s lead. Women in all these states started societies dedicated to ending the feather trade and then convinced male civic leaders and local scientists to join the cause. On average, women accounted for about eighty percent of the membership of each Audubon Society, including fifty percent of the leadership roles.

In 1900—just four years after Hemenway and Hall started their work—Congress passed the Lacey Act, which provided the necessary legal teeth for prohibiting the interstate shipment of wild species killed in violation of state laws. By 1905, operating off this federal legal benchmark, thirty-three states had moved to pass their own versions of the Lacey Act and the millinery trade of wild bird feathers—while still breathing slightly—was on life support.

The death knell finally started ringing in 1911. First, New York State passed the Audubon Plumage Bill—a legal triumph that banned the sale of plumes of all native birds and shut down the domestic feather trade in the state. Then the 1913, the Weeks-McLean Law prohibited the spring hunting and marketing of migratory birds while the Underwood Tariff Act banned all importation of feathers except for purposes of scientific research or education. https://www.fws.gov/birds/mbtreaty100/timeline.php These two laws placed all migratory birds nationwide under federal jurisdiction—finally ending the wild bird plume trade in the US for good.

In the final analysis, America’s Audubon Societies played the critical role in changing people’s attitudes toward killing birds for their feathers. And it all started because Harriet Lawrence Hemenway read an article that upset her, took to a venue that she knew well—high society tea parties—and started the ball rolling.

There’s an old adage that the best advice anyone can give to an aspiring writer is “just write about what you know.” Whether the goal is protecting wild birds or deciding how to most effectively deal with climate change, this principle can be modified only slightly to “just work with who you know.” Each of us has a unique sphere of influence—family, friends, and community members we connect with on a regular basis. Using our zeal for climate solutions within our sphere might start with local changes but could also spill into national changes—you might be amazed by what you can accomplish!

In 1920, the US Supreme Court upheld the most powerful piece of legislation ever passed to protect wild birds. Still in effect today, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 (which updated and replaced the 1913 Weeks-McLean Law) gives all migratory birds full federal protection. This statute makes it illegal to take any action that could either directly harm (i.e., pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill, or sell) a migratory bird or indirectly impact its nesting habitat. This protection is extended to both live and dead birds, including any bird parts, feathers, eggs, and nests. https://www.fws.gov/laws/lawsdigest/migtrea.html
More than 1,000 species are currently on the list of birds protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. https://www.fws.gov/birds/policies-and-regulations/laws-legislations/migratory-bird-treaty-act.php Writing for the majority in this landmark decision, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes declared, “Without such measures, one could foresee a day when no birds would survive for any power—state or federal—to regulate.”

William Temple Hornaday—Rescuing the American Bison

In an iconic image of the preeminent success of his life’s work, William Temple Hornaday—another one of our past environmental heroes—is holding a leash and looking down lovingly at a newborn American bison (more commonly called the buffalo). We owe Hornaday a deep debt of gratitude for personally saving this symbol of the western American landscape from almost certain extinction.

Hornaday was born in 1851 in Avon, Indiana, and educated at Oskaloosa College (now Iowa State University). While working as a taxidermist in the 1870s, he had the opportunity to join a series of scientific expeditions. Traveling extensively throughout the United States and the world—to Florida, Cuba, the Bahamas, South America, India, Sri Lanka, the Malay Peninsula, and Borneo—Hornaday gained quite a reputation as a marksman in hunting big game animals. He also applied his taxidermy skills to create what he called life groups—featuring animals in their natural settings—for museums across the country. In 1882, Hornaday’s high-quality animal displays vaulted him into the position of chief taxidermist of the United States National Museum, at the distinguished Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.

In this post at the Smithsonian, Hornaday took it upon himself to investigate what he had heard about the dwindling herd of American bison on the western prairies. He sent hundreds of letters to ranchers, settlers, explorers, and homesteaders all over the American west.

What he heard back painted an appalling and depressing picture. As Hornaday wrote to George Brown Goode, his superior at the Smithsonian, “In the United States the extermination of all the large herds of buffalo is already an accomplished fact.” His diligence in collecting and reporting this discouraging information led to a trip that forever changed his life and set a milestone in the history of North American wildlife management.

In 1886, Hornaday traveled to Montana’s Musselshell River to observe a few remnant bison herds for himself and collect museum specimens before the species went extinct. The fact that he knew what to expect did not diminish the deep distress he felt at seeing that the vast herds of buffalo had vanished and only a few animals still survived in widely scattered groups. To counter his anguish over what he had seen in Montana, Hornaday returned home and, at the still-young age of thirty-six, immediately transformed his work orientation to focus on saving the bison from extinction. To initiate this effort, he acquired live bison that he brought to Washington, DC, and placed on display behind the Smithsonian’s administration building (nicknamed “The Castle” for its unusual architectural design).

Hornaday’s strategic decision to display live bison proved to be sheer genius on two levels. First, the live exhibit was much more popular than the museum’s encased bison group display and soon familiarized thousands of Americans—who had never traveled to the West—with the magnificence of these wildlife icons and the imminent threat of their disappearance forever. Secondly, this created the groundswell of public support Hornaday was seeking and opened the door for funding to ensure the bison’s long-term preservation. It also led to the creation of the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park, with Hornaday serving as the first director.

Hornaday followed up his successful work at the Smithsonian in 1889 with the publication of The Extermination of the American Bison, a book that proved very popular and generated increased public support to save the species. Then, in 1896, he received the ultimate honor when he was appointed director of New York City’s Bronx Zoo, where he remained for the next thirty years. Now—thanks in large part to Hornaday’s efforts—the Bronx Zoo is the foremost zoo in the United States, with a long history of emphasizing the importance of saving American native wildlife.

Throughout his tenure at the Bronx Zoo, Hornaday used his impressive skills as an articulate orator and influential writer to produce hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles and more than twenty books. His works led to the passage of important conservation and wildlife protection legislation. In particular, his unceasing efforts battling against old-fashioned bureaucrats and obstinate politicians led to the passage of the 1911 Fur Seal Treaty and, most notably, the 1918 Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which still protects all migratory birds in the United States.

By 1918, the buffalo was no longer in danger of extinction, thanks in large part to Hornaday’s diligent efforts. Today, the National Wildlife Federation carries on his legacy by helping to ensure that free-roaming buffalo herds will forever be found across the American landscape. In the process of dedicating his life to preserving the American bison, Hornaday also earned the title “Founder of the American Conservation Movement.”

Climate-change activists can learn a great deal from studying William Temple Hornaday’s biography. First, he dedicated his life to a cause and then figured out how to create the groundswell of public support needed to accomplish his goal. The positive techniques he used to accomplish his objective are also admirable. Instead of emphasizing a doomsday outcry for the American bison, Hornaday first turned the public on to the beauty of these burly beasts and then kept emphasizing that it was not too late to save them from extinction. This is exactly the same approach we need to emphasize with climate change: while the livability of our magnificent planet is in serious jeopardy, it’s not too late to save it—if we all act together right now.

Charles Darwin—His “On the Origin of Species”

As we mentioned previously, Frederick Law Olmsted’s influential look-alike, was English naturalist Charles Darwin. Almost everyone who has studied science, and many of those in other fields of study, know that Darwin’s theory of evolution became the foundation of modern evolutionary studies. What is not so well known is that maybe no scientist in the history of the world suffered more scorn and ridicule than Darwin did after he completed his quintessential research and finally published his monumental 1859 book On the Origin of Species. Waiting more than twenty years before finally going public with his earth-shaking findings, Darwin likened writing Origin to confessing to committing a murder.

Born in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England, in 1809, Charles Darwin loved to be outdoors enjoying nature almost before he could walk. He enrolled in Edinburgh University with the goal of following his father’s and grandfather’s famous footsteps into medicine. There, Darwin learned that the brutality of surgery and the sight of blood turned his stomach—not especially good qualities for someone in the medical profession in those days. But university did enhance young Charles’s knowledge of science, a discipline that perfectly suited his love of the outdoors and his adventurous personality.

During a brief period, Darwin also thought about becoming an Anglican pastor and studied religion—but mostly botany—under the tutelage of Reverend John Stevens Henslow. Intrigued by his protégé’s keen interest in the outside world, Henslow suggested that Darwin take a position as naturalist on an expedition commanded by Captain Robert Fitzroy aboard a rebuilt brig quaintly named the HMS Beagle.

Darwin had always dreamed of traveling the world, and, though Captain Fitzroy had offered to cover his accommodations in return for his services as a naturalist, Darwin insisted on paying a fair share of the meal expenses. Little could anyone have imagined at the time that the pairing of Charles Darwin and the Beagle would live on in history as the boy and the ship that would shock the world and forever alter the science of human history.

Casting off under damp and dreary skies but not particularly rough seas, the Beagle—with a crew of seventy-three men, including young untested Charles Darwin—sailed out of Plymouth Harbor on the morning of December 27, 1831. Becoming seasick almost immediately—a malady that would curse nearly all his days at sea—Darwin started to have second thoughts about being on the voyage.

In 1835—after almost four years of exploring the world’s oceans—the Beagle reached the Galapagos Islands, one of Earth’s most remote and least explored archipelagos. This, of course, was right in Darwin’s wheelhouse, and he bounded ashore at each stop with an unbridled exuberance for making new discoveries—a little like telling a child he could keep whatever he found in a gigantic toy store. One of Darwin’s fondest memories in the Galapagos was hopping on top of a giant tortoise and trying to keep his balance as the gentle reptile lumbered through hillsides covered with volcanic rubble.

Returning home in 1836 after nearly five years at sea, Darwin turned his meticulously crafted notes into a book entitled The Voyage of the Beagle. Still in print today, this colorfully written book, infused with occasional flashes of wit and humor, perfectly captures the essence of the Beagle’s voyage and Darwin’s onboard adventures.

Darwin crystallized his theories about evolution while observing the genetically isolated populations of animals living on the Galapagos Islands. He was especially intrigued by the finches (actually part of the tanager family) that he found colonizing each separate island. Prior to his time on the Beagle, several mentors shaped Darwin’s budding theories on evolution. Jean Baptiste Lamarck planted, in Charles’ head, the notion that humans evolved from a lower species via adaptations. The two men differed in their view of how these adaptations came to be: Lamarck hypothesized that they happened during an individual’s life while Darwin postulated that nascent adaptations led to successful reproduction and species survival. Thomas Malthus’ studies on population economics led to Darwin’s idea of “survival of the fittest”, in which the species most well adapted outcompeted other species for limited resources. And, notably, Charles’ grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, shared many views about evolution with Charles, and eventually the public, first in poetry form and later in a book about speciation.

After arriving back home and studying his collected bird specimens with the help of a few professional ornithologists, Darwin noticed that each island’s finch population had a beak that was a different size and shape than that of the finches on the other islands. Moreover, the beaks of each isolated finch population appeared specially adapted to the different food species found on its island.

How could this happen, Darwin wondered? In his mind, the only explanation was that the finches on each island had evolved beaks that were best suited to eating the food that was most available on that island and were thus being naturally selected to reproduce. Darwin’s paramount publication, where he combined many of the aforementioned theories with his studies on the Beagle, was to come later—much later, in fact. Fearing for his reputation and in some cases his life, Darwin kept the radical evolutionary notions that were continually floating through his brain a secret. While his finches formed a substantial part of the backbone for his theory of natural selection, Darwin was not anywhere near ready to go to publication with his ideas in 1839.

Many explanations have been proposed to identify Darwin’s reasons for waiting so long to come forward with his evolutionary theory. Some believed he was working on several other publications, and he never liked to start a new book before completing the ones on which he was already working. Others suggested that he was waiting for other scientists to produce findings that would help verify his beliefs. In general, a large portion of the population thought Darwin was worried that he would be ostracized by the Anglican Church and ridiculed by his friends and family.

We suspect that the twenty-year delay in the publication of Origin was a combination of all these factors. In fact, after receiving supporting research from fellow scientists Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Lyell in 1858, Darwin finally decided to finish his research and publish On the Origin of the Species in 1859 and the resulting worldwide debate began in earnest.

At first, Darwin’s beliefs that animals and humans shared a common ancestor shocked the Anglican Church and Victorian society to the core. By the time of his death in 1882, however, Darwin’s evolutionary imagery had spread through all of literature, science, and politics. Although professedly an agnostic, Darwin and his evolutionary theory were finally vindicated when he was buried in London’s Westminster Abbey—the ultimate British accolade.

It is not the most intellectual or the strongest species that survives, but the species that survives is the one that is able to adapt to or adjust best to the changing environment in which it finds itself.
—Charles Darwin

So what can an earnest climate scientist learn from studying the life of past environmental hero Charles Darwin? First, Darwin had the gumption and stamina to stand by what he believed in his heart and mind to be true. Then he steadfastly maintained these beliefs and worked diligently to prove their veracity, even when he knew it would subject him to a storm of professional ridicule and the loss of relationships with friends and even family. Finally—working through all his doubts and reservations—he published his controversial theories and then lived to see them widely accepted. Steadfastly standing firm in the face of withering criticism and proving what is not only true but is also right is one of the most strenuous tests of heroism on the planet.

Frederick Law Olmstead—The World’s First Landscape Architect

During the last few years before the American Civil War turned brothers against brothers—the darkest four years in our young nation’s history—two other prominent citizens, Frederick Law Olmsted and Charles Darwin, left their distinctive marks on the US environmental movement. Even though they were both raised in wealthy, aristocratic families and looked remarkably alike, with their flowing white beards and bald pates, these two men made contributions that could not have been more different.

In 1857, in New York City, Frederick Law Olmsted was using his skills to help people live in harmony with the environment, by transforming New York’s Central Park from a desolate brown dumping ground into the world’s first showcase of urban green open space. As a child, Olmsted gained a deep and abiding respect for the natural world from both his father and his stepmother. This upbringing implanted within him the belief that access to the peace and solitude provided by open spaces and natural areas was one of the secrets to a happy life.

Born in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1822, Olmsted, as a young man, wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to do with his life. He tried his hand at many professions—most notably as a journalist and book author—but none of those fulfilled him. Through all of these unsatisfactory career choices, Olmsted’s thoughts kept returning to an idea he had been mulling over in the back of his mind ever since he was a child roaming the rolling open spaces of the Connecticut River Valley.

He believed that America’s burgeoning cities should be more hospitable—making them enjoyable places to live instead of just urban commerce centers crammed with tall buildings and dense with gray pavement. As Olmsted saw it, the best way to improve the livability of a city was to create more open green space—places where residents could take a break from their workaday worlds and just sit, relax, dream sweet dreams, and enjoy themselves for an hour or so.

What a novel idea for a profession, Olmsted thought—instead of designing buildings to shelter people’s bodies from the outside world, design outdoor spaces that could expand people’s minds to enjoy the intrinsic values of nature. Even better, he realized, would be creating a network of green spaces that tied urban cityscapes together and made it possible to walk for long, uninterrupted distances in a quiet environment. These thoughts later became the seed for Boston’s famous “Emerald Necklace”—the first urban greenway system found anywhere in the world.

The more Olmsted thought about it, the more he realized he was on to something. In 1857, his big break happened when he was hired by the city of New York as superintendent for the reconstruction of Central Park. His work on Central Park’s design set a standard of excellence that continues to influence landscape architecture in the United States. In fact, Olmsted was one of the first people to practice this field and is now widely considered to be the “Father of American Landscape Architecture.”

At the end of his twenty-five-year career, Olmsted and his firm had designed more than five hundred projects throughout the United States—mostly of the urban-improvement variety. In addition to New York City’s Central Park, Olmsted was the designer of the US Capitol Grounds, the Biltmore Estate property in Asheville, North Carolina, and the Stanford University Campus in Palo Alto, California. He also served as site planner for Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Since he emphasized emulating the scenic value of the natural world in his work, Olmsted also spent great deal of time helping humans experience nonurban parks. He was head of the first Yosemite National Park commission and leader of the campaign to protect Niagara Falls.

Olmsted was one of the first people to practice this field and is now widely considered to be the “Father of American Landscape Architecture”. His main goal—no matter what he was working on—was to improve the human experience. He wanted his parks to be available to all people, no matter their cultural status or lifestyle. Also, in one of the first official instances of social justice, Olmsted’s antislavery letters were published individually, and then, in 1861, were collected into one book, entitled The Cotton Kingdom.

Even though Olmstead died just after the turn of the twentieth century, the landscape architecture firm he founded successfully lived on until 1979—in the capable hands of his sons and their successors. Today, his home and office are owned and managed by the National Park Service as the Olmsted National Historic Site, located in Brookline, Massachusetts. Many of his conceptual drawings and detailed plans also can be found in the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.
What architect so noble . . . as he who, with far-reaching conception of beauty, in designing power, sketches the outlines, writes the colors, becomes the builder and directs the shadows of a picture so great that Nature shall be employed upon it for generations, before the work he arranged for her shall realize his intentions.

Olmsted dovetailed his passion for the natural world with his profound belief that everyone should have access to quiet green spaces for solitude and reflection, away from the din and clamor of our nation’s expanding urban areas. He turned his quest and extraordinary vision for improving the human condition into a unique profession that endures today throughout the world. His dedication to realizing his childhood dream by inventing something the world had never before seen should certainly be something imitated by today’s climate activists. Perhaps new, yet undreamed of, technology holds the key to designing a world future compatible with climate change.

John Burroughs—Father of the Modern Nature Essay

Around the same time as Thoreau was writing his influential works, another prominent American essayist was making a strong case for natural resource protection, establishing a reputation that demands his inclusion as one of our past environmental heroes. A gentle man who eschewed the limelight, John Burroughs—considered the “Father of the Modern Nature Essay” —was constantly writing and diligently working behind the scenes to protect the natural world he so ardently loved. In fact, Burroughs advocated for the protection of our natural resources in the 1850s—decades before there were any national parks or official conservation movements.

Burroughs was born in 1837 on his family’s farm near Roxbury, New York. As a young boy, he developed a deep passion for the Catskills woods and fields around him. He became a teacher when he was only seventeen—easily securing the good will of the pupils with a knack for imparting knowledge. He saved his teaching wages, supplementing them with money earned working on a farm, to put himself through the Hedding Literary Institute at Ashland, NY in the fall of his seventeenth year.

Watching with chagrin as rapid westward expansion and industrialization systematically ate away the wilderness of his country, Burroughs decided to help save America’s natural resources from disappearing forever. He used what he could do best— writing natural history essays—to help people visualize and understand the irreplaceable value of what they had. Then he taught them to feel passionately about protecting these resources. Very few people living today are aware of the tremendous influence Burroughs’s nature essays had on the consciousness of the American public during the nineteenth century.

Burroughs was one of the most famous authors of his day. He had a knack for describing the natural world vividly and simply. His prose communicated the value of slowing down and taking the time to really observe and appreciate the great outdoors. His message resonated with all ages, but especially with children. No image of Burroughs fits his grandfatherly persona better than one of him sitting on a hillside, his long white beard flowing down while he tells a tale about his exploits in the natural world to a group of visibly enthralled youngsters. By encouraging his readers to understand and share a sense of their purpose and place in the landscape, Burroughs championed the importance of keenly observing and understanding what was happening in the natural world.

As is the case with most of our past environmental heroes who did not have the good fortune of being born into wealthy families, Burroughs had to take other jobs to support his writing lifestyle. While he worked as a clerk for the US Treasury Department in Washington, DC during the Civil War, he continued to pursue his interests in botany and ornithology. In Washington, he developed a fast friendship with the poet Walt Whitman, eighteen years his senior. Burroughs’s first book, published in 1867, was entitled Notes on Walt Whitman as Poet and Person and was partially written by Whitman.

Summarizing his love affair with the birds in DC, Burroughs wrote Wake-Robin in 1871. Although he enjoyed the city, he missed his boyhood Catskills and he returned to them in 1873 to build a house he named “Riverby” along the western shore of the Hudson River, about eighty miles north of New York City. Then—about twenty years later—yearning for a more pristine writing environment, he built what he called “Slabsides,” a rustic cabin located more than a mile into the deep woods from “Riverby.”

Slabsides was where Burroughs’s profound and personal connections with the literary world took off. A parade of dignitaries—including Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, and John Muir—regularly stopped by to visit and chat with him there. Nature enthusiasts of all ages and occupations also visited Slabsides, for walks, discussions, fishing, and camping with Burroughs.

Through the lasting friendships he built with his more prominent visitors, Burroughs began to have an important influence on the emerging preservationist movement. By capitalizing on his newfound conservation clout, he also inspired political leaders to work at protecting wild lands and wildlife. He continually encouraged his readers to get out and explore the natural world, telling them, “Each of you has the whole wealth of the universe at your very door.”

Over a period of sixty years, Burroughs wrote more than three hundred nature essays and articles, published in leading magazines, along with twenty-seven books. When Burroughs died in 1921, Clyde Fisher, then curator of visual instruction at the American Museum of Natural History, wrote in Natural History Magazine, “John Burroughs did perhaps more than anyone else to open our eyes to the beauty of nature.” Ginger Wadsworth, author of the children’s book, John Burroughs: The Sage of Slabsides, wrote this description of Burroughs—which would have given him the ultimate pleasure in knowing that his life’s goal had been accomplished: “His essays teach us to slow down and look around. They encouraged people of all ages to go out their backdoors and experience nature.”
More than anything else, John Burroughs had a remarkable predilection for moving people to action through his writing. For the writers among us climate change activists, this is a critical skill for getting people involved with the solution process. Before you can convince people to act, you have to convince them to care, and that is exactly what world-class writings—such as those of John Burroughs—are carefully tailored to accomplish.

Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau—The Original Transcendentalists

While the exploration or exploitation—take your pick—of the American West was just beginning to flourish, two more of our past environmental heroes—Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau—were sitting, thinking, and writing in the newly-minted Commonwealth of Massachusetts. As the original transcendentalists, Emerson and Thoreau believed that there was much more to life than working feverishly and accruing wealth. Their thoughts and words were the first cries in the wilderness about living simply and compatibly with the natural world, and their words are still inspiring millions of people around the planet who want to make peace with—instead of continually exploiting—their environment.

Emerson, generally considered the “Father of Transcendentalism,” and Thoreau’s mentor, was born in 1803. His most famous work, Nature —published in 1836—explained his belief that God was suffused throughout the natural world and was not a separate, divine countenance living off in some heavenly sphere. Meanwhile, Thoreau took the teachings he gleaned from Emerson and turned them into two books that ran completely counter to the religious and social forces that were then driving our nation’s expansion. Today, Thoreau’s works form a significant portion of the backbone of the US environmental movement.

In 1849, Thoreau published his essay Civil Disobedience, which—while much less famous than his monumental work, Walden —opened many people’s eyes to the abject horrors perpetrated right in front of them. First and foremost among Thoreau’s described atrocities was slavery—foreshadowing the tragic war that was only slightly more than a decade away from sending the United States spiraling into the depths of human chaos and pathos.

With his face-framing beard and dark wavy hair, Thoreau could have easily passed for Abraham Lincoln’s brother—appropriate considering they were both brandishing the same moral sword against the institution of slavery. They each, however, advocated different methods of dealing with this scourge on the American landscape. While Lincoln believed in achieving his desired results by operating within the law of the land, Thoreau insisted that the country should stand against slavery, even if that led to civil war and the destruction of the Union.

Ever since its publication, Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience has inspired many leaders of protest movements around the world. Nicknamed the “Prophet of Passive Resistance” http://archive.vcu.edu/english/engweb/transcendentalism/authors/thoreau/ by some, Thoreau and his writings have provided supreme spiritual guidance for inspirational figures such as Mahatma Gandhi, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr.

Thoreau spent much of his life looking for the ultimate truth in the natural world. At night, he enjoyed hours of “looking through the stars to see if [he] could see God behind them.” His two older siblings—Helen and John Jr.—who were schoolteachers, paid Thoreau’s tuition to attend Harvard, where he immersed himself in classic literature, philosophy, and languages.

After graduating in 1837, Thoreau returned to Concord, Massachusetts, and opened a school with his brother, John. While Thoreau enjoyed teaching, he always fancied himself as a writer and soon after he left Harvard began keeping a detailed personal journal. Henry’s brother contracted tuberculosis in 1841, forcing the brothers to close their school; John died from lockjaw in Henry’s arms one year later. When the school closed, Henry realized he needed to find another way to make a living because writing was not paying the bills, so he turned to his family business—pencils.

Inconsistent with most popular beliefs about his life, Thoreau was—at times—a successful businessperson. The Thoreau family’s pencils were the first produced in the United States, and they equaled the worldwide standard—the German-made Faber pencils. After his father’s death in 1859, Thoreau took over as head of the family business and, characteristically, started recycling the company’s scrap paper for lists, notes, and drafts of his natural history essays. He also maintained his own active and highly respected local practice as a self-taught land surveyor.

But let’s get back to the Thoreau story with which everyone is most familiar. In 1845, Thoreau built a small home for himself on Walden Pond in Concord, on property owned by Emerson. Thoreau desired a simpler type of life, so for two years and two months he experimented with working as little as possible, rather than engaging in the standard pattern of six days on with one day off. He felt that this fresh approach helped him avoid the misery he saw around him, once famously writing, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” To his critics, who were perhaps trying to counter this desperation in their lives, , Thoreau wrote: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” (Note: After two years and two months, Thoreau left Walden Pond and moved back into his parents’ home and then into a house owned by Emerson, who was conducting a lecture tour in Europe. As Thoreau writes in Walden: “I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.”

Repeated questioning by the Concord townspeople about how he was living at Walden Pond inspired Thoreau to write his best-known collection of essays. Finally published in 1854—after initial public rejection and seven complete drafts—Thoreau’s Walden emphasized living life in close harmony with the natural world. Since its publication, Walden has served as a source of supreme inspiration for countless naturalists, writers, and—in more recent decades—environmentalists.

Most important for the issue of climate change are Thoreau’s dual beliefs that we can achieve significant changes in cultural and societal mores by passionate, passive resistance and sustainable living in harmony with the natural world. Sometimes it’s not the earliest or the most aggressive bird that gets the most worms but the one that stays most focused on the long-term task of raising healthy chicks.

John James Audubon—Our First Environmental Hero Arrives

With his devilish good looks, flowing chestnut-colored locks, and stern visage, John James Audubon was an enigma in every sense of the word. Arguably the world’s most prominent conservationist—at least in name alone—Audubon is usually depicted with a hunting rifle nestled in his arms.

Oddly, in the minds of many, Audubon could not write a decent sentence. He also could not draw very well, at least not when he tried sketching people. But there was one thing he was passionate about and, at this, he was very, very good. In fact, many—both then and now—consider him the best wildlife artist that ever lived. He could expertly craft meticulously detailed portraits of any wild bird. And his fondest dream was to show his magnificent avian portraits to the whole world.

Despite the eventual repute of his name in the United States, Audubon was not born as an American. He first saw the light of day on April 26, 1785, in Saint Domingue (now Haiti) as the illegitimate son of a French sea captain and his mistress.

In 1803, Audubon’s father sent his bright, brash teenager to the United States to escape conscription into Emperor Napoleon’s army. Despite many attempts, John James Audubon did not have business acumen. He tried to run a general store, a lead mine, a farm…all of these endeavors failed, to the point that he landed in jail. He continually shirked his obligations as a business man in favor of chasing birds in the woods! Audubon held a deep desire to paint every bird that nested in or visited the North American landscape. The fire to accomplish this burned so indomitably in his mind that he traveled throughout the eastern United States, observing and painting birds and trying every way he could think of, including painting portraits—his skills had improved by then, to raise the money to finance his ambitious goal. His wife, Lucy Bakewell, worked as a tutor to support his travels during these years.

Audubon even traveled to the United Kingdom and France in hopes of finding suitable financial backers. Finally, in 1827, while living in London, he connected with two talented engravers, Robert Havel Sr. and his son, Robert Havel Jr. Soon after that, production of what is still considered by many to be the greatest natural history masterwork ever created, The Birds of America, was finally underway.

Taking more than twelve years to complete, including several interim partial sets of plates, The Birds of America featured hand-colored, life-sized prints of every bird identified—at the time—on the North American continent. The publication featured 435 images presented in what was known as a “Double Elephant Folio” due to the enormous size of the paper (29 x 36 inches) required to reproduce Audubon’s meticulous work. The book even included six species that have gone extinct since its first publication—the Carolina parakeet, Labrador duck, great auk, Eskimo curlew, passenger pigeon, and pinnated grouse. Always a taker of copious notes, Audubon also possessed enough written material to produce a sequel tome entitled Ornithological Biography, which documented the life histories of birds and became a scientific treasure in its own right.
Of course, Audubon’s sumptuously detailed prints quickly created a sensation among nature lovers and early environmentalists all over the civilized world. And the lingering effect of his avian artistry remains unparalleled even in today’s society. Millions of homes throughout the United States and around the world still have their living and dining rooms graced with boldly emblazoned, life-sized prints of birds bearing the signature of John James Audubon in the lower right corner.

Assembling The Birds of America required legendary strength and endurance, and Audubon epitomized the spirit of young America—when our nation’s wilderness was still limitless and beguiling. Author and literary critic Lewis Mumford called Audubon “an archetypal American who astonishingly combined in equal measure the virtues of George Washington, Daniel Boone, and Benjamin Franklin” and “the nearest thing American art has had to a founding father.”

Audubon’s influence in the field of ornithology has never been matched. The majority of his later ornithological works were elevated by his insistence on accuracy and details in his paintings. He also had a deep appreciation and concern for conservation. Many of his writings sounded the alarm about the destruction of birds and their habitats. It is fitting that today, through the National Audubon Society, we carry his name and legacy into the future of environmental conservation and natural resource protection.

Although Audubon had no actual role in the organization that bears his name, there was a strong connection through his widow, Lucy Bakewell Audubon. She tutored George Bird Grinnell—one of the founders of the early Audubon Society in the late 1800s. Owing to Ms. Audubon’s tutelage, Grinnell gained a deep appreciation for and thorough understanding of the sheer magnificence of Audubon’s accomplishments. This led to his choosing this grand ornithologist’s name as the inspiration for the organization’s earliest work to protect birds and their habitats. Today, the name Audubon evokes everything about birds—including their habits, habitats, and conservation throughout the world. In addition to the National Audubon Society, more than twenty-five separate entities in the United States—schools, roads, bridges, parks, sanctuaries, and so on—bear his name.

So what can we take away from our first past environmental hero, John James Audubon, that will help us solve the climate change crisis? First, to accomplish your goals, you may have to do some things you would prefer not to do. Many people know that Audubon was the foremost bird artist and one of the most ardent conservationists of his day. But what you might not know is that Audubon was also one of the most skilled bird hunters in the United States. Not because he enjoyed killing living things or needed trophies in his den but because—in the early to mid-1800s—it was the only way he could acquire the specimens he required for producing his art.

Next is the skill of mental dedication and endurance simply known as good old-fashioned stick-to-itiveness. While enduring the slings and arrows continually hurled at him by critics, Audubon steadfastly maintained his unwavering trek toward his flawless artistic and conservation goals.
Also, while diligently pursuing and producing his portfolio of avian artistry in our young nation’s wild lands, Audubon was pounding the pavements in cities and towns throughout the United States and Europe, seeking the artistic and financial connections to make The Birds of America happen. Such extreme dedication to a cause is going to be required on the part of millions of people throughout the world to successfully make living with climate change a reality.
While thousands of Americans were being mesmerized by the vast diversity of avian life depicted in Audubon’s The Birds of America, our nation’s real treasure trove of natural resources was disappearing quickly, however. Westward expansion was eliminating wilderness and wantonly exploiting natural resources—often beyond recovery.