The Environment Agency has invited experts to name the people who have done most to save the planet
From the woman who raised the alarm over the profligate use of pesticides to the doctor who discovered that chimney sweeps in 18th century London were dying because of their exposure to soot, the government’s Environment Agency has named the scientists, campaigners, writers, economists and naturalists who, in its view, have done the most to save the planet.
To help celebrate its tenth anniversary, a panel of experts listed its 100 greatest eco-heroes of all time. And it does mean all time: St Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) is there, as is Siddartha Gautama Buddha, who died in 483BC.
Top of the list is Rachel Carson, a US scientist whose 1962 book, Silent Spring, is credited by many with kick-starting the modern environmental movement. Her account of the damage caused by the unrestrained industrial use of pesticides provoked controversy and fury in equal measures. Barbara Young, the Environment Agency’s chief executive, said: “She started many of us off on the road to environmental protection.”
At number two is the maverick economist EF Schumacher, a German national rescued from an internment camp in the English countryside by John Keynes, who went on to achieve worldwide fame with his green-tinged economic vision.
Jonathan Porritt, head of the Sustainable Development Commission, is third, with the wildlife broadcaster David Attenborough, fourth. James Lovelock, the UK scientist who developed the Gaia theory of life on earth, is fifth.
The US former vice-president turned documentary film maker Al Gore is placed ninth, while David Bellamy, the television botanist who angered some campaigners with his contrary stance on global warming, still makes the list at 18. There are journalists too, including the Guardian’s George Monbiot (23) and Paul Brown (80). And some surprises: few would consider an oil boss an eco-hero, but Lord John Browne has done enough to turn BP around to make the list at 85.
Mark Funnell, managing editor of the agency’s magazine Your Environment, which published the list, said: “We tend to get incredibly negative about people and their effect on the planet. There are some who have done fantastic things and we wanted to celebrate that.”
Not all the candidates have left their carbon footprints on the real world. Tom and Barbara from the BBC TV show the Good Life are at 91 while Father Christmas completes the list at 100, for his “sleek, no-carbon operation”.
1 Rachel Carson, Author of Silent Spring
Seen by many as the patron saint of the green movement, Rachel Carson’s reputation was sealed by the 1962 publication of Silent Spring, a passionate and revelatory account of the damage done by the unrestrained use of pesticides.
A writer, scientist and ecologist from rural Pennsylvania, she studied at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory and received an MA in zoology from Johns Hopkins University in 1932.
First hired by the US Bureau of Fisheries to write radio scripts during the depression, she supplemented her income writing features on natural history for the Baltimore Sun. A 15-year career in the federal service as a scientist and editor followed from 1936, and she rose to editor in chief of all publications for the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
In 1952 she resigned to focus on writing, and published a prize-winning study of the ocean, The Sea Around Us, followed by The Edge of the Sea in 1955. Essentially a biography of the ocean, the books made Carson famous as a naturalist and science writer. Disturbed by the widespread use of synthetic chemical pesticides after the second world war, she switched focus and wrote Silent Spring. The book is credited with launching the concept of the environment as a system that sustains us and that we must learn to live within, rather than a mine, dump or playground. It infuriated government and industrial interests and she was attacked by lobbyists as an alarmist. She died in 1964 after a long battle against breast cancer.
2 EF Schumacher, Green economist
Schumacher’s 1973 book Small is Beautiful rewrote the rules by questioning whether the objectives of western economics were desirable. Ernst Friedrich was born in Bonn, but made his name in the UK after attracting the attention of John Keynes. He was feted by alternative circles in the 1960s for unorthodox thinking, and his opposition to nuclear power and the use of chemicals in agriculture. He was an early critic of economic growth as a measure of national progress and helped to found the Soil Association. Small is Beautiful catapulted him to international attention: he was invited to meet US president Jimmy Carter and he even received death threats. He died in 1977.
3 Jonathan Porritt, Government adviser
An early activist with the Green party in the 1970s (then the Ecology party) and later party chairman. He gave up teaching in 1984 to lead Friends of the Earth. In 1996 he helped to found Forum for the Future. Tony Blair made him head of the Sustainable Development Commission in 2001, but he remains a critic of government policy on nuclear power and in 2005 urged the prime minister to “bang heads” across departments to combat greenhouse gas emissions. He irked some activists with his book Capitalism As If The World Matters, in which he argued that environmentalists must embrace a “evolved, intelligent and elegant” form of capitalism.
4 David Attenborough, TV naturalist
The voice of wildlife, conservation and all things that wriggle, fly and roam across planet Earth, Sir David is still going strong at 80. His programmes have brought the natural world into the living rooms of millions over 50 years and his contribution to public awareness of natural science brought him a fellowship of the Royal Society. A Reader’s Digest poll this year voted him most trusted celebrity in Britain.
He has drawn rare criticism from some environmentalists, who have complained that his programmes do not sufficiently reflect man’s impact on the natural world, although he has become more outspoken for green causes in recent years.
5 James Lovelock, Biologist
Best known for his Gaia theory, which says the Earth’s biosphere works as a single living organism, able to manipulate the climate and chemistry of the atmosphere and the oceans to keep them fit for life. The idea was hugely influential among fellow scientists and environmentalists, and religious and spiritual thinkers. An ex-Nasa scientist, his work on the Viking Mars missions sparked an interest in the way planets function.
More recently he courted controversy by public supporting nuclear power and increasingly dire predictions on the consequences of climate change for the human race. His book The Revenge of Gaia predicts that billions will die by the end of the century, with survivors forced to live in the Arctic. He argues that the phrase “global warming” fails to reflect the seriousness of the problem and wants it replaced with “global heating”.
6 Wangari Maathai, Conservationist
Africa’s “tree woman’”who founded the green belt movement in Kenya in 1977 and was awarded the Nobel peace prize in 2004. The movement has since planted more than 10m trees to prevent soil erosion and provide firewood for cooking fires. Most have been planted by poor women in the villages of Kenya, restoring their environment and providing paid work. Born in 1940 in Nyeri, Wangari, she trained as a scientist in the US before returning to Kenya to do a PhD. She gained worldwide attention in 1998 by helping to defeat plans by Kenya’s president to clear hundreds of acres of forest for luxury housing. Jailed several times by previous administrations, she was elected to parliament in 2002 and is now environment minister.
7 Prince of Wales, Green royal
Once derided for talking to plants, Charles Windsor’s passion for the environment and green issues such as locally produced organic foods have won him admirers and brought the issues to public attention. Last year he spoke out on climate change, calling it the greatest challenge to face man.
He said: “We should be treating, I think, the whole issue of climate change and global warming with a far greater degree of priority than I think is happening now.”
8 William Morris, Craftsman and writer
Remembered by environmentalists for his pioneering predictions of the problems caused by unsustainable industrialisation. His utopian view of a society in harmony with nature still inspires generations of sustainable-living advocates.
9 Al Gore, US politician
US former vice president defeated by George Bush in the infamous “hanging chad” recount presidential election of 2000. His long-lasting interest in environmental matters, and climate change in particular, was sealed with this year’s release of his film An Inconvenient Truth, which has helped to drive the issue on to the mainstream agenda.
10 Gro Harlem Brundtland, Former Norwegian PM
The Scandinavian polar opposite to Margaret Thatcher during the 1980s, her views of sustainable development seemed radical at the time, but are common political language now. Her 1987 report, Our Common Future, laid the ground for the 1992 Rio Earth summit.
11 Richard Sandbrook, Campaigner
The biologist and accountant, who died last year aged 59, had a profound influence on the green movement and the world of international development. He helped to set up Friends of the Earth UK, the Eden project and Forum for the Future. At the International Institute for Environment and Development he was instrumental in bringing together the poverty and environment agendas.
12 Amory Lovins, US energy guru
Top green thinker who launched Friends of the Earth in Britain and founded the Rocky Mountain Institute, a technology thinktank that develops blueprints for low-energy devices such as the “hypercar”. He says soft technologies can cut energy use by three-quarters.
13 Vandana Shiva, Campaigner
Physicist and ecologist, founding director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology in India and a leader in the International Forum on Globalisation. She has had a vast impact on a range of issues from forest conservation to GM crops,from world trade policy to organic farming.
14 Ansel Adams, Wilderness photographer
Well known for his photographs of the mountain ranges, deserts, rivers and skies of the US, Adams was a passionate lover of the outdoors and an active conservationist. He commented: “My approach to photography is based on my belief in the vigour and values of the world of nature – in the aspects of grandeur and of the minutiae all about us.”
15 Fritjof Capra, Austrian physicist
An Austrian doctor of theoretical physics, based in California, he combines an interest in eastern mysticism with a fascination for what makes the planet tick. His most recent book, Hidden Systems: A Science for Sustainable Living, argues the need for a natural rather than a technical toolkit to tackle the impending global crisis.
16 Aldo Leopold, US ecologist
Widely acknowledged as the founder of wildlife management as a discipline and profession, he was one of the greatest US ecologists. His writings on conservation and the value of the wild to civilisation are highly regarded. The most famous, A Sand County Almanac, inspired many to follow in his footsteps.
17 Chico Mendez, Brazilian anti-logger activist
A Brazilian rubber tapper, unionist and environmental activist who fought to stop logging in the Amazon rainforest for cattle ranching. He was murdered by ranchers opposed to his activism.
18 David Bellamy, TV botanist
A formidable campaigner for green causes, including saving a Tasmanian rainforest from flooding by a dam project. In recent years his reputation has been tarnished by public statements sceptical of climate change. Fierce hater of wind farms.
19 Joseph Bazalgette, Victorian engineer
The architect of central London’s sewer system who saved the city from the cholera epidemics that had ravaged it in the early 19th century.
20 John James Audubon, US naturalist and artist
Born in 1785, his seminal work, Birds of America, a collection of 435 life-sized prints, is still a standard by which modern day bird artists are measured. While living on the family estate near Philadelphia he conducted the first known bird-banding experiment in North America by tying strings around the legs of Eastern Phoebes.
21 Sir Peter Scott, conservationist
22 Tim Smit, record producer turned gardener
23 George Monbiot, author and Guardian columnist
24 Michael Meacher, former Labour environment minister
25 Ken Livingstone, mayor of London
26 Tony Juniper, campaigner
27 John Muir, conservationist
28 Kirkpatrick Macmillan, bicycle inventor
29 Arnold Schwarzenegger, bodybuilder turned actor turned US politician
30 John Ruskin, Victorian critic
31 David Bower, Friends of the Earth founder
32 Jim Hansen, Nasa scientist
33 Thomas Malthus, economist
34 Percival Potts, public health pioneer
35 David Suzuki, ecologist and television presenter
36 Max Nicholson, ornithologist
37 Mayer Hillman, climate change expert
38 Octavia Hill, open spaces campaigner
39 Dai Qing, Chinese anti-dam campaigner
40 Paul Johnson, Greenpeace scientist
41 Paul de Jongh, Dutch author
42 Dionisio Ribeiro Filho, Brazilian environmentalist
43 Andrew Lees, campaigner
44 Mike Hands, tropical ecologist
45 Petra Kelly, German green politician
46 John Dower, national parks visionary
47 St Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals and ecology
48 Jane Goodall, primatologist
49 Henry David Thoreau, author
50 Sunita Narain, Indian campaigner
51 Lester Brown, green policy expert
52 G K Chesterton, author
53 Swampy, roads protester
54 Sir John Banham, green industrialist
55 The people of Bougainville, eco-revolutionaries
56 Caroline Lucas, green party MEP
57 Teddy Goldsmith, Ecologist magazine founder
58 George Waterson, former RSPB director
59 Gerald Durrell, author and zoologist
60 Mark Mayer, journalist
61 Marion Shoard, writer and broadcaster
62 Nan Fairbrother, author
63 George Baker, urban conservationist
64 Dame Miriam Rothschild, scientist
65 Charlene Spretnak, US author and activist
66 Richard St Barbe Baker, forester
67 Graham Wynne, RSPB chief executive
68 Conrad Waddington, animal geneticist
69 Rudolph Bahro, author
70 Nick Hildyard, campaigner
71 Christopher Lloyd, wildlife gardener
72 Jane Jacobs, Canadian writer and activist
73 Robert Heilbronner, economist
74 Michael Braungart and Bill McDonagh, co-founders of green chemicals firm MBDC
75 Karl Henrik Robert, Swedish cancer researcher
76 Sue Clifford, campaigner
77 Colin Ward, anarchist and writer
78 Stephen Jay Gould, evolutionary scientist
79 Paul Ekins, green policy expert
80 Paul Brown, journalist
81 Mahatma Gandhi, Indian leader
82 John Stewart, roads campaigner
83 Rosamund Kidman Cox, journalist
84 Bob Flowerdew, green gardener
85 Lord John Browne, BP boss
86 Colin Tudge, author
87 Charles Darwin, naturalist
88 Tony Bradshaw, urban ecologist
89 Dalai Lama, spiritual leader
90 Herman Daly, author
91 Tom and Barbara from the Good Life, TV eco warriors
92 Siddartha Gautama Buddha, spiritual leader
93 Ted Green, trees and fungi expert
94 Alfred Wallace, naturalist and rival of 87
95 Samuel Taylor Coleridge, romantic poet
96 Margot Wallstrom, EU politician
97 Dale Vince, green energy pioneer
98 Joe Strummer, former Clash frontman turned carbon offset pioneer
99 Jamie Oliver, television chef
100 Father Christmas, carbon-free delivery
Article by David Adam, environment correspondent for The Guardian
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