“The earth is your grandmother and mother, and she is sacred. Every step that is taken upon her should be as a prayer.”
Black Elk, Oglala Sioux
Greta Thunberg has surged to the forefront of the environmental movement significantly increasing the public awareness of global warming and stirring the imagination of millions.
Her importance has become paramount in increasing attention to what is happening to our environment and human responsibility for it. Never since Joan of Arc has a woman of her age so significantly influenced those around her.
She follows in the footsteps of other people who have expressed concerns about our environment in writing, speaking and actions they have taken. They have all been a part of the environmental movement. When did it begin?
Early Environmental Awareness
The earliest interest in the environment came as part of the Romantic movement in the early 19th century. The English poet William Wordsworth wrote of his travels around the Lake District, “sort of national property in which every man has a right and interest who has an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy”.
The origins of any type of movement were in England in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As the Industrial Revolution grew so did the levels of smoke pollution in the air. The construction and operation of large-scale factories resulted in substantial chemical discharges.
This, and already untreated human waste, created public outcries for action from the urban middle class. Britain passed the first modern environmental laws, the Alkai Acts, in 1863 regulating types of air pollution.
Concern for the conservation of forests began in India in the 19th century. The institutionalization of conservation activities in British India was obtained through the establishment of Forest Departments. It was an outgrowth of initial efforts begun in 1842.
The government under Governor-General Lord Dalhousie introduced the first permanent and comprehensive forest conservation program in the world in 1855. This became a model that eventually was used in other colonies and the United States.
Conservation movements in the United States began in the late 1800s. Henry David Thoreau talked about the importance of people’s relationship with nature. He gave his thoughts in his book, “Walden”. John Muir raised concern about protecting natural resources of the West.
John Muir, “Father of the National Parks” and “John of the Mountains”
Muir (1838–1914) was a Sottish-American naturalist, environmental philosopher, author and early advocate for preservation of wilderness areas. He was known as an ecological thinker, political spokesman and prolific author. His writings have served as a personal guide into nature for countless numbers of people.
His name has become ubiquitous with modern environmental consciousness which he perceived as having higher purposes. His biographer, Donald Worster, says Muir believed part of his mission was “saving the American soul from total surrender to materialism”.
Muir threw himself vigorously and wholeheartedly into the preservationist role. From his first explorations of them, he viewed the Yosemite area and the Sierra as almost sacred and pristine lands. He believed they were being threatened by domesticated livestock roaming the area. He referred to domestic sheep as “hoofed locusts”.
He befriended Robert Johnson, influential associate editor of The Century magazine, and even had him camp with him in the Yosemite area. Johnson agreed to publish any article Muir wrote about the area, and use his influence to have a bill introduced in Congress making the Yosemite area into a national park modeled after Yellowstone National Park. He wrote two articles published in 1890, and in September the bill passed following recommendations suggested by Muir in the articles.
Muir went on to become a co-founder and first president of the Sierra Club in 1892. In 1899 he accompanied railroad executive E. H. Harriman on an exploratory voyage along the Alaska coast. Harriman was later helpful in pressuring Congress to pass conservation legislation.
President Theodore Roosevelt visited Yosemite with Muir. After seeing the magnificent pristine nature of the park, Roosevelt asked that Muir show him the real Yosemite. They left the presidential entourage behind and just the two of them went camping in the backcountry.
Roosevelt later described the experience of that night in a talk he gave.
Lying out at night under those giant Sequoias was like lying in a temple built by no hand of man, a temple grander than any human architect could by any possibly build.
He saw nature as Native Americans have for centuries.
Twentieth Century Progress
Ideas about the environment and effects on it grew in popularity and recognition. More people began calling for the efficient and professional management of natural resources. Theodore Roosevelt continued his leadership and speaking out at the beginning of the century.
Like many other reformers at this time, he believed destruction of forests, fertile soil, minerals, wildlife, and water resources would lead to the downfall of society. In 1905 he created the Bureau of Forestry. The Bureau set aside land for cutting and created a scientific basis for determining which trees were cut and which were not.
In 1907 Roosevelt stated, “The conservation of natural resources is the fundamental problem. Unless we solve that problem, it will avail us little to solve all others.”
President Woodrow Wilson continued on this path founding the National Park Service in 1916. It began setting aside many acres for parks, putting them under Federal Government authority restricting them from industries.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933 as part of his New Deal program. Initially created as a relief program to give people jobs, it became a productive instrument for improving the environment. It employed people to repair and expand parks, improve infrastructure and clean up areas where needed.
After World War II the environmental movement began to gain momentum. Several environmental disasters created more widespread concern and calls for reform. A stronger recognition by the public of the costs incurred from negligence, disease, and air and water pollution.
Wilderness conservation continued gaining increased support into the 1940s. In was strongly influenced by the publication of “A Sand County Almanac” during that time.
It was written by Aldo Leopold considered by many to be the originator of environmental ethics, and who was a forester, ecologist and scientist. His book remains one of the most eloquent pleas for wilderness preservation ever composed.
Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, and the Modern Environmental Movement
Carson (1907–1964) was a marine biologist, conservationist, and author. She began her career as an aquatic biologist in the U. S. Bureau of Fisheries and became a nature writer in the 1950s. In 1951 she had The Sea Around Us published which became a widely acclaimed bestseller winning a National Book Award. She had published a previous book in 1941, Under the Sea Wind and published The Edge of the Sea completing a trilogy on sea life.
By 1957 she was closely following federal proposals for increasingly widespread pesticide spraying using chlorinated hydrocarbons and organophosphates. Her main professional focus became the dangers of pesticide overuse and would remain so for the rest of her life.
Silent Spring was published in 1962 and is by far her best-known book. It describes the harmful effects of pesticides on the environment, and is widely considered to be the beginning of the modern environmental movement. Others before Carson had raised concerns about the use of DDT. However, the combination of her scientific knowledge and her poetic writing was able to reach larger audiences.
The story of how Silent Spring came to be started begins in the late 1940s. Rachel was having growing concerns about the use of synthetic pesticides developed through the military funding of science after World War II. However, it was the government’s 1957 gypsy moth eradication program that spurred her to action. That program involved aerial spraying of DDT and other pesticides mixed with fuel oil including on private land.
She was recruited by the Audubon Naturalist Society who actively opposed the spraying program. She was to make public the exact spraying practices and related research. This began a four-year project which resulted in her book. Along the way, she made connections with other scientists and gained access to their research.
Carson started a broad grassroots push for the United States government to take a more aggressive role in regulating emissions of chemicals and other harmful substances into the environment. This led to the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act in 1969, establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, and the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972.
Carson was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Carter. In 2012 Silent Spring was designated a National Historic Chemical Landmark by the American Chemical Society for its role in the creation of the modern environmental movement.
Gaylord Nelson, Governor, Senator and Earth Day Founder
Gaylord Nelson (1916–2005) began his political career in 1948 with election to the Wisconsin State Senate. He served there until 1958 when he was elected Governor of Wisconsin. While Governor, Nelson became known nationally as the “Conservation Governor. This a result of taking popular actions to clean up waterways, protect natural resources, create green jobs and strengthen the state’s recreation infrastructure.
In 1962 he was elected to the United States Senate where he served three terms, 1963–1981. In 1963 he convinced President Kennedy to go on a national speaking tour discussing conservation issues. He began a seven-year-long crusade to convince other lawmakers to support his aggressive environmental agenda.
As he was flying to San Francisco after touring the devastating oil spill in Santa Barbara he was intrigued by an article he read about popular teach-ins on college campuses concerning the Vietnam War. He told aids his thoughts.
“If we could tap into the environmental concerns of the general public and infuse the student anti-war energy into the environmental cause, we could generate a demonstration that would force the issue onto the national political agenda.”
He announced his plan in a speech in Seattle on September 20, 1969, with several media outlets immediately broadcasting it to national audiences.
Nelson began receiving a huge amount of mail from enthusiastic citizens in support of the idea. He established an independent organization, Environmental Teach-in, Inc. It began answering inquiries being received and planning for a national day of teach-ins. He insisted that the national office not structure a uniform program but that people act locally “for old-fashion political action”.
In planning for the day and developing publicity a steering committee was established. It consisted of scientists, academics, environmentalists and students. Nelson asked California Republican Congressmen Paul McCloskey to be co-chair and he eagerly accepted. They decided on Earth Day as the name for the day of teach-ins.
Nelson’s decision to keep Earth Day planning and execution at the grassroots level turned out to be a key to its success. Participation exceeded everyone’s wildest expectations. He and his staff estimated over 20 million Americans participated and took action on April 22, 1970. They were from 10,000 elementary and high schools, 2,000 colleges and universities, and over 1,000 communities. The participants were not only students but labor union members, farmers, scientists, housewives and an eclectic mix of politicians from Barry Goldwater to Edward Kennedy.
Nelson said of the event’s success, “Earth Day worked because of the spontaneous response at the grassroots level. We had neither the time not the resources to organize the 20 million demonstrators who participated from thousands of schools and local communities. That was the remarkable thing about Earth Day. It organized itself.”
National observation of Earth Day peaked in 1990 with its 20th anniversary but it still continues to the present day. In 2000 on its 30th anniversary, an estimated 184 countries held Earth Day celebrations.
After leaving the Senate he became a counselor for The Wilderness Society in January, 1981. In 1995 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in recognition of his advocacy and work for the environment.
Nelson had some parting words for those who felt economic development should take precedence over environmental protection.
“The economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment, not the other way around.”
Gaylord Nelson contributed to moving the environmental movement forward in significant ways and will forever be remembered as the Founder of Earth Day.
Current Environmental Advocates Before Greta Thunberg
There are many people who have been engaged in environmental activism, adding energy to the environmental movement in different ways. These are brief highlights of several who have made important contributions.
There are people from other countries who have made notable contributions to the environmental movement across the other continents as well as in the United States.
Chico Mendes (1944–1988) worked to save the rainforests of Brazil from logging and ranching activities. His family was rubber harvesters supplementing their income by gathering nuts and other rainforest products. Alarmed at the devastation he saw taking place, he helped generate international support for its preservation. He drew the ire of ranching and timber interests and was murdered by cattle ranchers.
Wangari Maathai (1940–2011) was an environmental and political activist in Kenya. She founded the Green Belt Movement in Africa which has planted over 30 million trees providing jobs to the unemployed while preventing soil erosion and providing needed firewood. She served as Assistant Minister for Environmental and Natural Resources and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.
Dr. Vandana Shiva (1952-Present) is an Indian scientist, environmental activist, food sovereignty advocate and author of over 20 books. She was recognized as an Environmental Hero by Time magazine for her work in the defense of biodiversity and indigenous knowledge. She published The Violence of the Green Revolution about the Bhopal disaster caused by a gas leak from Union Carbide’s pesticide manufacturing plant and how Green Revolution agriculture has depleted fertile soil, destroyed living ecosystems and negatively affects people’s health. She has been a leader in the global Ecofeminist movement and suggests that a more sustainable approach to agriculture can be achieved through reinstating the system of farming in India more centered on engaging women.
Albert Arnold Gore, Jr. (1948-Present) better known as Al, was the vice president of the United States from 1993 to 2001. He is the founder and current chair of The Climate Reality Project and has been a vocal environmentalist since leaving office. He wrote an award-winning book, An Inconvenient Truth about climate change and its impact on the environment, and was the subject of an Academy Award-winning documentary of the same title. He received the Nobel Peace Prize along with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007. He has been a significant force in creating public awareness about climate change.
James Hansen (1941-Present) is a scientist known for his breakthrough work on climate change while at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) where he worked for 46 years. He is now at Columbia University directing the Program on Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions of the Earth Institute. Hansen testified before the United States Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on June 23, 1988 in what many believe was a turning point in the history of global climate change.
He testified that “Global warming has reached a level that we can ascribe with a high degree of confidence a cause and effect relationship between the greenhouse effect and observed warming…We already reached the point where the greenhouse effect is important.” He said that NASA was 99% confident that the warming was caused by the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and not a random fluctuation.
Hansen continues writing and speaking about climate change and its dangers to the environment and human beings. He has received numerous honors and awards from both scientific organizations such as the Association for the Advancement of Science’s Award for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility, and organizations such as Foreign Policy naming him one of its 2012 FP Top Global Thinkers “for sounding the alarm on climate change early and often”.
This now brings us to Greta Thunberg and her importance.
Greta Thunberg, Swedish Climate Change Activist, Fridays for the Future
Greta began her improbable journey to prominence in August, 2018 when at age 15, she began spending her school days outside the Swedish parliament demanding stronger action on climate change. She held a sign reading Skolstreik for klimatet, School strike for the climate.
Before long other students were holding similar protests in their communities which eventually became an organized school strike movement under the name Fridays for the Future. Greta addressed the 2018 United Nations Climate Change Conference and multi-city protests began taking place around the world.
She said in an interview with Amy Goodman from Democracy Now! she first got the idea of a climate strike after 2018 school shootings in the United States caused some students to refuse to return to Marjory Stoneman Douglas School in Parkland, Florida. Those teen activists later organized the March for Our Lives in support of greater gun control.
Later in 2018, Thunberg won a climate change essay competition and her essay was published in the Swedish newspaper, Svenska Dagbladet. In her essay, she said, “I want to feel safe. How can I feel safe when I know we are in the greatest crisis in human history?”
She began her protest in September after heatwaves and wildfires in Sweden’s hottest summer in 262 years. Initially, her protest was demanding that the Swedish government reduce carbon emissions in accordance with the Paris Agreement.
After the Swedish election in September, 2018, she continued to strike only on Fridays. She inspired students around the globe to conduct student strikes. As of December, more than 20,000 students had held strikes in over 270 cities. Organizers estimated that strikes on September 20 and 27, 2019 had over four million participants.
In August, 2019, Thunberg set sail across the Atlantic from Plymouth, England to New York City on the Malizia II racing yacht equipped with solar panels and underwater turbines so as to be carbon neutral. She was going to the United Nations Climate Change Action Summit and then to Canada. She participated in climate protests in Montreal, Edmonton, and Vancouver while in Canada. While in the United States she gave keynote addresses at protests in New York City. Los Angeles, Iowa City, Charlotte, Denver, and the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.
She next sailed to Madrid for the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP25) where she participated with local Fridays for Future climate strikers. At that conference, she called for more “concrete action”. She emphatically stated that the global wave of school strike over the previous year had “achieved nothing” as greenhouse gas emissions are still rising at the rate of 4% as they have been since 2015.
Why Is Greta Thunberg Important?
She is important demonstrating what a committed person of courage can achieve regardless of age or gender. Even a person with significant obstacles to overcome. She was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and selective mutism. In one of her first speeches demanding climate action, Thunberg described the selective mutism aspect of her condition as meaning she “only speaks when necessary”.
She has symbolic importance creating awareness of the global environmental crisis being exacerbated by increased global warming from greenhouse gases when many adults comfortably dismiss and ignore that it is happening. Inspiring other students and young people to be concerned and take action because they will face even graver circumstances if nothing changes.
Her message and example resonate effectively with the public in different ways because of her age and circumstances. She has received public honors and awards for efforts from a number of important and widely recognized sources.
In 2019 Time magazine named her as one of the 100 most influential people, and then the youngest person ever recognized as the Time Person of the Year. She has received an honorary fellowship into the Royal Scottish Geographical Society. She was nominated for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize which she did not receive but has now been nominated again for the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize.
All she has done has been achieved between the ages of 15 and 17. Truly remarkable accomplishments which certainly foreshadows much more to come.
What About Our Future?
On the current course, the future will likely continue becoming warmer with centuries-old ice shelves in the Arctic disappearing, sea levels rising and flooding inhabited lands, and greenhouse gas emissions increasing. More air pollution warnings and people with increased respiratory problems. Nature and its ecology are growing dangerously out of balance.
How these issues are addressed will depend upon awareness and will of people living across the globe. Conditions can only change when actions are taken by both governments and individuals.
There are governments and individuals in some countries who are becoming more aware and engaged with this looming crisis. Unfortunately, in the United States, our current governmental administration is not only unengaged but rolling back environmental protections put in place by past administrations.
Greta Thunberg symbolizes the awareness and grassroots actions that need to be taken by individuals to prompt more government actions and concerns on environmental issues. And the inspiration she is giving to new generations to take action.
As we began with Native American wisdom we will also end.
“WE ARE AS MUCH ALIVE AS WE KEEP THE EARTH ALIVE. “
Chief Dan George, Coast Salish Tribes