Review by Gavin Saunders
I have always been drawn to the idea of heroes in conservation, and the notion that individuals can have wide and lasting impact on others, because of who they are, because of what they represent, because of what they do, and simply because of the serendipity of when and where they are active. The American pioneers John Muir, Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold had all passed away before I was born, yet the echoes of their lives, and the ways those lives had been told and retold by others, struck me forcibly during the development of my own interests in conservation, and have remained as guiding stars ever since. They were populist, persuasive and influential (sometimes against their natural inclinations) yet also deeply knowledgeable and sincere in their immersion in their subjects.
Author Larry Nielson is Professor of Natural Resources at North Carolina State University, but this is not an academic book. Its premise is admirably simple: to tell the stories of a cast of environmental leaders, in order to inspire a new generation to strive to follow in their footsteps.
Nielson has chosen eight people – three women and five men, all but one no longer alive – who lived between the mid nineteenth century and the present. The choice is Ameri-centric, as you might expect from a US-based author, but it could perhaps be argued that the US has more environmental heroes with a global profile than most countries, even when viewed objectively from the outside. Even with that bias, the choice is interesting and includes less obvious figures, as well as my own favorites.
In eight chapters Nielson gallops through this colourful segment of the environmental who’s-who. He starts with John Muir, the nineteenth century Scottish-born wilderness advocate who, as well as climbing trees during thunder storms to feel the thrill of wildness, took Roosevelt hiking in Yosemite and helped establish the US National Parks system. He then moves to Ding Darling, the cartoonist from Des Moines who became a leading advocate for wildfowl conservation, and head of the US Biological Survey, forerunner of the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Next comes Aldo Leopold, the forester and pioneer of game management who settled in rural Wisconsin and evolved from strictly scientific resource manager to pen A Sand County Almanac, a work of light-touch but deeply influential philosophy which proposed a ‘land ethic’, calling for a deeper more benign relationship with our natural ecosystems. This is followed by Rachel Carson, the Pennsylvanian marine biologist who, having built a reputation as a lyrical writer about the oceans, devoted her later life to researching the chemical industry to write Silent Spring, the book that kick-started the modern environmental movement.
Chico Mendes then takes the stage, the Brazilian activist for the human rights of Amazonian rubber tappers, who unionised his peers and campaigned in the face of unconstrained logging of the Amazon rainforest, before being assassinated for his efforts. He is followed by Billy Frank Jr, the Native American salmon fisherman of the Nisqually tribe, who became the face of the campaign to recognise native rights to freshwater fisheries in the Pacific North West.
The story then turns to Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan biologist and Nobel Laureate who led the Green Belt movement for environmental protection and women’s rights, focused on the planting of millions of trees. The final member of the cast is Gro Harlem Bruntland, the Norwegian Prime Minister and Chair in the early 1980s of the World Commission on Environment and Development, which provided the momentum for the 1992 Earth Summit and Agenda 21.
Nielson is a great storyteller, and clearly enjoys painting portraits of these varied characters and their times. Told as stories, these mini-biographies work well in pursuing Nielson’s objective: they do indeed inspire. Initially I found myself wanting more rounded portraits of the protagonists, warts and all. They all had their flaws, and imperfections make people human; but perhaps I have become too used to the reveal-all style of modern biography. Here, by contrast, Nielson maintains an air of polite respectfulness in his descriptions, only hinting at the darker or more difficult aspects of his subjects. And after a while I came to admire that approach.
What struck me most forcibly was the close links, highlighted repeatedly through the book, between environmental issues, social advancement and human rights in these life stories. Individuals like Chico Mendes, Billy Frank Jr and Wangari Maathai were driven by a desire to make people’s lives better – the lives of the communities from which they came, which in turn were shaped by, defined by and dependent upon the land. And they recognized – either inherently from birth, or through personal epiphanies along the way – the intimate connections between the needs of their peoples and their landscapes.
These ‘heroes’ came to their remarkable exploits only after sometimes-long periods of self-examination and life experience. Aldo Leopold evolved from wolf hunter to holistic guru of the land ethic. Rachel Carson evolved from mild-mannered writer to take on the might of the chemical industry. In the face of the powerlessness many of us feel, their examples show that it’s never too late to start changing the world.