Before all of society embraced environmentalism, several hardy heroes and heroines had to show the rest of us the way. And it took more than good deeds to bring us to the point where we are now, in which all but the most hardened consumers wince at the sight of a recyclable can in the garbage. A few gut-wrenching episodes of environmental disaster also helped to bring home the importance of safeguarding our planet. Now, not all heroes -- nor all disasters -- are created equal. But these people, places, and events belong in the …

  • Image about al-gore-john-muir-sierra-club-henry-david-thoreau-americanway
HENRY DAVID THOREAU. Maybe Thoreau, the author of 1854’s Walden, seems an odd environmentalist, at least in the modern sense. But by celebrating nature and humanity’s place in it, Thoreau and other nineteenth-century artists and thinkers, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and the painters of the Hudson River School, did the intellectual site prep for today’s environmentalism. “[They] are the people who began allowing Americans to think of nature in a different way,” says Brian Black, PhD, a professor of history and environmental studies at Penn State University and the author of Nature and the Environment in 20th-Century American Life. “Until then, it was almost exclusively looked at as a resource to be used. It was nature with a price tag. That transition in the early- to mid-1800s allowed a different paradigm to develop, [one] that views nature in a different way.”

HETCH HETCHY VALLEY. Nearly half a century after Walden was published, San Francisco wanted to build a water reservoir in a stunning mountain valley inside Yosemite National Park. Though it was opposed by John Muir and the Sierra Club, the dam was built, and the valley drowned. But the battle did end up sparking a national debate over how we should treat our national parks. “Right after that, in 1916, the National Park Service was formed, and some real preservation management moved forward from that,” says Black. And, tellingly, after World War II, when planners proposed a dam in Utah’s Dinosaur National Monument, the Sierra Club blocked it, using Hetch Hetchy arguments as well as other scientific research. Though Hetch Hetchy Valley was turned into a reservoir almost a century ago, efforts to remove the dam and restore it continue. Stay tuned.

JOHN MUIR. Briefly enumerating this Scottish immigrant’s contributions to American environmentalism presents at least two challenges: where to begin and what to leave out. Muir’s writing about the irreplaceable scenic beauty he encountered during numerous long hikes through the Sierra Nevada and other parts of the country deeply influenced presidents, legislators, and the public. He agitated successfully for the 1890 establishment of Yosemite National Park. He participated in creating the first national forests. And he cofounded and served as the first president of the Sierra Club, still one of the most influential environmental-protection organizations anywhere.

LOVE CANAL. When a placid-looking community in Niagara Falls, New York, won infamy in 1978 as one of the worst environmental chemical disasters in U.S. history, ordinary Americans got a major wake-up call. “The idea that your neighborhood could be dangerous really shocked people,” says Nancy Langston, PhD, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the president of the American Society for Environmental History. And that the danger consisted of cancer, birth defects, and other ugly ailments -- in this case promoted by the chemicals buried in an old canal-turned-subdivision -- was scarier still. Lawsuits were filed, and the chemical company that deposited the toxins eventually paid tens of millions of dollars in cleanup fees and in restitution to the federal government, to the state of New York, and to the affected families. Love Canal energized legislators to create the Superfund program to deal with abandoned hazardous waste sites.

GEORGE WASHINGTON CARVER. Born into slavery, Carver endured years of hardship to gain an education. He ended up being a college professor and a world-famous expert on developing industrial goods from agricultural products, especially peanuts. Dubbed the Peanut Wizard while he taught at Tuskegee Institute, after his 1921 testimony before a House committee in favor of a peanut tariff, he became nationally known as the Peanut Man. Today, as governments and industries scramble to find ways to replace nonrenewable resources with those from renewable agricultural sources, remember that a century ago, there was one man who developed scores of soaps, dyes, adhesives, stains, medicines, and other products from sweet potatoes and peanuts. He was clearly ahead of his time.

THEODORE ROOSEVELT. In addition to his prowess as a mustache cultivator, the old Rough Rider had serious conservation chops. Encouraged by his confidant, the renowned forester Gifford Pinchot, Roosevelt greatly expanded the size and clout of the system of national forests, established numerous wildlife sanctuaries, and kicked off a serious discussion on how best to preserve unspoiled natural resources, a discussion that continues to this day. A century after his term, Roosevelt is still the most conservation-minded president of all when it comes to protecting wildlife and public land from human encroachment.

RACHEL CARSON. For many people, the June 1962 publication of Carson’s book Silent Spring as a serial in the New Yorker marked the beginning of modern American environmentalism. Carson, a longtime government worker who had gained international recognition for her writings about the sea and nature, clothed years of analysis of government statistics in a lyrical prose voice as she described how the pesticide DDT irreparably damaged the environment.

Carson’s message won vast influence, spurring the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the near-universal banning of DDT. “She’s probably the most influential environmental American voice of the last century,” says Fred Krupp, who, as president of the Environmental Defense Fund since 1984, has had more than a little influence himself. “She sounded the alarm for DDT and other chemicals when the world wasn’t ready to hear it.”

AL GORE. The former vice president has demonstrated a dedicated and effective championship of environmental causes before, during, and after his time in the White House. His 1992 book, Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit, intelligently and forcefully outlines challenges and solutions facing humanity’s effort to preserve its home planet. But it wasn’t until 2006, when his documentary film, An Inconvenient Truth, came out that Gore really hit his stride. The impact of the hugely successful work goes beyond the two Academy Awards the movie received -- and even beyond the Nobel Prize Gore shares with the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “It’s very similar to Silent Spring in its ability to take a scientific concept and convey it to a broad audience,” Black says of the film.

OF COURSE, actually anointing Gore as the twenty-first-century’s version of Carson and Muir will have to wait for some future edition of the American Way Green Hall of Fame and Infamy. Joining Gore in that issue might be venture capitalist John Doerr, whom Krupp praises for recognizing the profits to be made in alternative-energy technology and other environmentally connected industries; or Krupp himself; or even Hurricane Katrina, for the way it has alerted us to the danger of stronger hurricanes in a world of warmer oceans. But in the end, regardless of who -- or what -- makes that future list, we just hope they’re at least half as influential as their predecessors in making the world a better (and greener) place to live.