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12 Famous Environmentalists Inspiring Change & Collective Action

Environmentalism serves as a driving force for change in our world. It seeks to protect the world's natural resources while addressing ways to combat issues like global warming and climate change. Without the environmental movement, we most likely wouldn't pay as much attention to issues affecting the natural environment. 

At the forefront of this movement are environmental leaders and activists. They continue to advocate for positive changes. Such changes include wilderness preservation, environmental protection, and sustainable development. In this article, we pay homage to some of the world's famous environmentalists.

Who Are the Environmental Activists?

To understand the role of an environmental activist, we need to understand who this person is. First of all, we rely on our environment for survival. In this light, environmentalism is crucial to protecting and preserving our natural world. It addresses issues like climate change and the climate crisis and seeks to preserve natural spaces. 

To understand this better, we can examine the efforts of environmental leaders and sustainability advocates. Environmentalists take it upon themselves to create public awareness of environmental conservation, wildlife management, and the natural world. 

They come from various backgrounds yet share a common goal to reduce the human impact on the earth. Environmentalists encourage sustainable environmental practices through research, activism, exploring, and writing. From those gone and still living, people worldwide continue to feel their impact. 

Related: For further inspiration from people working to tackle environmental issues, check out our curated selection of some of the best nature quotes and environment quotes.

Who Are Some Famous Environmentalists?

This article highlights some of the most famous environmentalists at the forefront of the conservation movement. They seek to protect areas like plant life, animal welfare, and sustainable living worldwide.

We understand the impact of social media influencers in shaping people's views. Similarly, environmentalists shape opinions and behaviors and also influence policies. They do this through activities like creating awareness, educating, and sensitizing. Many of them are crucial to the modern environmental movement through their contributions. 

Side note: At TRVST, we also recognize the tireless work of changemakers across all f social and environmental change disciplines. Keep an eye on our changemakers section and their projects for a bunch of people you likely haven't heard of yet.

Whereas this post focuses on some of the more well-known environmentalists, we also seek to support and celebrate the lesser-known, up-and-coming, or simply head down, getting on with the job and hand activists. 

12 Environmental Leaders and Activists

1. Jane Goodall, World's foremost expert on chimpanzees

Jane Goodall is one of the most famous environmentalists, particularly in the wildlife protection space. She embarks on projects that support the habitat conservation movement. Jane was out on the field at a time when there was heavy bias on women scientists embarking on fieldwork. Globally, people now know Jane as the world's foremost chimpanzee expert. 

Jane's passion led her to Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania at age 26. There, she began to research chimpanzees. As a primatologist, Jane spent several years studying the behavior of endangered chimpanzees at Gombe Stream National Park. Through her studies, she highlighted human-like characteristics amongst this species. Her extensive studies have now become a crucial aspect of her legacy. 

In 1977, Jane established the Jane Goodall Institute. It is a global non-profit organization concerned with animal welfare and environmental conservation. It seeks to create a healthy and unified relationship between animals, humans, and the environment. The Institute also has a youth action program called Jane Goodall Roots and Shoots.

Jane's Institute continues to spread the word about our roles in preserving the earth and maintaining our environment. Her determination and resilience in her field of study have positioned Jane as a role model and contributor to history. This has also earned her several recognitions, awards, and honors. In 2019, Time Magazine featured her on the Time 100 list. 

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2. Gaylord Nelson, Politician and creator of Earth Day

Gaylord Nelson was an American activist and politician who served in the U.S. Army during World War II. He was an instrumental figure in the passage of crucial environmental acts. Some of these acts include the Wilderness Act, Federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and Clean Water Act. During the 20th century, Gaylord was a prominent environmental activist highlighting environmental issues and fighting for social justice.  

Gaylord served as the governor of Wisconsin and represented the state in the U.S. Senate. As a governor, he held a vision that addressed the sustainable use of resources and environmental preservation. One of his most prominent contributions was the creation of the Outdoor Recreation Acquisition Program. The program sought to acquire lands maintained as wilderness areas and public parks. 

As a senator, he encouraged the creation of a national hiking trails system, including the Appalachian Trail. He also served on the board of The Wilderness Society and was one of the sponsors of the Wilderness Act. This Act established the National Wilderness Preservation System. This is geared towards wilderness preservation and essentially protecting public lands. 

Apart from his fight against issues like pollution, he also spoke on poverty. Perhaps one of Gaylord's most significant contributions to the conservation movement was his creation of Earth Day. Since its inception in 1970, the world continues to celebrate this day. 

3. George Washington Carver, Agricultural scientist

George Washington Carver
Photo Credit: National Park Service via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

George Washington Carver was a world-famous agricultural scientist and experimenter. People knew, and still know, him for his contribution to developing new products from peanuts, soybeans, and sweet potatoes. George was one of the prominent scientists in the 20th century. His contribution to agriculture and the land led to birthing new ways to prevent soil depletion.

He promoted soil rotation and contributed to the development of the agricultural economy in the southern region of the U.S. He encouraged local farmers to grow their crops as a way to provide food and improve their lives. 

George was born into slavery a year before the government abolished it. He later went on to earn a bachelor of science degree in agricultural science and later a master's degree. George went on to direct a newly established department at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama - the Department of Agriculture. 

Through his years of study and research, he realized that repeatedly growing cotton had led to soil depletion. This then led to low yields. He developed new ways for farmers to restore nitrogen to the soil to boost yields to tackle this. His suggestion of crop rotation proved to be successful as his suggested crops restored nitrogen to the soil. 

Due to his passion for agriculture, George established mobile classrooms to teach farmers soil chemistry. His contributions led to advancements in agricultural teachings, especially at a time when most of the population were farmers. He continued to extend his teachings on soil conversation and new methods in farming throughout his life.

4. John Muir, The father of national parks

People popularly refer to John Muir as the father of national parks. He spent a large portion of his life fighting for forest conservation. Throughout this lifetime, he shared his love for the natural world and contributed to establishing national parks. Some of these parks include Yosemite National Park and Sequoia National Park in California. 

After nearly losing his eye due to an industrial accident, John left his career and became dedicated to nature. This naturalist and writer used his words and actions to drive positive environmental changes. In the 1870s, he played a role in urging the government to establish a forest conservation policy. He was a prominent figure in land-use debates as he fought for preservation.

John co-founded The Sierra Club, an organization that aims to spread environmental preservation awareness.

5. Robert Bullard, Environmental justice

Robert Bullard is a prominent name in the environmental space. People often refer to him as the father of environmental justice. He is a distinguished professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy at Texas Southern University. Before this, he was the founding director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University. Robert's work highlights the effects of racism in areas such as access to a safe environment, good food, and housing. 

Sometime in 1978, he studied the locations of landfills in Houston, Texas. He discovered that the five functioning local landfills were situated in Black neighborhoods. He also noticed that these neighborhoods were home to most of the privately-owned landfills. 

This research and many other contributions led to the prominence of this movement. He has spoken about how the governments don't create communities equally and disparities in access to clean spaces and health care.

Robert Bullard is also an author who has written several books. His books address topics like environmental racism, climate justice, urban land use, and community reinvestment, amongst others.   

6. Rachel Carson, Environmental author

Rachel Carson
Photo Credit: GPA Photo Archive via Flickr, (CC BY 2.0)

Rachel Carson played an important role in the modern environmental movement. This environmentalist and biologist from rural Pennsylvania shared writings on the natural history of the sea and pollution.

Initially proposing to study English at the Pennsylvania College for Women, she later changed her major to biology. She studied at the Marine Biology Laboratory in Massachusetts. She also studied at Johns Hopkins University, graduating with a Master's in zoology.

Rachel wrote different books addressing environmental pollution. Her most famous work is "Silent Spring." This book became a bestseller. Silent Spring was controversial at the time as it shed light on the environmental effects of pesticide use. Due to her warnings, the chemical industry threatened her with a lawsuit and accused her of emotionalism.

She also challenged the scope of modern science and its effects on the environment. Her work challenged the effects of chemicals, but she also questioned the human desire to control nature. Rachel became a social revolutionary and one of the world's renowned environmental leaders even after her death caused by breast cancer. Her work inspired hundreds of millions and even contributed to creating the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 

7. Winona LaDuke, Land rights activist

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A post shared by Winona LaDuke (@winonaladuke)

Winona LaDuke is a Native American land rights activist, environmentalist, economist, and politician. Winona has become one of the prominent voices advocating for Indigenous communities' environmental and economic concerns. 

Her work also encompasses sustainable progress in areas like food systems and renewable energy. She played a role in founding the Indigenous Women's Network. This shed light on women's rights issues like the forceful sterilization of Native American women. The network also empowers Native women in various spaces. 

Winona founded the White Earth Land Recovery Project. The aim of this non-profit is to buy back lands from non-Natives. It also seeks to create jobs for the Indigenous communities while fostering land preservation and restoration of cultural practices. Winona is a director at Honor The Earth, which she also co-founded. The organization raises awareness and support for Indigenous environmental concerns. 

Her work has earned her several recognitions. In 1994, Time Magazine named her one of the 50 most promising leaders under 40 in America. In 1998, Ms. Magazine named Winona "Woman of the Year." 

In 1996 and 2000, she ran for the vice president seat under the Green Party alongside Ralph Nader. In 2007, she was nominated for the National Women's Hall of Fame. She has a large body of work highlighting environmental challenges concerning Native Americans and minority communities.

8. Malaika Vaz, Conservationist and filmmaker

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A post shared by Malaika Vaz (@malaikavaz)

Malaika Vaz is a wildlife presenter, National Geographic explorer, conservationist, and filmmaker. At 24, she believes that the current generation can significantly contribute to positive changes in our world today.

Malaika shares stories on wildlife endangerment and has been investigating the illegal trade of manta rays across Southeast Asia. She presented "On The Brink," a series for Animal Planet and Discovery Channel exploring endangered species around India. She also shared stories of the people behind the protection of these species.

This young activist presents and produces various nature documentaries on various networks. She also presented the series "Living with Predators" for National Geographic Wild and Disney+. This mini-series explored the coexistence between humans and wildlife. 

Malaika works with organizations like WildAid as part of her commitments to wildlife trade inquiries. As a windsurfer, she experienced firsthand the damaging effects of unsustainable tourism. This also deepened her connection to the waters. She co-founded Untamed Planet, a production house that creates factual and wildlife documentaries. 

9. Wangari Maathai, Environmental Activist

Wangari Maathai
Photo Credit: John Mathew Smith & www.celebrity-photos.com via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Wangari was an environmentalist and social and political activist. She made history as the first woman in Central and East Africa to earn a doctoral degree. 

Wangari was part of the Kennedy Airlift Program with a few other Kenyan students. This allowed her to study in the United States. After her studies, she returned to her home country to tackle environmental and women's rights issues. 

Her dedication to women's empowerment led to her active role in the National Council of Women of Kenya. During her time here, she conceived the idea of planting trees. Although this had environmental benefits, Wangari also saw this service as a way to empower women. 

The tree-planting initiative later developed into the Green Belt Movement, which she founded. This grassroots organization was committed to planting trees in Kenya as a way to tackle the problem of deforestation. It empowered Kenyan women to be involved in this process while drawing income to improve their quality of life.

The Green Belt Movement spread across African countries and now works on grassroots, national, and international levels. Globally, people recognize Wangari for her resilience and persistence in fighting for environmental preservation and human rights. 

She became the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. She was an activist and intellectual who contributed to the body of work in ecology, gender, and African studies.

10. Howard Zahniser, Architect of the Wilderness Act

An environmentalist, Howard Zahniser served as an executive secretary and executive director with The Wilderness Society. He also worked as the architect of The Wilderness Act. This Act created the National Wilderness Preservation System, which protects millions of acres of land in the United States. The Wilderness Society, along with related environmental groups, challenged the conversion of lands. 

Howard experienced a deep sense of respect for nature from a young age. As a trained journalist, he later worked as an editor for the U.S. Biological Survey. He first served as an executive secretary when he joined The Wilderness Society. He also worked as the editor of The Living Wilderness, the organization's magazine. Later on, he became the executive director of The Wilderness Society.

His passion for preserving the wilderness made him realize the need for a federal law to protect the lands. He knew that through federal legislation, environmentalists could properly fight to safeguard wildlands. This determination motivated him to write several drafts of The Wilderness Act, which was later passed in 1964. 

11. Julia Hill, Environmental activist

Julia Hill
Photo Credit: Gary Mattingly via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Julia Hill, who people popularly refer to as Julia Butterfly Hill, is one of the most dedicated environmental leaders of this time. In a protest against the cutting down of a 1500-year-old Californian redwood tree, Julia lived in it for 738 days. The Pacific Lumber Company was set to cut down the tree, but Julia's action showed her stance against tree felling. 

Her actions garnered media attention and also highlighted the destructive consequences of unsustainable actions. Julia's commitment to environmental preservation charged up after a near-death experience. She had an epiphany and later joined the environmental movement in the fight for the protection of natural habitats. Her dedicated protest garnered attention around the role forests play in our world. 

The conservation group Earth First! supported Julia's efforts as they provided her with supplies. After spending over two years living in the tree, the Pacific Lumber Company settled to preserve it and its immediate surroundings. 

Julia and her supporters had raised $50,000 during the cause and decided to donate it to the company to compensate them for lost revenue. Later, the company agreed to donate the money to Humboldt State University to support its sustainable forest research. 

Julia has written several books, including "The Legacy of Luna: The Story of a Tree, a Woman, and the Struggle to Save the Redwoods" and "One Makes the Difference: Inspiring Actions That Change Our World." 

12. Greta Thunberg, Climate activist

(Video shows Greta Thunberg's speech at the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit)

With growing news on climate change, the young generation is rising to speak up. Greta Thunberg has become one of the most famous environmental activists. She challenges world leaders on climate change and action. Her message has reached across the globe. 

Greta's activism began in the home. She would challenge her parents and convince them to make sustainable changes and swaps to reduce their carbon footprint. Later on, this led to demonstrations such as the 'School strike for climate.' At just 15, she would stay outside the Swedish Parliament as a demonstration for action to curb climate change. This encouraged other students and young people to demand changes in their respective communities.

Greta has given several speeches and held protests as a call for change. In 2019, at the World Economic Forum, she delivered a speech highlighting "our house is on fire." People know Greta for her straightforward manner in delivering her messages. The U.S. House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis and the United Nations Climate Conference has also given her audience. 


As environmentalists around the globe continue to fight for the cause, it's also important to draw from the works of prominent people in the field. This includes their call to action to raise awareness while delving into their past and present works. Today and in their legacies, these outstanding environmental leaders play important roles as part of the movement. 

By Jennifer Okafor, BSc.

Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.

Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.

Photo by NOAA on Unsplash
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