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Where Are They Now? 6 Green Superstars from the Past

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An update on icons of the environmental movement.


America’s green revolution has had plenty of foot soldiers over the years, both real and fictitious. And since the end of a year is a good time for reflection, we thought it would be fun to check in with these important figures in environmentalism’s history, to remember their contributions to the cause, and to see where they are now.

  1. Smokey Bear: The star of the longest running public service advertising campaign, Smokey Bear was created in 1944 to help educate Americans about preventing forest fires. The impetus for such a campaign was World War II; Americans were worried that attacks on their homeland might cause forest fires and that the fire departments were depleted by the draft. The campaign was intended to protect by encouraging prevention. At 70 years old in the new year, Smokey is showing no sign of his age and is still starring in print and video pieces. A recent commercial shows him hugging a responsibly camping hipster while the hipster’s girlfriend snaps a photo on her smartphone. You can check out his campaign online.
  2. Rachel Carson: Instilled with an appreciation for nature at an early age by her mother, Carson grew up to become one of America’s first environmentalists. As an editor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, she wrote pamphlets and other materials about conservation and protecting natural resources. But she is best known for her 1962 book Silent Spring, which served as a warning call about the use of chemical pesticides and other environmentally damaging agricultural practices. After its publication she testified before the U.S. Senate on the misuse of pesticides, and her advocacy was instrumental in the ultimate banning of DDT. Sadly, Carson passed away only 2 years after her book was published, but her legacy lives on.
  3. Denis Hayes: Earth Day has become a widely observed event, but few people know that it was Gaylord Nelson, a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, who founded the event in 1969 after seeing the devastation caused by an oil spill off the coast of California. He wanted to raise awareness of environmental issues to the media and the government, using rallies and peaceful demonstrations. Nelson brought on Hayes, a 25-year-old Harvard student, as national coordinator, and tasked him with taking the event nationwide. Hayes did the task with aplomb: an estimated 20 million Americans participated in the event across the country, and the success of the first Earth Day led to the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Endangered Species Act. Hayes maintained his involvement with Earth Day over the years, helping to take the cause global in 1990 and heading up another big campaign in 2000. And under the Carter Administration, he became head of the Solar Energy Research Institute (now the National Renewable Energy Laboratory). Today Hayes is still closely involved with environmental issues. In 1992, he was hired to head the Bullitt Foundation, a Pacific Northwest organization dedicated to responsible and sustainable development.
  4. Ray Cycle: A new superhero emerged in the late 1980s… clad in green tights, yellow shorts and, natch, a cape, Ray Cycle toured New England schools with a fun, action-packed routine designed to educate kids about pollution, recycling, and other environmental matters. The superhero was created by the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection as a way of promoting its new recycling programs. Ray Cycle’s alter ego was Chris Rowlands, who is now a naturalist for the National Audubon Society. Although he has since retired his Ray Cycle persona, he still performs for schools, camps, zoos, and other organizations.
  5. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The masked terrapin comic-book superheroes became an unlikely ally for the environment with their 1991 book, ABC’s for a Better Planet. The book educated readers on environmental issues and what kids can do to help protect the environment, but some of its content was criticized as being controversial and propagandist by the American Farm Bureau, which disputed its statements that pesticides can remain on fruits and vegetables, and that farm animals are injected with cancer-causing artificial growth hormones. Ironically, the turtles might have unwittingly been responsible for environmental damage on a small scale. Red-eared terrapins, thought to have been purchased as pets for kids who were fans of the show, and then abandoned, are believed to be eating the eggs and chicks of birds at a reservoir in England, wiping out a major part of the population there. And the sighting of a baby terrapin in London is causing concern that this non-native species might create more problems. As for the TMNT themselves, they have been the subjects of animated series by various networks over the years, and can currently be seen on Nickelodeon.
  6. Al Gore: After serving for two terms as Bill Clinton’s vice president, Gore went on to work on environmental issues. His involvement includes co-launching an investment company that creates environmentally friendly portfolios, and generating awareness about climate change and other environmental issues through public speaking, advertisements, books, his 2006 movie An Inconvenient Truth, and other outlets. In 2007 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, along with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for his environmental advocacy work. In the years since receiving this honor, Gore has still been going strong. In early 2013, he published his book, The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change. He also runs The Climate Reality Project, which raises awareness of what needs to be done to reverse climate change.

Who is your environmental hero? Chime in with your favorite in the comments below.

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About the Author
Jessica Harlan
Jessica Harlan

I love finding new ways to green my family's life as painlessly as possible, and sharing those ideas with folks who want to do the same.

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