11 Great Green Minds Ahead of their Time

One could argue that all our predecessors were in fact environmentalists; even humble farmers of a few generations ago lived in tune with nature and her seasons. Native Americans were the original “environmentalists”. Ancient civilizations worshipped gods and goddesses of the rain, the harvest, the sun, and fertility. The Druids celebrated the life-energy of the forests and the cycle of birth and death. In a way, to be human before the modern industrial era was to be an environmentalist. It’s illuminating to learn about historical figures who were especially sensitive to the importance of nature. Artists, scientists, philosophers and more: here are some of the most interesting throughout history.

Henry David Thoreau

(Image via 1902encyclopedia)

Henry David Thoreau made Transcendentalism – and its reverence for the spiritual experience of nature – famous, though the great Ralph Waldo Emerson deserves much credit for his influence on the philosopher. Transcendentalism developed at the same time as the first strains of conservation were beginning in the United States, with talk of establishing national parks and not scarring the landscape in the exploitative pursuit of resources. Thoreau’s approach to “environmentalism” was not the way we think of it now, as a separate movement seeking to reconnect man to earth, but more mystical, emphasizing the inherent wisdom, healing power, and joy present in nature as it is, not as we would mold it to be. Some choice quotes:

“In wilderness is the preservation of the world.”

“If a man walks in the woods for love of them half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer. But if he spends his days as a speculator, shearing off those woods and making the earth bald before her time, he is deemed an industrious and enterprising citizen.”

Ansel Adams

(Image via National Archives)

The famous photographer was profoundly reverent of nature before “treehugging” came into vogue. Previous generations didn’t see themselves as existing outside nature; all was connected and deserving of respect. “The whole world is, to me, very much ‘alive’ – all the little growing things, even the rocks. I can’t look at a swell bit of grass and earth, for instance, without feeling the essential life – the things going on within them. The same goes for a mountain, or a bit of the ocean, or a magnificent piece of old wood. It is horrifying that we have to fight our own government to save the environment.”


(Image via Vegan Underground)

Gandhi’s famous respect for all life extended to the realm of plants and soil. His moral philosophy was grounded in the belief that one must consider the long-term impact of choices upon future generations, and if the choice is violent, it is inevitably wrong. “God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the west… keeping the world in chains.  If [our nation] took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.”

Thomas A. Edison

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The famous inventor who didn’t actually invent the light bulb, Edison shunned religious dogma but held nature sacrosanct. “Until a man duplicates a blade of grass, Nature can laugh at his so-called scientific knowledge. Remedies from chemicals will never stand in favorable comparison with the products of Nature, the living cell of a plant, the final result of the rays of the sun, the mother of all life.”

Albert Einstein

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Atheist and vegetarian, Albert Einstein loathed violence and the runaway egoic narcissism of modern society. “A human being is part of the whole, called by us ‘Universe,’ a part limited in time and space.  He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.  This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us.  Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole [of] nature in its beauty.”

Khalil Gibran

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One of the world’s most beloved poets taught that people are never separate from the earth; what we do to it, we do to ourselves. Yet, he was compassionate in his view of humans. He believed in the power of redemption and forgiveness.

“When the birds sing, do they call to the flowers in the fields, or are they speaking to the trees, or are they echoing the murmur of the brooks? For Man with his understanding cannot know what the bird is saying, nor what the brook is murmuring, nor what the waves whisper when they touch the beaches slowly and gently. Man with his understanding cannot know what the rain is saying when it falls upon the leaves of the trees or when it taps at the window panes. He cannot know what the breeze is saying to the flowers in the fields. But the Heart of Man can feel and grasp the meaning of these sounds that play upon his feelings. Eternal Wisdom often speaks to him in a mysterious language; Soul and Nature converse together, while Man stands speechless and bewildered. Yet has not Man wept at the sounds? And are not his tears eloquent understanding.”

Chief Seattle

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Chief Seattle (or Sealth) is famous in the Northwest for his peaceful negotiations with white settlers and attempts to prevent bloodshed between the two groups of his tribe, the Suquamish and Duwamish. His wise words have endured and become a source of moral inspiration for many environmentalists in the Pacific Northwest. “Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.”

Archbishop  of Canterbury William Temple

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Considered a bit radical for the early 1900s, William Temple was disgusted by industrial exploitation and labor violations. “The treatment of the Earth by man the exploiter is not only imprudent, it is sacrilegious. We are unlikely to correct our hideous mistakes in this realm unless we recover the mystical sense of our oneness with nature. Many people think this is fantastic. I think it is fundamental to our Sanity.”


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Aristotle’s methods and theories have not all stood the test of time; yet his thoughtful exploration of such essential human concerns as friendship, morality, the meaning of life, and man’s role in his environment continue to offer insights. “All art, all education, can be merely a supplement to nature.”


(Image via francetourguide)

The brilliant French philosopher believed nature was not brutish nor cruel and famously argued that humans are born innocent and good and are corrupted by society. He also believed property rights to be a ridiculous concept. His view of nature and human morality was often criticized as being too idealistic and romantic. “You forget that the fruits belong to all and that the land belongs to no one.”


(Image via Missouri State)

The notoriously gruff Michelangelo was known for temper tantrums and feuds with his religious, wealthy Italian patrons. Though he painted the Sistine Chapel, he found spiritual refreshment in nature. “My soul can find no staircase to heaven unless it be through earth’s loveliness.”

Claude Monet

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The birth of a renewed interest in humanism and the natural world – the Renaissance – was a historic and significant break from the religiously dominated Middle Ages in Europe. Artists turned their focus from religious figures and dogma to the beauty of nature and the human body. This paved the way for experimental impressionists such as Monet. In general the art of Renaissance and periods following celebrated and gloried in the beauty and richness of the real world. Said Monet: “The richness I achieve comes from Nature, the source of my inspiration.”

Emily Dickinson

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Emily Dickinson was not quite the hermit or spinster people have thought her to be, though she was reclusive. She, along with other leading minds of the time (including Transcendentalists) saw nature as a deeply sacred and human experience. Her poetry reveals her true feelings about our home planet:

My best Acquaintances are those

With Whom I spoke no Word—

The Stars that stated come to Town

Esteemed Me never rude

Although to their Celestial Call

I failed to make reply—

My constant—reverential Face

Sufficient Courtesy.

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church,

I keep it staying at Home –

With a bobolink for a Chorister,

And an Orchard, for a Dome.

Who has not found the heaven below

Will fail of it above.

God’s residence is next to mine,

His furniture is love.