Earth Day 2017: Featuring Inspirational Female Environmentalists

By: Jen Hart

Earth Day is celebrated by more than a billion people globally every year on April 22. This year’s global focus is on climate and environmental literacy. (Photo courtesy of Jen Hart)


As Earth Day 2017 approaches on April 22, Niagara Sustainability Initiative takes a closer look at the origins of Earth Day and the beginning of the modern day environmental movement, as well as present goals for this year’s Earth Day. We also take a look at some notable female environmentalists and their role in the environmental movement.

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Origins of Earth Day

The idea for a national day to focus on the environment came to Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson, then a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, after witnessing the ravages of the 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, California. Inspired by the student anti-war movement, he realized that if he could infuse that energy with an emerging public consciousness about air and water pollution, it would force environmental protection onto the national political agenda.

On April 22, 1970, 20 million Americans took to the streets, parks, and auditoriums to demonstrate for a healthy, sustainable environment in massive coast-to-coast rallies. Thousands of colleges and universities organized protests against the deterioration of the environment. Groups that had been fighting against oil spills, polluting factories and power plants, raw sewage, toxic dumps, pesticides, freeways, the loss of wilderness, and the extinction of wildlife realized they shared common values and many of the same goals.

The Outcome

Earth Day 1970 achieved a rare political alignment, enlisting support from Republicans and Democrats, rich and poor, city slickers and farmers, tycoons and labor leaders. By the end of that year, the first Earth Day had led to the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts.

Similar events were happening in Canada during this time as well; enacted in 1971, the Department of the Environment Act established Environment Canada as a department within the portfolio of the Minister of the Environment responsible for preserving and enhancing the quality of the natural environment, providing meteorological services, and coordinating policies and programs to achieve environmental objectives.

The Earth Day movement has continued to grow since 1970; major events of the 1990s involved moving environmental issues onto a global stage with a focus on recycling efforts worldwide, the 2000s used the power of the internet to organize activists and raise awareness surrounding global warming and clean energy.

The 2017 environmental focus of Earth Day Canada is to create a movement towards creating adventure in playgrounds for young children. According to current research, unstructured outdoor play is a key component for instilling environmental stewardship into children. Adventure playgrounds vary from typical playgrounds as they contain natural materials, loose parts and tools to guide their play and discovery.

The Global Earth Day Network’s 2017 focus is on environmental and climate literacy. The goal is to create a network of global citizens fluent in the concepts of climate change and aware of its unprecedented threat to our planet. Empowering everyone with the knowledge can lead to action in environmental protection and defense.

Focus on Female Environmentalists

In conjunction with Earth Day, NSI has highlighted a few notable female environmentalists and their role in the environmental movement. There are many more that could be added to this list, but this is just a snapshot of some of the amazing work that has been accomplished related to sustainability and the environment.

Rachel Carson (1907 – 1964)

Rachel Carson is often credited with starting the modern environmental movement after the publication of her New York Times bestseller Silent Spring in 1962. Selling more than 500,000 copies in 24 countries this book is often credited as the starting point for beginning to raise public awareness and concern for living organisms, the environment and links between pollution and public health.

Rachel challenged the practices of agricultural scientists and the government and called for a change in the way humankind viewed the natural world. Carson was attacked by the chemical industry and some in government as an alarmist, but courageously spoke out to remind us that we are a vulnerable part of the natural world subject to the same damage as the rest of the ecosystem.

Dr. Jane Goodall (1934 – Present)

Dr. Jane Goodall is most famous for her ground-breaking research surrounding chimpanzees. In 1977, Jane founded the Jane Goodall Institute, which continues to support the research at the Gombe Reserve in Africa today. With 31 offices around the world, Dr. Goodall and the Institute are widely recognized for effective community-centered conservation and development programs in Africa and the protection of wild chimpanzees in Africa’s largest chimpanzee sanctuary.

Jane has a strong passion for educating people on the ethical treatment of animals, nature friendly tourism, and works actively with governments and businesses to promote ecological responsibility. Jane also works to share information and help people to recognize their personal power and responsibility to effect positive change through consumer action, lifestyle change and activism.

Dr. Sylvia Earle (1935 – Present)

Dr. Sylvia A. Earle is an oceanographer, explorer, author, and lecturer. She has experience as a field research scientist, government official, and director for corporate and nonprofit organizations. Sylvia’s research concerns marine ecosystems with special reference to exploration, conservation, and the development and use of new technologies for access and effective operations in the deep sea and other remote environments. Her special focus is on developing a global network of areas on the land and in the ocean to safeguard the living systems that provide the underpinnings of global processes, from maintaining biodiversity and yielding basic life support services to providing stability and resiliency in response to accelerating climate change.

Dr. Sylvia Earle is a fascinating woman; if you have not already seen her documentary, Mission Blue, check it out on Netflix. You won’t be disappointed. She also has active Instagram and Twitter accounts with details of her exciting diving adventures or success stories of her Mission Blue and #HopeSpots projects.

Dr. Dian Fossey (1932 – 1985)

Dr. Dian Fossey founded the Karisoke Research Center in Rwanda’s Virungas Mountains in 1967, to protect and study the endangered mountain gorillas. Inspired by Jane Goodall’s work with chimpanzees, Dr. Fossey dedicated her life to the long-term study of great apes.

The Karisoke Research Centre is an internationally renowned research station utilized by students and scientists from many countries. Dian was also strongly opposed to poaching and hunting gorillas and her efforts eventually created policy and anti-poaching patrols of park wardens. Her book, Gorillas in the Mist, published in 1983, remains today a powerful message of the need for concerted conservation methods. Sadly, Dian Fossey was murdered in Rwanda in her research camp in 1985, a few weeks before her 54th birthday. Although a few theories originated, her death was never resolved. Despite her life being cut short, her work and conservation efforts continue on today.

Dr. Wangari Maathai (1940 – 2011)

Wangari Maathai was the founder of the Green Belt Movement, a broad-based grassroots organization whose main focus is poverty reduction and environmental conservation through tree planting. She authored four books: The Green Belt Movement; Unbowed: A Memoir; The Challenge for Africa; and Replenishing the Earth. As well as having been featured in a number of books, she and the Green Belt Movement were the subject of a documentary film, Taking Root: the Vision of Wangari Maathai (2008). Wangari Maathai was also awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. In its citation, the Norwegian Nobel Committee noted Professor Maathai’s contribution to “sustainable development, democracy and peace.”

Professor Maathai was internationally acknowledged for her struggle for democracy, human rights, and environmental conservation, and served on the board of many organizations. In recognition of her deep commitment to the environment, the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General named Professor Maathai a UN Messenger of Peace in December 2009, with a focus on the environment and climate change. She also, in partnership with the University of Nairobi, founded the Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies (WMI). The WMI brings together academic research—in land use, forestry, agriculture, resource-based conflicts, and peace studies—with the Green Belt Movement approach and members of the organization.

Winona LaDuke (1959 – Present)

Honor the Earth is a Native-led organization, established by Winona LaDuke and Indigo Girls band members Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, in 1993 to address the two primary needs of the Native environmental movement: the need to break the geographic and political isolation of Native communities and the need to increase financial resources for organizing change. Functioning as the executive director of Honor the Earth, Laduke is a well-known environmental activist and writer, with a focus on tribal land claims, preservation and sustainable development.

Winona has long been involved in protesting oil pipeline development throughout the United States and Canada. Strongly against fossil fuel infrastructure, LaDuke works with Honor the Earth to raise public awareness, specifically regarding addressing climate change and energy justice, as well as raising direct funds to grassroots Native environmental groups. With Honor the Earth, LaDuke has been able to re-grant over two million dollars to 200 plus Native American communities for conservation and environmental efforts.

We all can make a positive difference in our everyday activities and choices! Visit Niagara Sustainability Initiative at for more information or follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest for more information on sustainability in the Niagara Region, the Carbon Project and how you can get involved with reducing your impact on the environment.