Despite centuries of advocacy urging us to consider our actions, the urgent problem of climate change and conservation of our earth is one that often feels the most insurmountable.

In celebration of World Environmental Day, these seven key thinkers and activists from across history have contributed to our ethical understanding of the environment and how we can lessen our impact.

Aldo Leopold (1887-1948)

Aldo Leopold was a conservationist, forester, philosopher, and educator who dedicated his life to coexisting with nature and learning from it, with many considering him to be the father of American wildlife ecology.

His non-fiction book, A Sand County Almanac, calls for the development of a land ethic, as conservation is unachievable so long as resources are controlled by economic interests. He wrote, “a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it.” By including land in our understanding of community, it no longer is property; instead, it becomes inherently valuable and, in turn, worthy of protection and respect. “We can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in,” he wrote.

Leopold additionally stressed the need to evaluate and update the content of our conservation education. He said it’s not enough to join a few organisations, follow the law, and trust the government will do the rest. “In our attempt to make conservation easy, we have made it trivial.”


Seyyed Hossein Nasr (1933-present)

Nasr, an internationally celebrated thinker from Iran, is, at present, a professor of Islamic Studies at George Washington University. He looks at the natural world through a religious lens, thus becoming the founder of environmentalism in the Muslim world. He calls Islam a “green religion,” as it’s easy for followers to sympathise with the natural world, since “the Qur’an addresses not only human beings, but also the cosmos. All creatures participate in Islam.” In Islam, all living things are equally valuable, equally deserving of life, equally valid. Nasr highlights how “we human beings cannot be happy without the happiness of the rest of creation. We have killed enough, massacred enough of God’s other creatures.”

He juxtaposes Islamic values with Christian ones, and how the latter’s “most devout followers don’t show much interest in the environment.” In all the verses of the New Testament, he points out, there’s not one mention of nature. “To be modern is to destroy the world of nature. That’s the great tragedy of it, and we should try to find out why.”


Naomi Klein (1970-present)

As a Canadian journalist, filmmaker, New York Times best-selling author and professor of climate justice, Naomi Klein’s commitment to activism spans many mediums, across borders. She sees our world’s current state as one major, interconnected problem: Climate change isn’t separate from medical crises which aren’t separate from political crises, and so on. In her eyes, it’s all connected and it all rests on the initial sin of stealing lands from Indigenous people.

In her Festival of Dangerous Ideas 2015 talk, Capitalism and the Climate, she emphasised the Pope’s idea of a “throwaway culture.” It’s what’s allowed generations of Australians, Canadians, and Americans alike to take from Native people, and it’s the same concept that’s degrading and destroying our planet. “We extract and do not replenish and wonder where the fish have disappeared. And why the soil requires evermore inputs, like phosphates, to stay fertile.” Klein calls for the creation of a “culture of caretaking in which no one and nowhere is thrown away. In which the inherent value of people and all life is foundational.”


Tyson Yunkaporta (present)

Aboriginal people have lived in Australia for over 65,000 years – far longer than any other humans have anywhere else on the planet. Tyson Yunkaporta, an Aboriginal scholar and author, believes that we stand to resolve a lot of our current environmental problems by turning to their ancient practices, or, at the very least, considering them. Aboriginal “patterns still flow with the movement of the earth.” They remain connected to the planet, he said, living in harmony and coexisting with the natural world in ways non-Indigenous people do not.

Yunkaporta thus encourages readers to question Western thinking and approach problems with an Aboriginal lens instead. As he wrote in his book, Sand Talk, we ought “to live and work in accordance with a natural order, rather than against it.”


Pythagoras (570 BC-495 BC)

Though Pythagoras is typically remembered for his contribution to mathematics (you might remember his famed Pythagorean Theorem from high school math class) he was actually better known for his beliefs on reincarnation and diet in his day. In fact, he was the first modern vegetarian in the West and is regarded as the father of ethical vegetarianism.

While the actual impact of cutting out meat from one’s diet is often disputed, individuals can have impact by lessening their own ecological footprint. By cutting out meat, it can be argued that one stands to dramatically reduce the resources – like land, water, and oil – required to sustain their diet. Pythagoras far predated these ecological footprint considerations; instead, he grounded his vegetarian beliefs in reincarnation. By killing animals and eating their meat, he said, we run the risk of eating our companions. “Meat is for beasts to feed on… what a wicked thing it is for flesh to be the tomb of flesh… for one live creature to continue living through one live creature’s death.”


Vandana Shiva (1952-present)

Vandana Shiva is an ecofeminist, physicist, ecologist, activist, editor, and author known for her steadfast commitment to work in environmental conservation, specifically agriculture. Famously, she opposed Asia’s Green Revolution, which, while ramping up food production in less-developed countries, the heavy use of pesticides harmed native seed diversity and traditional agricultural practices.

To try and do her part to give back, in 1982, Shiva founded the Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Ecology to develop sustainable agricultural practices. In her Festival of Dangerous Ideas talk in 2013, Growth = Poverty, she condemns GDP and growth, drawing on experiences from life in India. Gross Domestic Product, she says, doesn’t account for things like pollution in the rivers, and if it did, India and China would have negative scores. Instead, it creates a false standard of living and, in doing so, “it has perpetuated a model of generating non-sustainability, inequality, and a deep violence within society and within the self.”


Kongqiu (551 BC-479 BC)

Better known as Confucius, this ancient Chinese philosopher’s teachings are, to this day, the bedrock of East Asian culture.

Confucius believed that all life has qi, which is essentially life force that nurtures humans and nature alike. In essence, qi supports the idea that humans and nature are isogenous, of the same origin and interconnected. In accordance with this perspective, Confucius stressed that humans ought to be kind to the land to achieve harmony and balance.

Present day scholars look to this ancient Chinese wisdom as a piece to solving the puzzle that is climate change. If humans adopted the idea that we are not separate from nature and instead an extension of it, as Confucius said, then perhaps we’d see this destruction to the land as destruction to ourselves and finally change our unsustainable ways.

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