Heroes of Sustainability: Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau“Thank God men cannot fly, and waste the sky as well as the earth.” — Henry David Thoreau

Today, Henry David Thoreau is remembered best for writing Walden, but he did much more than live in a cabin in the woods alone. Thoreau was a naturalist, abolitionist, pencil maker, teacher, conservationist, philosopher — and that’s just scratching the surface.

Born in 1817 in Concord, Massachusetts, Thoreau was surrounded by influential thinkers still famous today, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and Bronson Alcott. As Concord grew, Thoreau worried about its expansion.

“Each town should have a park, or rather a primitive forest, of 500 or a thousand acres, where a stick should never be cut for fuel, a common possession forever, for instruction and recreation,” he wrote.

Back to Basics
Thoreau believed in simplicity above all, and lived that philosophy throughout his life, particularly as he was working on Walden. Wastefulness was not something he tolerated, as he saw the connection between materialism and the destruction of the environment. “What is the use of a house if you don’t have a decent planet to put it on?” he once said.

At his core, Thoreau loved nature. Indeed, he kept meticulous journals about what he saw outside, from bird migration to plant growth to the water levels in Walden Pond. He advocated for recreational hiking and canoeing before that was popular, and he studied how forests regenerated after fire. Keeping the wilderness wild was something he consistently argued for. “What would human life be without forests, those natural cities?” he wrote.
More Than a Century Later
An early environmentalist, Thoreau has influenced the modern-day environmental movement with his thoughts on social responsibility, resource efficiency, living as simply as possible, and the impact humans have on nature. He’s also had an influence on how we think about national forest preserves and the destruction from dams. Fellow Heroes of Sustainability Edward Abbey and John Muir have cited Thoreau as an influence, along with dozens of other notable personalities.

Today, The Walden Woods Project carries on his mission, as they work to keep the forest surrounding Walden Pond intact, instead of letting the area turn into an office park or condominiums (as have been proposed). In addition, the Don Henley–founded nonprofit organization works to preserve Thoreau’s literature and legacy, which you can learn more about here.


Heroes of Sustainability: Jeff and Heather Barrie

Jeff Barrie

Jeff Barrie

Sometimes the smallest changes can make the biggest impact — that’s the motto of Jeff and Heather Barrie, the husband-and-wife team behind the award-winning film Kilowatt Ours: A Plan to Re-Energize America.

Documentary filmmaker Jeff has been producing independent films since 1993, all related to the goal of showing how people can be part of the solutions to the environmental challenges our planet faces.

A ‘Filmic Jewel’
In Kilowatt Ours, Jeff puts a spotlight on the dangers of coal-generated power and shares how simple changes such as switching incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescents, using Energy Star appliances, installing adequate insulation, and locating and sealing leaks in air duct systems can have significant results. These changes can result in reduced carbon footprints, along with hundreds of dollars saved on home energy annually, and potentially millions of dollars in savings for businesses and communities.

Heather, an artist and musician, came into the fold in 2000, when she met Jeff at a coffee shop. With Kilowatt Ours, she provided creative input, moral support, and meals (always helpful!), along with becoming part of the focus as she and Jeff worked to find energy solutions in their own home.

The film started airing on public television stations in 2008, has been viewed in schools by more than 5,000 students, and has been screened in 1,000-plus communities. It’s won numerous awards, including Best Documentary Feature at the South Dakota Film Festival and Best Environmental Film at the Southern Appalachia International Film Festival.

Kilowatt Ours CoverKilowatt Ours is the rare environmental filmic jewel — it is well made, filled with just enough facts and figures to galvanize people to action, good for all ages, humorous and extremely accessible,” says a GreenMuze review. “Kilowatt Ours is The Inconvenient Truth of energy. A must-see film for every person in North America.”

Ordinary Citizens
The Barries practice what they preach. They line-dry their children’s organic cloth diapers, pay attention to their thermostat settings, use ceiling fans, and unplug electronic devices that aren’t in use. Those may all seem like small things, but the couple is able to keep their electric bills at half the national average, despite the fact that they live in Tennessee, which has a higher average electricity usage rate than other parts of the country.

Wondering what other tips they have? Check out a short video they made of home tips here.

Perhaps best of all, the Barries say that working together toward a common goal of conservation and learning to compromise and negotiate with each other has helped to keep their marriage strong.

Kilowatt Ours helps ordinary citizens take an active role in energy conservation,” Jeff says. “Most viewers are shocked at the scope of the issue and even more so at the immediacy and simplicity of the solution — energy savings as an energy source.”

For more information on the Barries and the film Kilowatt Ours, visit KilowattOurs.org.


Heroes of Sustainability: David Suzuki

David SuzukiDavid Suzuki’s mom cried for months when he passed up the chance at med school to instead become a geneticist. What she perceived as a loss was the world’s gain.

Suzuki has become a world leader in sustainable ecology, science, and broadcasting, winning the Right Livelihood Award (known as the “Alternative Nobel Prize”) in 2009.

The Canadian grew up exploring the world around him. “Oh, I loved that swamp behind our house,” he told CanWest News Service. “I’d come home absolutely soaked, and covered with mud, with jars with frog eggs and stuff and my mother never said, ‘Don’t come in, don’t dirty the house.’ She’d just bring me in, take my dirty clothes off and everything I showed her she treated as if it were a Nobel Prize-winning discovery: ‘Salamander eggs! Isn’t that wonderful!’”

A Broadcasting Powerhouse
Those early years no doubt influenced his life’s work, which has been defending the earth and explaining science in easy-to-understand ways. He hosted the popular science program Quirks and Quarks on CBC Radio; Science Magazine, a weekly TV program geared toward an adult audience; The Nature of Things, a CBC television series that was broadcast in dozens of countries; an eight-part PBS/BBC series, The Secret of Life; and the eight-part A Planet for the Taking, which averaged nearly 2 million viewers per episode.

“Till then, I had always taken the position that humans were at the center of everything and that we had to constrain our interaction with the environment,” he told Canadian Geographic. “A Planet for the Taking made me realize that we are deeply embedded in a far more complex world than we understand. If we take the position that humans are part of a much greater whole, then we recognize that whatever we do to our surroundings, we do to ourselves, because there is no separation from it.”

Changing the Laws of Nature
It’s this idea that everything is interconnected that drives Suzuki, who was inspired by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. He has spent decades warning people that Earth’s future depends on our actions today. “Attitudes and behaviors must change if vast human misery is to be avoided,” he said at a speech at John Abbott College in October 2012. “There are 7 billion people on this planet. That’s a huge ecological footprint — just to keep us alive. Yet a study showed that 97 percent of teenage girls list shopping as their favorite activity. The challenge is to rediscover who we are and to understand that we are utterly dependent on the laws of nature. We need clean water and air to survive. We need healthy soil to grow food. We can change the market — it’s a human construct — we sure as hell can’t change the laws of nature.”

Suzuki, who is now 76 years old, is critical of his generation and the baby boomers that followed for not doing more to protect the environment. He believes elders and young people should come together now to chart a course for the future.

“I never say I’m optimistic or pessimistic,” he told CanWest. “I just say I’m hopeful.”

Learn more about Suzuki and the nonprofit he co-founded, the David Suzuki Foundation, here.


Heroes of Sustainability: Julius Shulman

Photo by Gerard Smulevich

Photographer Julius Shulman will forever be celebrated for his photos of midcentury Modern architecture, particularly the famous shot of Pierre Koenig’s glass-walled Case Study House #22. The way he was able to capture an architect’s vision, rendering the structures he saw through his lens so much more than just a collection of building materials, made him known throughout the world and brought the Modern design aesthetic that swept through California in the mid-20th century into the international spotlight.

Environmental Consideration
Not only was Shulman a champion of architecture, he was also a champion of the land occupied by the houses he so expertly photographed. He spent years fighting developer-driven architecture and smog, detested sprawl, and fiercely respected the environment around Los Angeles, where he lived.

What he loved about the houses he photographed was how they interacted with their surroundings. “The reason why this architecture photographs so beautifully is the environmental consideration exercised by the architects,” Shulman told Metropolis magazine in 2007. “It was the sense that here we have beautiful canyons, hillsides, views of the ocean. Everyone loves these photographs because the houses are environmentally involved, and this was before the emphasis on what everyone is calling green.”

That emphasis was something Shulman didn’t understand. He supported the concept of “green,” of course, but not as a current craze. “In the fifties and sixties it was done automatically,” he said of sustainable architecture. “The term ‘green’ meant you related to the environment. That’s all green means: you are the environment.”

A Lasting Impact
Shulman died at the age of 98 in 2009. His legacy is honored by many, including in the 2008 Dustin Hoffman-narrated documentary Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman, which explores the photographer’s life and his impact on architects of the time. Also dedicated to him, the Julius Shulman Institute at Woodbury School of Architecture “focuses on Julius Shulman’s enduring involvement in the issues of modernism, which include efficiency, environmental sensitivity, social responsibility, client-architect relationships and all aspects of design,” according to the school’s website.

The Southern Californian will always be remembered for his eye for composition and light, as well as his brilliance in capturing — and caring for — the earth on which architecture’s foundation is laid.


Heroes of Sustainability: Josh Fox

Josh Fox in “Gasland”

The most enduring shot from Josh Fox’s 2010 documentary Gasland is of a man running his faucet, which he puts a lighter near. The water quickly goes up in flames.

That’s the result of Halliburton-created hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, Fox says, which according to GaslandTheMovie.com “is a means of natural gas extraction employed in deep natural gas well drilling. Once a well is drilled, millions of gallons of water, sand and proprietary chemicals are injected, under high pressure, into a well. The pressure fractures the shale and props open fissures that enable natural gas to flow more freely out of the well.”

For each frack, 1 to 8 million gallons of water are usually used, with anywhere from 80 to 300 tons of chemicals (including known carcinogens and volatile organic compounds like benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene). This leaves huge amounts of polluted wastewater, of which 50 percent or less is typically recovered.

The result is land scarring, air pollution, spills, health problems, and a host of other environmental concerns.

An Investigative Road Trip
What spurred filmmaker and stage director Fox’s interest in fracking? He first started looking into it when a gas company approached him in 2008 about leasing his family’s 20 acres near the Pennsylvania/New York border. The offer was nearly $100,000.

Instead of being bowled over by the amount of money, Fox set out to check out other drilling sites across the country. What he found wasn’t pretty, but it was interesting enough to become the topic of Gasland, which was nominated for an Oscar and won the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival for a U.S. documentary.

Water catches on fire in “Gasland”

“The first thing that I heard about was a woman [whose] water well exploded on New Year’s Day of 2009,” he said in an NPR interview. “And it sent a concrete casing soaring up into the air and scattered debris all over her yard. And then other people started to notice that their water was bubbling and fizzing, that their water had been discolored. By the time I got there a month later, there were children who were getting sick [and] animals who were getting sick and the whole place was pretty much laid to waste.”

Not Everyone’s a Fan
The Columbia University grad has been blasted by the gas and oil industry, and in February 2012 was arrested at a House of Representatives subcommittee meeting on the EPA’s investigation into groundwater contamination in Wyoming. Authorities said he did not have permission to film it.

Still, Fox keeps plugging away, working on a sequel to Gasland. “The bottom line is, it really is a trip across the country to save my home that turned into my whole country being at risk,” he said in an interview with Truthout. “The scope of the project just exploded; it’s like what I say at the end of the movie that your backyard just keeps getting bigger and bigger until you realize it’s all just connected. All the water is connected, all the air is connected and everything is our backyard.”



Heroes of Sustainability: Lois Gibbs

Lois Gibbs was on a mission. With just a U-Haul and her children, she left her home in New York to head to Washington, D.C., determined to start an organization that would help families living near toxic waste sites. As she left, her mom told her: “You’re forgetting you’re just a housewife with a high school education.”

Gibbs, though, was far more than that. In 1978, the 27-year-old had two sick kids (one with epilepsy and one with a blood disease) and discovered that her son’s elementary school was smack on top of a toxic waste dump, next to 20,000 tons of toxic chemicals, in Niagara Falls. They weren’t the only family with illnesses — high rates of cancer, miscarriages, and birth defects plagued the Love Canal neighborhood they called home.

Soon, Love Canal became known the country over as Gibbs mobilized her neighbors to protect their families and get the land cleaned up. After battling for more than two years against the government at local, state, and national levels, 800-plus households were moved out of the contaminated area.

Founding an Organization
Throughout the whole ordeal, Gibbs discovered that there was no organization to help others in a similar position — and she received calls from people all the time desperate for information and assistance. That spurred her move to D.C., where in 1981 she founded the Center for Health, Environment & Justice (then called the Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste).

The goal then, as it is now, was to mentor a movement, empower people to build healthy communities, and prevent harm to human health caused by exposure to environmental threats. As the organization’s website says: “Through training, coalition-building and one-on-one technical and organizing assistance, CHEJ works to level the playing field so that people can have a say in the environmental policies and decisions that affect their health and well-being. By organizing one school, one neighborhood, one community at a time, CHEJ is making the world cleaner and healthier for all of us.”

Persistence and Patience
Gibbs may have been “just a housewife,” but she had sparked a national movement and vaulted herself into the public consciousness, with a made-for-TV-movie airing on CBS based on her story, and appearances on programs such as 60 Minutes, 20/20, Oprah, and Good Morning America.

As a result of her efforts, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, commonly known as Superfund, which locates and cleans up hazardous waste sites throughout the country. Through the CHEJ, tens of thousands of people have been given crucial assistance to protect their own communities from toxins.

“Average people and the average community can change the world,” Gibbs has said. “You can do it just based on common sense, determination, persistence, and patience.”


Heroes of Sustainability: St. Francis of Assisi

“My hero is St. Francis of Assisi because he understood the connection between spirituality and the environment. He understood the way God communicates to us most forcefully is through the fishes and the birds and the trees and that it is a sin to destroy those things.” — Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

As the patron saint of ecology and animals, St. Francis of Assisi was an environmentalist ahead of his time. He saw himself as part of the world’s ecosystem, equal with all other creatures, whom he referred to as his “brothers” and “sisters.”

Francis was born into privilege around 1181, living a relatively carefree life in Italy until he was taken as a prisoner in a military expedition against Perugia in 1201 and held captive for a year. A few years later, he suffered a serious illness and then enlisted in the army, and returned home after having a strange vision.

Shortly after, he embarked on a life of poverty against the wishes of his father, a wealthy cloth merchant. Although he chose not to be ordained as a priest, he eventually founded a new religious order, the Franciscan order.

A Respect for All Creatures
His connection to nature and the earth was one of the things for which Francis is most remembered. In one story, he was traveling with companions when they found a tree-lined road with a number of birds. He preached to the birds, touching their heads with his tunic. “At these words, the birds gestured a great deal, in their own way,” wrote Thomas of Celano. “They stretched their necks, spread their wings, opened their beaks and looked at him. They did not leave the place until, having made the sign of the cross, he blessed them and gave them permission.”

In another story, he came upon a village that was being tormented by a wolf that was killing both animals and humans. Francis went and talked to the wolf, ordered him not to hurt anyone, and made a deal with the townspeople that they would feed the wolf so long as he would stop committing crimes against them. The animal moved its body and nodded its head in agreement, and for two more years until the wolf died of old age, they all coexisted peacefully.

The Sacredness of Life
During World Environment Day in 1982, Pope John Paul II asked Catholics to remember St. Francis of Assisi and “not to behave like dissident predators where nature is concerned, but to assume responsibility for it, taking all care so that everything stays healthy and integrated, so as to offer a welcoming and friendly environment even to those who succeed us.”

He later wrote of the saint: “In 1979, I proclaimed Saint Francis of Assisi as the heavenly Patron of those who promote ecology. … As a friend of the poor who was loved by God’s creatures, Saint Francis invited all of creation — animals, plants, natural forces, even Brother Sun and Sister Moon — to give honor and praise to the Lord.”

Francis showed through actions and not just words that all of nature is worth preserving. As German writer-philosopher Max Scheler said: “Where the modern cynic sees something ‘buglike’ in everything that exists, St. Francis saw even in a bug the sacredness of life.”


Heroes of Sustainability: Sarah Susanka

In a country that values McMansions, architect Sarah Susanka has a different idea: build better, not bigger.

The England native moved to the U.S. in the early ’70s and has remained in the States since. She was baffled when she first arrived as a teenager at the fact that American homes had the same formal living rooms and dining rooms that the English homes had, yet no one used them. “Every time I went over to my friends’ houses, they all ate every meal in the kitchen — at the kitchen table,” she said in an interview with Chris O’Leary. “And I kept looking into those rooms that in my life had always been the heavily used ones and thought, ‘Well what do they do with those?’”

After getting a bachelor’s degree at the University of Oregon, Susanka earned her master’s in architecture at University of Minnesota, all the while working at different architecture firms. Her first book, The Not So Big House, was published in 1998 and laid out her philosophy: quality is better than quantity. Instead of striving for huge and expansive rooms that never get used, building something comfortable, warm, and personalized makes a lot more sense for you — and the environment.

In addition to her first book, Susanka has written eight bestsellers (with more than 1.2 million copies sold), all of which support the idea that to truly be “at home,” we have to create spaces and lives that reflect who we are, not the Joneses we’re trying to keep up with.

Sustainability Values    
“I always say that the first step in sustainability should be not so big. If you’re doing something that is right-sized for you as opposed to overly large, it’s going to be something that people will want to look after for the long haul,” Susanka said in an interview with Around the House with KPLU.  “It’s also more sustainable in terms of its energy use and its consumption of natural materials. And perhaps most important of all, from an architect’s standpoint, the structure needs also to be beautiful. When something is beautiful, it tends to be looked after for generations to come. Just look back at the bungalows of a hundred years ago, and you’ll see that they’ve kept their value and their character, because people look after them. That’s a big step in sustainability, even though we don’t normally think of it that way.”

Getting Creative
To see a prime example of Susanka’s design principles, look no further than the Not So Big Showhouse at SchoolStreet in Libertyville, Illinois, which demonstrates the ideas that better (not bigger) design in a well-thought-out neighborhood result in successful housing. Design elements such as light to walk toward, ceiling height variety, wall thickness, differentiation of parts, and making less feel like more all come together to create the kind of home that fits our lifestyles – without being mega-sized.

Learn more about Susanka at www.susanka.com.


Heroes of Sustainability: Vandana Shiva

For Vandana Shiva, it all started with tree-hugging — literally. It was the 1970s, and the Chipko movement, in which women in the Himalayas stood around trees to keep them protected, sparked her passion for ecological sustainability.

Now a well-known environmental activist and philosopher, the Delhi-based Shiva has authored more than 20 books and 500-plus papers in leading scientific and technical journals, becoming a leader in such areas as preserving forests, organizing women, and protecting local biodiversity. She’s fought against genetic engineering and biopiracy (patenting an idea for profit that’s been long used by indigenous cultures), helped grassroots campaigns across the globe, and started an international college for sustainable living.

In 1991, she helped found Navdanya, an organization that promotes biodiversity conservation in India. To date, the group has conserved more than 5,000 crop varieties, including 3,000 types of rice, 95 types of wheat, 150 types of kidney beans, 15 types of millet, and much more.

On Navdanya’s site, Shiva explains: “Over the past three decades I have tried to be the change I want to see. When I found that dominant science and technology served the interests of powerful, I left academics to found the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, a participatory, public interest research organisation. When I found global corporations wanted to patent seeds, crops or life forms, I started Navdanya to protect biodiversity, defend farmers’ rights and promote organic farming.”

Born to Make a Difference
It’s not surprising that Shiva found her way to the forefront of sustainability issues, given her upbringing with a forest conservator father and farmer mother. She told Time magazine that growing up, she always wore clothes made of homespun cotton, but one day when she was 13, she came home from boarding school and asked for a fashionable nylon dress.

“If that is what you want, of course you shall have it,” she recalled her mother telling her. “But remember, your nylon frock will help a rich man buy a bigger car. And the cotton that you wear will buy a poor family at least one meal.” She didn’t get the dress.

She did, however, go on to get a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree at the University of Guelph, and a PhD at the University of Western Ontario, concentrating on physics, quantum theory, and the philosophy of science.

“My Very Essence”
For Shiva, issues of ecological sustainability and social justice are closely linked, and she’s devoted her life to tackling both.

“I’m a woman, born the daughter of a feminist and the granddaughter of a feminist grandfather. I don’t think I could have avoided working on women’s issues,” she said in an interview with Scott London. “I don’t do it as a career or profession; it’s my very essence as a human being. When I find too many puzzles about the way explanations are given about why there is inequality — why people who work the hardest in the world end up being the poorest — I can’t just sit back and not try to understand why the gaps between people are increasing, or why there are so many homeless and hungry people in the world. To me, all these issues — of justice, of ecology, of a scientific inquiry into nature through physics — come from the same source.”


Heroes of Sustainability: Karl-Henrik Robèrt

Most people can’t claim that an idea they had has earned a royal seal of approval, but then again, Karl-Henrik Robèrt isn’t like most people.

A pre-eminent Swedish cancer scientist, Robèrt saw that the debate on sustainability was divided, with no agreement on what the scientific foundations of sustainability are.

“My epiphany came one day when I was studying cells from cancer patients,” Robèrt told YES! magazine. “It hit me that cells are the unifying unit of all living things. The difference between our cells and the cells of plants are so minor that it’s almost embarrassing; the makeup is almost identical all the way down to the molecular level. … Since politicians and business people also are constituted of cells, I had a feeling that a broad understanding of these cells might help us reach a consensus on the basic requirements for the continuation of life.”

Developing a Framework
That led in 1989 to The Natural Step, a framework based on the laws of thermodynamics for the system conditions of sustainability. Robèrt enlisted the help of a number of other scientists and others to come to a consensus on the guidelines. The four conditions are:

1. nature is not subject to systematically increasing concentrations of substances extracted from the Earth’s crust;
2. nature is not subject to systematically increasing concentrations of substances produced as a byproduct of society;
3. nature is not subject to systematically increasing degradation by physical means;
4. people are not subject to conditions that systematically undermine their capacity to meet their needs.

The Natural Step was approved by the King of Sweden and subsequently sent to households and schools all over the country. It quickly spread outside the bounds of the Scandinavian country, with a number of businesses, towns, and individuals adopting the framework, from the ski resort of Whistler in British Columbia to Nike to Paul Hawken. It’s also been used in a number of different fields, including green building, managing river basins, forestry, energy systems, and more.

“Nobody Wins from Destroying Our Habitat”
Along the way, Robèrt has picked up numerous awards. He won the Green Cross Award for International Leadership in 1999; the Blue Planet Prize (known as the Nobel Prize for ecological sustainability) in 2000, and the Social Responsibility Laureate Medal by the Global Center for Leadership Business Ethics in 2005, to name just a few.

“My vision is that we develop a mainstream understanding that nobody wins from destroying our habitat, and that people will see that you do better in business if you work as though society will become sustainable and as though different cultures will survive, because cultural diversity is also essential,” Robèrt told YES! magazine.

Today, The Natural Step is a global network of non-governmental organizations that lead change toward environmental and social sustainability. Learn more about it here.