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A composite featuring 3 notable eco warriors – Rachel Carson, Chico Mendes and Greta ThunbergGetty / Miranda Smith / Wikimedia

From ridicule to hero: The history of the eco-warrior

First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win

Dave Fawbert
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On the morning of 20 August 2018, Greta Thunberg was just like any other 16-year-old - completely unknown by the wider world. Less than a year later, following her protest on the steps of the Swedish parliament in Stockholm, which grew into the global school strike for climate movement, she is known across the world for her uncompromising opinions on climate change.

She now stands as an unlikely, but hugely popular figurehead of the modern climate movement, having addressed the likes of the United Nations, the World Economic Forum and the European Parliament, and inspired hundreds of thousands to protest against climate change inaction.

But, while Greta is now perhaps the most famous “eco-warrior” in history, she is only the latest of a long line of activists who have backed up their environmental beliefs with action, often attracting ridicule and criticism in the process.

While some of these climate crusaders have veered into illegal activity, including violence, they have all played some part in highlighting the plight of our planet.

Rachel CarsonBettmann / Getty

Rachel Carson - the saintly scientist (1907-1964)

The Guardian reports that some describe her as the “patron saint of the green movement”, arguably the first modern-day eco-warrior was Rachel Carson, an American scientist and ecologist. Rather than engaging in any direct action, she let her words do the talking. Her groundbreaking 1962 book, Silent Spring, documented the damage caused by the widespread use of powerful pesticides in the countryside, as well as accusing the chemical industry of producing disinformation. She was braced for the barrage of gendered criticism that would follow and dealt with it while undergoing treatment for cancer.

A review in Time magazine accused her of being “hysterically overemphatic” with a “mystical attachment to the balance of nature,” while the cover of industry magazine Farm Chemicals displayed an image of a witch on a broomstick in a clear reference to Rachel.

Nonetheless, her claims were widely accepted, with the then president, John F Kennedy, ordering an investigation that ultimately verified her findings. Her work also inspired the campaign to ban the use of the pesticide DDT, which is toxic to a number of animals, and dangerous to human health.

“The real wealth of the Nation lies in the resources of the earth — soil, water, forests, minerals, and wildlife,” she wrote in a 1953 letter to the Washington Post. “To utilise them for present needs while insuring their preservation for future generations requires a delicately balanced and continuing program, based on the most extensive research.”

Chico MendesMiranda Smith / wikimedia
Chico Mendes and his wife, Ilsamar Mendes

Chico Mendes - the rainforest martyr (1944-1988)

By the time Chico Mendes was killed, he had already survived six assassination attempts. But how did a humble rainforest worker become a hunted man?

Chico was born just outside of Xapuri, Brazil, in a rubber reserve in the west of the Amazon rainforest, and was one of 17 siblings. Aged 11, like his father before him, he started working as a 'rubber tapper', collecting rubber from the trees in the rainforest.

In the 1970s, cattle ranchers had moved in from southern Brazil, slashing and burning the forest to create space for their animals, and threatening the way of life that had sustained his family, and many others, for generations.

Chico helped organise protests, persuading his fellow rubber tappers to protect the trees with their own bodies - as well as unionising his fellow workers and asking the government to set up reserves for rubber tappers. His efforts caught the attention of international environmentalists and he won a United Nations award in 1987.

Chico paid for his beliefs with his life, when he was shot dead by the son of a rancher in front of his home just before Christmas in 1988. Yet his life’s work was not in vain, with the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve being created just over a year after his death, in the area where he lived. The reserve is protected land for indigenous people, and more than 13,000 square miles of Brazilian land are now part of similar reserves.

A year before his death, he said: “At first I thought I was fighting to save rubber trees. Then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rainforest. Now I realise I am fighting for humanity.”

Paul WatsonDAN LEVINE/AFP/Getty Images

Paul Watson - the bearded buccaneer (1950)

One eco-warrior who has courted controversy is the Toronto-born activist Paul Watson. The divisive figure was the subject of a 2011 documentary film Eco-Pirate: The Story of Paul Watson, and the reality TV series Whale Wars, which depicted his team ramming the boats of Japanese whalers.

According to his profile on the Sea Shepherd website, Paul was brought up in a fishing village – his interest in conservation was sparked aged nine when "trappers killed one of his beaver friends". Upset and angry, he started destroying animal traps and disrupting deer and duck hunts.

Although he claims to be one of the founding members of Greenpeace, which was set up in the early 70s – the environmental organisation disputes this, acknowledging that he was only “an influential early member”. After splitting with the group in 1977, he set up the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.

He bought his first vessel and took to the seas to take direct action against whalers, seal hunters and shark finners. Over the years, he’s been shot at, chased and arrested, and has also attracted the ire of the Japanese government, who also called him and his team "eco-terrorists".

Paul Watson disputes this label, and said that Sea Shepherd’s objectives “are simply to uphold existing international conservation laws”.

Having obstructed Japanese whaling vessels in the Southern Ocean since 2005 – whaling is banned under international law – he claimed in 2017 that his activism had been successful, and said the group has saved over 6,500 whales over 12 years, though these figures have not been corroborated.

Swampy.jpg

Daniel Hooper, AKA Swampy – the tree hugger (1973)

If you’re British and grew up in the eighties or nineties, then there’s a good chance that the term “eco-warrior” will bring one name to mind: Swampy.

The activist, real name Daniel Hooper, became something of an unlikely household name in 1996. Then 23, he was one of an army of activists who attempted to stop the construction of a new road bypass in Newbury, Berkshire. The bypass required the clearance of 360 acres, including 120 acres of woodland, and the felling of nearly 10,000 trees.

From August 1995, 27 protester camps were set up. Six-hundred private security guards were brought in to police the site, at a cost of £25 million. Of the estimated 8,000 who protested, almost 750 people were arrested before the clearance of the area finally took place between January and April 1996.

Protesters chained themselves to trees and dug tunnels, and Swampy, as the protest's public figurehead, became a minor celebrity, even appearing on Have I Got News For You. He also inspired an eco-warrior character in Coronation Street, Spider Nugent - who was depicted, in line with the stereotypes of the time – as a scruffy vegan who played the didgeridoo and smoked “herbal cigarettes”. 

The protests divided public opinion. "In other, less-civilised parts of the world, they might have had the machine guns out," Nicholas Blandy, the Under Sheriff of Berkshire, said as he watched the protesters clinging to trees at the time. 

Swampy and co may not have been able to save the trees but their message, and their tactics, remain seared into the public consciousness. In 2016, 20 years on from the protests, BBC South Today reporter Paul Clifton told BBC News: "The protesters lost the battle. But perhaps they won the war. There is no doubt the tree climbers swayed public opinion and, later, political policy changed too. It virtually halted the construction of major new roads for a generation.”

Daniel has now retired from the front line of eco-activism and lives with his family in Wales. In 2013, The Sun reported that he was working for the Forestry Commission planting trees and picking acorns.

“I’m still interested in the environment but it’s other people’s turn to be in the spotlight,” he told the paper.

Al Gore 1997LUKE FRAZZA/AFP/Getty Images
Al Gore, right, stand in front of the retreating Grinnell and Salamander Glaciers in 1997

Al Gore – the eco-statesman (1948)

The former US Vice President is possibly the most high-powered eco-warrior of modern times. His work to bring attention to environmental issues began in the mid-seventies and continued all the way to the White House, where he served in Bill Clinton’s administration from 1993 to 2001.

While in office, he pushed for the adoption of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement designed to control greenhouse gases, which was signed by the US in 1998. However, it was never ratified by the Senate, meaning that it never came into force there.

Perhaps his most famous work, though, was 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth, which won two Oscars and is, to date, the 11th highest-grossing documentary film in the US. It explained in detail the cold, hard science behind global warming, and the consequences of failing to take action to stop it.

“My fellow Americans, people all over the world, we need to solve the climate crisis,” he said in 2007 after winning the award. “It’s not a political issue – it’s a moral issue. We have everything we need to get started, with the possible exception of the will to act. That’s a renewable resource. Let’s renew it.”

The film, which spawned a follow-up, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth To Power (2016), led to Al Gore winning the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize – jointly with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – and is widely credited with bringing the issue of global warming to the forefront of public consciousness.

However, he has been criticised for a conflict of interest, being called a “carbon billionaire” as a result of his earnings as an investor in green technology which his work has promoted, while others have labelled him as a hypocrite given the amounts of energy allegedly used on his Nashville estate.

Arctic 30 Ana Paula Alminhana ...OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP/Getty Images
Ana Paula Alminhana Maciel, the first non-Russian member of the Arctic 30 to be granted bail, November 2013

The Arctic 30 – the prisoners of oil

“I was in a state of shock at the time. It was terrifying because, from that moment onwards, you’re not in control – you’re utterly powerless.” These words were spoken by Greenpeace activist Alex Harris about his time in a Russian prison after he and 27 other protesters, as well as two journalists, hailing from 16 different countries, were jailed for over two months in 2013.

They had been on board the Arctic Sunrise ship, which was protesting against Russian oil drilling in the Arctic. On 18 September 2013, two protestors attached themselves to a drilling platform before being removed and held onboard a coast guard vessel. The following day, Russian authorities forcibly took control of the Arctic Sunrise, which was in international waters, towing it to the port of Murmansk, where all 30 people on board were detained.

An initial charge of piracy was eventually dropped and replaced with one of aggravated hooliganism. But this charge was unexpectedly annulled following international outcry, under an amnesty brought in ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics, which were held in Sochi in Russia. The ship itself was eventually released in June 2014, and Russia agreed to pay €2.7m (£2.4m) in compensation to Greenpeace for damage to the ship, compensation and additional costs for the crew.

Greta Thunberg Extinction Rebe...Brais G. Rouco / Barcroft Media / Getty
Climate activist Greta Thunberg speaks to an Extinction Rebellion rally at Marble Arch, London

Extinction Rebellion – the city-stoppers (2018)

It’s perhaps surprising that Extinction Rebellion, a protest group using tactics of civil disobedience, was only set up in May last year. Despite their relative youth as an organisation, they were responsible for one of the most talked-about protests of recent times when, in April this year, they occupied four major sites in central London, including Oxford Circus, as part of a series of actions that lasted 10 days.

Activists glued themselves to the top of trains on the Docklands Light Railway and to the entrance to the London Stock Exchange, as well as chaining themselves to railings outside Jeremy Corbyn’s house.

Eventually, 1,130 protesters were arrested, with 69 being charged with offences. A record was also reportedly set in April for the number of times “climate change” was mentioned in the UK press over a month, while UK Google searches for the term reached levels not seen in a decade.

Many criticised the group's tactics, which were claimed to have cost the Metropolitan Police £7.5m. The Government said Extinction Rebellion's 10 days of action in the capital disrupted the lives of "many hundreds of thousands of hard-working Londoners".

Environment Minister Michael Gove said that the activists’ “point had been made” and that it was time to have “a serious conversation about what we can do to collectively deal with this problem”.

While the group’s UK actions have been the most high-profile so far, it is a global movement, with further actions taking place in countries including Australia, India and the US.

And then there’s Greta Thunberg, our teenage thought leader and 2019’s answer to the eco warrior. Just over a decade on from An Inconvenient Truth, the Swedish schoolgirl, then 15, began a solitary protest in Stockholm which ultimately led to millions of schoolchildren striking around the world.

In December 2018, she said: “Our leadership has failed us. Young people must hold older generations accountable for the mess they have created. We need to get angry, and transform that anger into action.”