In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Key Figures: North American Environmental Scientist Activists

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews

Environmental Science Key Figures: North American Environmental Scientist Activists
Ellen Wohl
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 November 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 November 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199363445-0062


Environmental scientist activist is not an established phrase. Here it designates individuals who begin their careers as professional scientists and become concerned about the loss of natural ecosystems or species, or environmental degradation and associated health effects. This concern gives rise to activism on behalf of environmental protection and enhancing public awareness of environmental issues. For some, activism takes the form of writing for a popular audience. Others become widely recognized figures who appear in documentary films or television shows. Some of the scientist activists are associated with a particular environment, such as Eugenie Clark and Sylvia Earle as advocates for protection of marine ecosystems. Others are noted for their expertise and activism in relation to a specific issue, such as Theo Colborn, Sandra Steingraber, and Devra Davis for environmental contamination or Hansen for climate change. Dian Fossey and Birutė Galdikas are associated with particular groups of animals—gorillas and chimpanzees, respectively. Others, such as Aldo Leopold and E. O. Wilson, are associated with a broader spectrum of environmental issues. Some of the individuals in this article speak out primarily based on their own research, whereas others have only a brief research career and draw from a wider base of published studies. Scientist activists are largely a 20th- and 21st-century phenomenon. Although scientifically trained individuals such as George Perkins Marsh argued for environmental preservation during the 19th century, environmental advocacy by professional scientists became more widespread during the 20th century. This likely reflects the rapid increase in the number of professional scientists since World War II, as well as widespread environmental degradation. As more scientists trained in chemistry, biology, and other environmental disciplines become aware of the threats facing ecosystems, wild organisms, and human health, the urge to communicate this awareness drives environmental activism. Two themes emerge: the fundamental reliance of humans on natural ecosystems and ecosystem services, and the shared traits of humans and other organisms. From Leopold’s articulation of the land ethic, to Wilson’s arguments for protecting biodiversity, the scientists who have become activists argue for the critical importance of protecting functional ecosystems in order to insure human survival. In addition, humans have traditionally distinguished themselves from other species based on traits such as communication, construction and use of tools, learned behavior, and distinctive personalities. As biologists including Fossey, Galdikas, and Schaller have documented the same traits in other species and raised public awareness of these traits, many people have begun to rethink the intrinsic right of other species to exist.

General Overviews

Because scientist activist is not a commonly used phrase or category of environmentalist, there are few works that qualify as general overviews and none that include all of the figures in this article. Facklam 1978 provides biographical sketches of female scientists who study animal behavior. Musil 2014 discusses many women who have been active in American environmental advocacy and focuses on common traits among them, including the sense of wonder, imagination, grounding in deep moral or religious principles, righteous anger, courage, and determination. This reference is particularly valuable for placing individual women in this article into a broader historical context.

  • Facklam, M. 1978. Wild animals, gentle women. New York: Harcourt.

    Collection of biographical pieces about eleven women who study animal behavior, including Eugenie Clark, Dian Fossey, Birutė Galdikas, and Jane Goodall.

  • Musil, R. K. 2014. Rachel Carson and her sisters: Extraordinary women who have shaped America’s environment. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Univ. Press.

    Explores the lives and work of American women who have made notable contributions to environmental protection in connection with human health; gives attention to multiple individuals, including Richards, Hamilton, Colborn, Davis, and Steingraber; focuses on common traits that allowed these women to persevere in the face of severe criticism and obstacles.

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