Boyan Slat (b.1994) is a Dutch inventor who founded The Ocean Cleanup in 2013, a non-profit organisation of which he is now the CEO. After becoming deeply concerned about the amount of plastic he found whilst diving off Greece, and impatient with the prevailing notion that nothing could be done quickly to eliminate ocean plastic pollution, he developed an innovative idea for a technological solution. This was widely picked up in the media and on the internet. Slat dropped out of his university course in Aerospace Engineering , crowd-funded start-up costs, and founded The Ocean Cleanup with its global mission to develop advanced technologies to rid the world’s oceans of plastic.
Slat has developed a system through which, driven by the ocean currents, the plastic concentrates itself, reducing the theoretical clean-up time from millennia to mere years. The first full-scale system is scheduled to be operational in the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” by 2018.
He is the youngest person ever to be awarded the United Nations highest environmental honour, Champion of the Earth, in 2015. He has been named by Goldman Sachs as one of the world’s 100 most intriguing entrepreneurs, and by Reader’s Digest as European of the Year in 2017.
“Technology is the most potent agent of change. It is an amplifier of our human capabilities. Whereas other change-agents rely on reshuffling the existing building blocks of society, technological innovation creates entirely new ones, expanding our problem-solving toolbox.”
Alexander von Humboldt, 1769 – 159. Portrait in oil by F.G. Weitsch
Lack of general public awareness in Britain of the towering scientific achievements of Alexander von Humboldt (1769 – 1859) may be a function of the language barrier between the British and German spheres of influence and/or the parochialism of British education in the twentieth century!
Alexander von Humboldt was a Prussian geographer, naturalist, explorer, and prolific author of papers and books whose life spanned the later 18th and first half of the 19th century. He is credited with being the first scientist to identify human-induced climate change, and to have founded the discipline of biogeography. He journeyed throughout Latin America and was the first to study and describe it from a scientific point of view. His promotion of systematic quantitative measurement was the forerunner of modern monitoring in geophysics and meteorology. His major work, Kosmos, presented a fresh vision of the natural world as a unified system. He has been described as the inventor of the very concept of “the environment”.
Charles Darwin described Humboldt as the “greatest scientific traveller who ever lived”. During his lifetime Humboldt became a highly revered and respected public figure in Prussia and throughout Germany. He was given a state funeral in Berlin; his coffin was met at the door of the cathedral by the Prince-Regent. Today it is said that more places and species are named after Humboldt than after any other human being!
“The most dangerous worldview is the worldview of those have not viewed the world.”
Alexander von Humboldt
The Reverend Dave Bookless (Source: arocha.org.)
The Reverend Dave Bookless is an ordained minister of the Church of England and educationalist. Since 1997 he has been a leading figure in the Christian nature conservation charity A Rocha, which has developed into a global network of national organisations, A Rocha International. Having been co-founder with Anne Bookless, his wife, of A Rocha UK and its National Director, he now works as Advisor for Theology and Churches for A Rocha International.
Bookless has authored two books on theology and ecology, contributed to others, and written countless educational resources. He has delivered lectures and presentations at many conferences and seminars across the world in his mission to encourage churches and Christian communities, particularly Protestant evangelical communities, to understand the centrality of care for the environment in the biblical foundations of Christian faith, and to act accordingly.
Since its original foundation as a UK charity with a Portuguese base by the Harris and Batty families, A Rocha has grown to embrace 19 national organisations and its global conservation activities involve thousands of people of all ages and many faiths.
“We believe quite clearly that value comes from God, that species have value, that ecosystems have value, simply because God values them.” Dave Bookless
Pope Francis (Source: gofossilfree.org)
It feels appropriate today 8th September, when Catholic Christians celebrate the birthday of Mary, blessed Mother of the Lord Jesus Christ, to feature Pope Francis as a champion of the environment.
Even before the publication of his “green” encyclical, Laudate Si’, (Praise Be to You!) Pope Francis had become known for his advocacy of care for the earth and for speaking out on climate change. His chosen papal name, Francis, after Saint Francis of Assisi famously in tune with all creatures and with the poor, was an early indication of the Pope’s concerns and interpretation of the Christian ethos.
The Pope’s 2015 encyclical Laudate Si’: On Care for our Common Home is a call, not only to the Christian community but also to all the people of the world, “to hear the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor”. It sets forward a challenge to ecological conversion, through changes in lifestyle and in society, and through strong political action.
“The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation. In fact, the deterioration of the environment and of society affects the most vulnerable people on the planet: both everyday experience and scientific research show that the gravest effects of all attacks on the environment are suffered by the poorest”. Pope Francis.
Dr Vandana Shiva (Source: vandanashiva.com)
Dr. Vandana Shiva is an Indian environmental activist, prolific author and philosopher who gained her doctorate in quantum theory. Her work now encompasses concerns for justice for the poorest victims of environmental degradation, particularly as a result of climate change, and for the resilience of the environment, with a focus on empowering women. She advocates strongly for diversity in cultural and ecological terms as the key to future sustainability especially in relation to food security on the Indian sub-continent. She campaigns for the protection of indigenous ecological knowledge, and the right to save and share seeds. To promote these aims she founded the Navdanya Research Foundation which supports a network of seed keepers and organic producers across India.
Vandana Shiva has received strong criticism from governmental and commercial organisations, including character assassination to impugn her moral integrity, because she resists technocratic and narrowly utilitarian solutions to food security. The main issue on which this criticism has been focused is that of her opposition to Golden Rice, which has been engineered to produce vitamin A, a deficiency found in nearly 3 million children across the world. Vandana Shiva argues that it is an illusory solution with harmful cultural impacts and unintended environmental consequences which ultimately undermines the food security and resilience of the farming societies that come to rely on it.
Vandana Shiva’s work raises important questions about the kind of global community as well as environment that we want to see. It addresses ethical and spiritual issues of power, justice and long-term global resilience, which the spheres of the market and politics, and even science in its own terms, are ill-equipped to engage with.
Chico Mendes in 1988
Chico Mendes (1944-1988) was a Brazilian environmental activist who paid with his life for his commitment to protecting the rainforest and the rights of its indigenous people. He was murdered in 1988 by a rancher, Darly Alves da Silva, and accomplices, after Mendes had succeeded in stopping da Silva’s proposal to clear-cut an area of forest which had been designated a nature preserve. In the same year, 18 other activists were murdered in Brazil. Da Silva and his two accomplices were prosecuted successfully and convicted for the murder of Mendes.
As a result of Mendes’ campaigns , and the international outcry following his murder, the Brazilian government no longer subsidies logging and ranching in the rainforest, and has designated many more nature reserves, including one named after the activist: Parque Chico Mendes. However, clear-cutting of the rainforest has not completely stopped and many more activists have lost their lives since 1988 in Brazil.
“At first I thought I was fighting to save rubber trees, then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rain forest. Now I realize I am fighting for humanity.” Chico Mendes
Kenneth Watkins OBE (Source: The Woodland Trust; photo M. Lewis/WTML)
Today’s champion of the environment is a person hidden from wide public consciousness even though the charity he founded, The Woodland Trust, has grown in size and impact throughout the United Kingdom and consistently acknowledges its debt to the vision of its founder. Kenneth “Ken” Watkins OBE (1909 – 1996) founded The Woodland Trust in 1972 and chaired it for 21 years. The Trust has grown from its small beginnings to be the United Kingdom’s largest woodland conservation charity.
Watkins had a deep commitment to conservation especially of trees and woodlands. In an obituary in 1996 colleague Ian Mercer described him as “the driving force of the Devon Naturalists’ Trust, which began in the early sixties” (1). He was then running the Devon Trust’s acquisitions programme. His successful business, a leading producer of agricultural machinery in Devon, south-west England, provided funds for much of the conservation work. He also made films about woodlands in the early 1960s and was a runner-up in the BBC’s Natural History Film Awards in 1962. Watkins became increasingly concerned at the decline of woodlands in the countryside. Many woods and copses had been cleared to increase agricultural production. There was a need for a wider conservation body specifically for woodlands.
“Woodland was under threat. I thought there should be a trust which would buy up land and manage it properly” (Ken Watkins in interview with The Observer, 1992) (2)
With his wife Mary Clayton he drew together a small team consisting of friends Oliver Rossetti, Henry Hurrell, MBE, and Stanley Edgcumbe, and they set about purchasing woods to conserve and protect them. Within 5 years they had acquired 22 woods in six counties of south-west England.
Ken Watkins’ story impresses me as an example of how one person with a passion for the environment who is prepared to dedicate time and resources and to persuade others to join the cause in support, can make a significant and lasting difference for good.
Watkins was honoured with an MBE in 1971 and an OBE in 1989 for services to conservation. He received the Sir Peter Scott Memorial Award from the British Naturalists’ Association in 1995.
- (1) His obituary by colleague Ian Mercer
“Heart of the woodlands: Obituary of Kenneth Watkins.” Guardian [London, England], 9 Dec. 1996, p. 11. Infotrac Custom Newspapers Accessed 5 Sept. 2017.
- (2) Bailey, M. (1992, Jul 05). Guardians of the woods who stop the chainsaw massacres. The Observer (1901- 2003) Retrieved 5th Sept 2017