8 Eco-Superheroes That Might Surprise You

Girl running in a field wearing a cape

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If there’s one thing that Mother Nature hasn’t lacked over the last decade, it’s been a committed coterie of allies ready to swoop in and come to her defense during her darkest hour — which, unfortunately, has been frequently. It’s been a decade rife with eco-lows, both natural and manmade, including oil spills, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, heat waves and environmental degradation. These “eco-superheroes” have garnered plenty of attention for their good green works, whether supporting conservation issues or alerting the public to the effects of global warming. Among the ranks: Al Gore, Ed Begley Jr., Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert Redford and, of course, Captain Planet.

And then there's a handful of not-so-obvious eco-superheroes ranging from a sustainable chef to a vegan starlet to British royalty who have flown under the mainstream radar but whose actions are no less important. This sampling is in no way conclusive, and we invite you to list any eco-superheroes who have inspired you in the comments section.

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Colin Beavan

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New York City-based Colin Beavan, aka “No Impact Man,” inspired the masses — and raised a few eyebrows — when he bid adieu to conspicuous consumption (as well as toilet paper and electricity) and embarked on a yearlong project in 2006 that found him and his family living an off-the-grid existence in the heart of the Big Apple. Beavan chronicled his bold “experiment in lifestyle redesign” — described by some as an eco-stunt — on the thought-provoking No Impact Man blog. A book and a documentary film followed.

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Alexandra Cousteau

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Granddaughter of Jacques-Yves and daughter of Philippe, Alexandra Cousteau didn’t stray far from the family mission. A tireless crusader determined protect the planet’s oceans, Alexandra (who prefers to be referred to by her first name out of respect for her grandfather's work) founded the Blue Legacy initiative in 2008 to “help shape society’s dialogue to include water as one of the defining issues of our century and to inspire people to take action on critical water issues in meaningful ways.” As a National Geographic Emerging Explorer and United Nations Earth Trustee, Cousteau is not only a friend of Mother Nature but part of the Mother Nature Network as well — she sits on MNN’s board of directors.

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Julia Butterfly Hill

Photo: Damanhur Spiritual EcoCommunity/Flickr [CC by 2.0]

Julia Butterfly Hill — the original tree hugger — first made international headlines in the late 1990s when she lived in a California redwood for two years to prevent it from being cut down, and this green wonder woman didn’t stray from her passionate eco-convictions in the least bit in the following decade as the founder of the Circle of Life Foundation and a motivational speaker. Here, she is pictured, second from right, at the 2009 What's Your Tree Italy event.

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David de Rothschild

Photo: David Mayer de Rothschild/Wikimedia Commons [CC by 1.0]

A modern-day Ferdinand Magellan with an environmental slant, author and eco-adventurer David de Rothschild put his British banking-heir status to good use when he founded Adventure Ecology, an eco-expedition group that “promotes respect and responsibility for our planet, its environment, species and peoples by developing a greater connection with nature and an understanding of the planet’s greatest challenge: climate change,” according to TakingITGlobal. De Rothchild’s most recent incredible adventure? A 129-day journey across the Pacific aboard the Plastiki (pictured), a catamaran built from 12,500 recycled plastic bottles, to raise awareness of marine pollution.

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Brad Pitt

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Brad Pitt spent the 1990s primarily known as a good-looking actor. In 2007, Pitt added champion of sustainable architecture to his resume when he co-founded the Make It Right Foundation, a remarkable nonprofit that aims to build 150 affordable, eco-friendly homes in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans, an area virtually wiped off the map by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Although the 150 mark has yet to be reached, the Make it Right community has emerged as “the largest, greenest neighborhood of single-family homes in America,” according to the U.S. Green Building Council.

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Natalie Portman

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Like Brad Pitt, Natalie Portman has used her celebrity as a platform for green do-goodery, although many Portman fans choose to focus on her films and romantic life. This green "swan" has been instrumental in bringing eco-fashion to the mainstream by backing for fur-, feather- and leather-free wardrobe choices and launching her own line of vegan shoes back in 2008. (Portman, who is in the running for this year's Oscar for Best Actress, truly does walk the talk in this case as a practicing vegan.) A staunch supporter of animal rights, Portman co-starred with Jack Hannah in the 2007 documentary, “Gorillas on the Brink.”

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Prince Charles

Photo: Dan Marsh/Wikimedia Commons [CC by SA-2.0]

Named one of Time magazine’s Heroes of the Environment and a recipient of the Global Environmental Citizen Award in 2007, the Prince of Wales has long been a proponent of environmentally forward thinking — particularly in the realms of sustainable architecture, organic farming and climate change — but it wasn’t until this past decade that his eco-star began to shine. Among the plant-talking prince’s many charitable environmental endeavors are the Mayday Network, The Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment, The Prince’s Rainforests Project, The Prince’s Countryside Fund and the Prince of Wales’s Business and Sustainability Programme (BSP). And despite a major overhaul in 2009, the prince remains involved with Duchy Originals, a popular organic food brand that he founded in 1990 — think Newman’s Own Organics but with a royal twist. The big question is: What kind of big, green wedding gift will he give to Prince William and Kate Middleton?

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Bryant Terry

Photo: Festival of Faiths/Flickr [CC by 2.0]

Oakland, Calif.-based author, food-justice-activist and eco-chef Bryant Terry not only knows his way around a kitchen (check out “Vegan Soul Kitchen: Fresh, Healthy, and Creative African-American Cuisine”), but he also serves up food for thought, inspiring us to truly think about food beyond calorie counting and a perfectly plated presentation. Believing that food should taste good and be good for the planet, our bodies and our communities, Terry is one not-so-obvious eco-superhero with incredibly good taste.