10 Historical Figures You Had No Idea Were Environmentalists

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Historical Figures

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When people talk about environmentalists, the farthest back they tend to go is to Theodore Roosevelt, who pioneered the concept of national parks and preserved huge swathes of the American wilderness. After that come green heroes like John Muir and Rachel Carson. But the environment had champions long before the 20th century, and some of the most famous people in history were real tree-huggers -- even if they didn't know it...and even if they took things to what today we'd call eco-terrorism. From Genghis Khan to King Edward I of England, these 10 historical figures did a lot to preserve the planet, from lowering global temperatures to promoting animal rights to setting aside land for conservation.

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Genghis Khan (1162 - 1227)

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One of history's most famous rulers, Genghis Khan founded the Mongol Empire and, by the time of his death, had conquered everything from the Sea of Japan to the Caspian Sea. And while the Mongol Invasions are usually associated with barbarism and chaos, the Great Khan may have been behind the first man-made drop in global temperatures. The nomadic Mongols were unimpressed by agricultural societies and didn't mind killing enemies by the thousand, qualities that came with an unexpected result. As they swept across Asia, they decimated populations and destroyed huge swathes of farmland, which reverted to natural forest (not that we think mass slaughter of mankind is a solution). In a study by published in The Holocene, Julia Pongratz of the Carnegie Institution's Department of Global Ecology posited that the scale of the area returned to forest would have cooled the planet.

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King Edward I of England (1239 - 1307)

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Edward I of England, called "Edward Longshanks," is best known today as the evil king whom William Wallace battles for his freedom in the movie Braveheart. But in 1306, he was thinking more about coal than the oppression of Scotland. Tired of the smoke produced by Londoners burning sea-coal for heat, he banned the practice- with a penalty that would make today's coal industry think twice: torture or execution. Unfortunately for the king and the air quality in London, the harsh law went largely ignored by those too poor to afford wood to burn.

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Richard Nixon (1913 - 1994)

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The legacy of the 37th President of the United States is marred by his continuation of the war in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal, but environmentalists should give him a second look. In 1970, he announced the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. That same year, he also signed the Clean Air Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, which established environmental impact statements as a prerequisite for any federal project. Too bad the new mantle of the Republican Party is so bent on destroying that part of Nixon's legacy.

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Pythagoras (c. 570 BC - c. 495 BC)

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It's under debate whether the ancient Greek philosopher and mathematician Phythagoras banned the use of all animal products or whether he was okay with using oxen to plow fields. Either way, he is acknowledged as a great defender of animal rights and as a vegetarian. The Pythagorean school, based on his teachings, saw animals as having souls.

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Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929 - 1968)

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Martin Luther King, Jr. is inextricably linked to the civil rights movement that he helped lead in the 1950s and 60s. But many don't know that he considered environmental injustice part of the oppression of African Americans. In December 2010, Attorney General Eric Holder called King a father of the environmental justice movement and urged everyone to think about the environment as a civil rights issue -- because minority and low income populations have the same right to be free of health hazards posed by unsustainable practices as everyone else.

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Ányos Jedlik (1800 - 1895)

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Ányos Jedlik isn't widely known, but his work is: In 1827, Jedlik, a Benedictine priest, inventor and physicist, invented the world's first electric motor. The next year, he put the device inside a model car to demonstrate its conversion of electrical energy into mechanical energy. It's doubtful that Jedlik foresaw the brief dominance of the electric car or its 21st century resurgence, but that doesn't me he doesn't deserve any credit for the creation he helped spark.

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Abraham Lincoln (1809 - 1865)

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In addition to preserving the Union, ending slavery and establishing Thanksgiving as a holiday, Abraham Lincoln created the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Academy of Sciences, and approved federal protection of the land that would become Yosemite National Park.

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Mohandas Gandhi (1869 - 1948)

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As he was fighting for Indian independence from Britain, Mohandas Gandhi also addressed issues of poverty, women's rights, and workers' rights. It is in this third campaign that he addressed the environment, arguing that laborers in cramped urban factories suffered from poor air quality. He wrote in 1905:

As the price of urban land is high, factory buildings are not spacious enough, and the tenements of labourers are also very small. This invariably results in a steady deterioration of their health... A man can do without food for several days and live a day altogether without water, but it is impossible to carry on without air even for a minute.

He also warned against industrialization, calling on people to live simply, and was a vegetarian.

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Ted Kaczynski (1942 - )

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Ted Kaczynski, better known as the Unabomber, represents the extreme fringe of the modern environmentalist movement- those willing to use violence and murder to advance their goals. In 1971, the brilliant mathematician and paranoid schizophrenic gave up a promising career at UC Berkeley for life in a remote Montana cabin. One victim of Kaczynski's mail bomb campaign was Thomas J. Mosser, an executive at Burson-Marsteller, the public relations firm that helped Exxon clean up its image after the Exxon-Valdez spill. In 1995, he killed Gilbert Murray, the president of the California Timber Association, a timber logging lobbying group. Kaczynski, who is serving a life term in prison without the possibility of parole, is one of very few true "eco-terrorists," a label that today is branded onto many activists who engage in non-violent civil disobedience.

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Thomas Jefferson (1743 - 1826)

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Thomas Jefferson is nothing if not a conflicting figure: he penned the Declaration of Independence that called all men created equal, but owned slaves. And so it goes with his attitude towards the environment. A great lover of nature, Jefferson envisioned an America full of yeomen farmers. He once wrote: "We must use a good deal of economy in our wood, never cutting down new, where we can make the old do." However, as argued by Peter Ling in History Today, Jefferson's farming practices on his Monticello estate resulted in wind and rain erosion and the loss of soil nutrients. He enthusiastically imported foreign plant species, and his program for selling farmland in 160 acre square plots ignored the particularities of all the land west of the Mississippi. Ling posits that Jefferson is not culpable as such, rather, the guilty party was his overconfidence in the rationality and wisdom of mankind over the natural workings of nature.