Center for American Progress

It’s Easy Being Green: Happy Birthday, Henry David Thoreau

It’s Easy Being Green: Happy Birthday, Henry David Thoreau

The legacy of one of America’s first environmentalist lives on in the fight to protect our forests.


Henry David Thoreau is one of the country’s first enivronmentalists. He was born 194 years ago this week.

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Henry David Thoreau may have been born 194 years ago this Tuesday, July 12, 2011, but his writings remain crucial reading for today’s environmentalists. Even now his words cast an important light on our relationship with the planet. In this week’s space we celebrate Thoreau’s birthday by reflecting on his work and explaining how organizations are carrying on his legacy.

Thoreau was born in 1817 in Concord, Massachusetts, and he was one of America’s first and most important environmentalists. He is remembered best today for his book Walden, which describes his most famous exploit—leaving civilization to live in solitude on the banks of nearby Walden Pond. Thoreau was a gifted writer as well as a naturalist, abolitionist, philosopher, conservationist, and visionary environmentalist who could see the consequences of unrestrained and irresponsible consumption of resources.

Wastefulness was anathema to Thoreau. “Thank God men cannot fly,” he wrote, “and waste the sky as well as the earth.” Environmental stewardship was a cornerstone of his philosophy. He was constantly aware of what he used, what was a waste, and what was a necessity. Most of all, he opposed excess: “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.”

Treating the environment with respect was a matter of economic efficiency to Thoreau and a moral imperative. “We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander,” he wrote. We can be the best humans we can be only by recognizing that there is more to the world than us. “What we call Wildness is a civilization other than our own,” he wrote. “In Wildness is the preservation of the World.”

Thoreau laid the foundation for modern-day environmentalism. He articulated a philosophy based on environmental and social responsibility, resource efficiency, and living simply that is as inspiring now as it was then. He believed that to live a good life we must keep the wild intact.

His message is more important now than ever in an age of massive oil spills, destructive drilling methods, extreme weather, and climate change misinformation campaigns. And public lands are under attack. But Thoreau also understood that times of crises are also times of great opportunity. He writes, “Not till we are lost, in other words not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.”

Organizations are hard at work to green the American economy and protect the nation’s wild places through strong conservation practices. This map from the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, for example, demonstrates clean energy progress in his home state. The Walden Woods Project and other local groups are currently in charge of the conservation of the forest surrounding Walden Pond, having successfully defeated bids to build an office park and condominiums in Thoreau’s former home.

Thoreau’s birthday is all the more important considering that the United Nations declared 2011 the International Year of Forests. Thoreau wrote: “What would human life be without forests, those natural cities?” Forests account for 80 percent of terrestrial biodiversity and cover 31 percent of the total land area of the world. Deforestation has a devastating effect on the global ecosystem. While conservation groups currently protect the woods of Walden Pond, not all of the world’s forests are so lucky.

This summer, take a page out of Thoreau’s book. Check out, the U.S. homepage for the U.N. International Year of Forests, to find tools and tips to act locally and events in your area. Or explore the National Park Conservation Association website to find ways to take action to protect your national parks. And, if you’ve read all the Thoreau you can on your summer reading list, take a trip to the Walden Woods to get in touch with your inner environmentalist.

Read more articles from the "It’s Easy Being Green" series

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