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Heroes of Sustainability: Henry David Thoreau

"Thank God men cannot fly, and waste the sky as well as the earth. " -- Henry David Thoreau

Today, Henry David Thoreau is remembered best for writing Walden, but he did much more than live in a cabin in the woods alone. Thoreau was a naturalist, abolitionist, pencil maker, teacher, conservationist, philosopher -- and that's just scratching the surface.

Born in 1817 in Concord, Massachusetts, Thoreau was surrounded by influential thinkers still famous today, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and Bronson Alcott. As Concord grew, Thoreau worried about its expansion.

"Each town should have a park, or rather a primitive forest, of 500 or a thousand acres, where a stick should never be cut for fuel, a common possession forever, for instruction and recreation, " he wrote.

Back to Basics Thoreau believed in simplicity above all, and lived that philosophy throughout his life, particularly as he was working on Walden. Wastefulness was not something he tolerated, as he saw the connection between materialism and the destruction of the environment. "What is the use of a house if you don't have a decent planet to put it on? " he once said.

At his core, Thoreau loved nature. Indeed, he kept meticulous journals about what he saw outside, from bird migration to plant growth to the water levels in Walden Pond. He advocated for recreational hiking and canoeing before that was popular, and he studied how forests regenerated after fire. Keeping the wilderness wild was something he consistently argued for. "What would human life be without forests, those natural cities? " he wrote.

 More Than a Century Later An early environmentalist, Thoreau has influenced the modern-day environmental movement with his thoughts on social responsibility, resource efficiency, living as simply as possible, and the impact humans have on nature. He's also had an influence on how we think about national forest preserves and the destruction from dams. Fellow Heroes of Sustainability Edward Abbey and John Muir have cited Thoreau as an influence, along with dozens of other notable personalities.

Today, The Walden Woods Project carries on his mission, as they work to keep the forest surrounding Walden Pond intact, instead of letting the area turn into an office park or condominiums (as have been proposed). In addition, the Don Henley - “founded nonprofit organization works to preserve Thoreau's literature and legacy, which you can learn more about here.

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