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The environmental heroes forging the way for our planet and future generations

From politicians to royalty, documentary-makers to actors, these environmental heroes not only make noise about issues impacting the planet, but are also active in coming up with solutions, writes Aleney de Winter.

We gasp in heartbroken horror at images of towns ravished by bushfire and drought. Recoil at the sight of waves of trash crashing onto once pristine beaches. Despair at the plight of polar bears, reduced to fur and bones, collapsing from hunger. And then we move on, without ever really addressing the stark reality of our unsustainable lives.

© Shravan k acharya | Unsplash
© Shravan k acharya | Unsplash

The sustainability heroes

Our children, however, do not. Riddled with anxiety, they fret about pollution, deforestation and poor air quality. About undrinkable water and environmental threats that grow ever more ominous.

They are outraged by the people who refuse to change their behaviour to tackle human-driven climate change. Who they believe are bequeathing them an uncertain future on a broken planet. They are too young to be carrying the weight of knowledge that they are the last generation with any chance of turning things around.

When we were children, our heroes were movie stars fighting imaginary foes. But to the next generation, heroes are real people fighting a very real threat.

These exceptional individuals – activists, environmentalists, business leaders and entrepreneurs – are the changemakers leading by example. They offer their time, passion and knowledge to fight for a more sustainable future. And in doing so, proving to our children, and us, that not all heroes wear capes.

Sir David Attenborough

The Global Icon

Without peer, at 96 years of age Sir David Attenborough has achieved near beatific status as the voice of the planet.

The broadcaster, writer and conservationist has spent nearly 70 years exploring the farthest corners of the globe. With us, sharing the wonders he has discovered through his documentaries.

More recently, this bona fide knight in green armour has used his unique position to plead for faster action. To save not only the natural world, but ourselves. While he is not alone in his quest, his boundless enthusiasm and infectious love of the natural world make people listen.

Sir Attenborough, like no one before him, has opened our eyes to the impact of pollution, habitat destruction and climate change. He’s also shown us the steps we need to take to stop the damage.

His Netflix documentaries, A Life on Our Planet and Breaking Boundaries: The Science of Our Planet, provide a powerful wake-up call.

Speaking at this year’s G7 summit, the beloved Brit continued his tireless fight saying,

“The decisions we make this decade, in particular the decisions made by the most economically advanced nations, are the most important in human history.”

David Attenborough
David Attenborough

Jochen Zeilz

The Commercial Conservationist

A man of sustainable action, Jochen Zeitz is the former chairman of Puma and current CEO of Harley Davidson. He’s also a pioneer of sustainable economic order. Believing that reaching the top of the financial heap has no positives if it is at the expense of the environment and other people.

He’s the co-founder of the trailblazing Zeitz MOCAA (Museum of Contemporary Art Africa) and founder of Zeitz Foundation and The Long Run. This is an ultra-ethical tourism collection. Zeitz supports sustainable solutions that balance conservation, community, culture and commerce.

The altruistic German businessman’s Segera Conservancy is a 20,234-hectare ranch and lodge between Mount Kenya and the Great Rift Valley. The conservancy supports projects as diverse as reviving endangered species, establishing solar farms and supporting a female anti-poaching rangers academy.

Pursuing his relentless passion of embedding sustainability across business, Zeitz co-founded The B Team with Sir Richard Branson. Together, they hold a shared goal of encouraging other businesses to prioritise people and the planet alongside profit. As well as to be as transparent about their social and environmental outcomes as their economic ones.

Jeremey Smith

The Changemaker

Sustainable tourism writer Jeremy Smith is the author of Transforming Travel – Realising the Potential of Sustainable Tourism.

He is also co-author of Clean Breaks – 500 New Ways to See the World and co-founder and editor of Travindy.  The first travel industry news site to focus on sustainable tourism.

In 2020 the up-and-coming British sustainability superstar – recognising a need for a globally consistent approach for climate action in tourism – co- founded Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency, a global coalition of tourism organisations, companies and professionals committed to a common goal.

Smith’s work saw him become one of the chief architects of the Glasgow Declaration on Climate Action in Tourism. The urgent action plan aims to cut tourism emissions in half by 2030 and achieve Net Zero before 2050.

Jeremy Smith and Penny Rafferty_environmental heroes
Jeremy Smith and Penny Rafferty

Penny Rafferty

The Local Hero

Closer to home, Penny Rafferty is leading Tourism Australia’s sustainability strategy. She’s championing domestic tourism products and experiences that have a positive impact on the environment and community.

Instrumental in shaping high-end experiential travel in Australia, Rafferty was the former general manager of The Louise in the Barossa Valley. As well as being a driving force behind Luxury Lodges of Australia.

She has been championing sustainability for quite some time. While the preservation of Australia’s natural legacy through wildlife conservancy, education and protection of environments is critical, Rafferty also recognises the synergy between sustainability and Australia’s Indigenous culture. She believes tourism can play a big role in social preservation through its economic impact on regional economies and communities.

Rafferty will share her thoughts on the impacts of tourism at the 2022 Sustainability Leaders Summit in Melbourne – an event uniting environmentally focused decision-makers.

Bruce Poon Tip

The Visionary

Following a transformational backpacking trip through Asia, Canadian entrepreneur and philanthropist Bruce Poon Tip founded G Adventures. He did this armed with only two maxed-out credit cards. It is now the world’s largest small-group adventure travel company, with offices globally.

Passionate about the power of travel to change the world for the better, Poon Tip has become a leader in social entrepreneurship. Poon spends his time addressing the United Nations and the World Bank, while also delivering keynote TEDTalks.

Through G Adventures he has also launched Global Good Practice Guidelines to protect children, wildlife and promote respectful interactions with Indigenous people.

In 2003, Poon Tip founded G Adventures’ non-profit partner, the Planeterra Foundation, with the intention of channelling travellers’ dollars into underserved communities around the world.

Some 18 years later, Planeterra now supports more than 85 social enterprise projects globally, with a focus on women’s empowerment programs; supporting better access to healthcare, sanitation and education. Not to mention preserving the environment.

Bruce Poon and Duke of Cambridge_environmental heroes
Bruce Poon and Duke of Cambridge

Duke of Cambridge

The Royal Activist

Having supported initiatives to fund conservation, community development and environmental education programs across Africa, and leading global programs to end illegal wildlife trafficking, Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, has long prioritised an agenda of environmental advocacy.

His Royal Highness’ latest endeavour is The Earthshot Prize. Launched in October 2020, it is his most ambitious project to date. Highlighting human ingenuity and the need for collective action, The Earthshot Prize is the world’s most prestigious global environment acknowledgment. The winners of each of the five categories – inspired by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals of the restoration and protection of nature, air cleanliness, ocean revival, waste-free living, and climate action – are awarded one million pounds (around A$1.85 million) each to deliver projects aimed at mitigating climate change.

Prince William also joined Sir David Attenborough on the BBC’s The Earthshot Prize: Repairing Our Planet, exploring simple but ambitious ideas to conserve the world we live in.

“Let us not tell our children the sad tale of how we watched as the last elephants, rhinos and tigers died out, but the inspiring story of how we turned the tide and preserved them for all humanity.” said Prince William.

Dr Sylvia Earle

The Aquatic Activist

“Admitting something is wrong is always the first step towards fixing it,” says renowned US marine biologist, oceanographer and explorer Dr Sylvia Earle.

The recipient of the first TIME magazine ‘Hero of the Planet’ award for her pioneering research on marine ecosystems, the prolific ocean advocate has produced dozens of books and documentaries. All to raise awareness of the threats that overfishing and pollution pose to our planet.

The 86-year-old’s lifetime of achievements include serving on the American National Advisory Committee on Oceans and Atmosphere, and becoming the first woman appointed chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

A pioneer in the use of modern, self-contained underwater breathing gear and the development of deep-sea submersibles, Earle also led the first all- female aquanaut research team.

Her tireless ocean conservation work saw Australian travel company Aurora Expeditions name a cruise vessel for her, and announce a world-first Antarctic Climate Expedition, led by the unstoppable Dr Earle on her namesake ship in 2023.

Sylvia Earle diving with sharks_an environmental heroes
Sylvia Earle diving with sharks

Leonardo DiCaprio

The Movie Star

More than just a film icon, Leonardo DiCaprio is one of the world’s most outspoken advocates for environmental sustainability. While the Academy Award-winning actor may be better known for his movie roles, off screen he uses his enormous popularity and platform to campaign for climate change, conservation, wildlife protection and women’s rights.

In 1998, at the age of 24, DiCaprio established the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation with the mission of protecting the world’s last wild places. The Foundation has worked tirelessly to bring attention and funding to the protection of biodiversity. As well as building climate resiliency, ocean and forest conservation. The Foundation is currently supporting 35 innovative conservation projects around the world.

If that’s not enough to make you love Leo, the sustainability hero co-founded Re:wild to protect and restore the wilderness areas and was designated as United Nations Messenger of Peace for Climate Change. Leo also serves on the board of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the World Wildlife Fund, Global Green USA and the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

Helen Clark

The Policy Maker

A respected global leader on sustainable development, gender equality and international co- operation, Helen Clark brings a unique set of skills and experiences to her work.

As the former Prime Minister of New Zealand and ex-head of the United Nations Development Programme, Clark became a champion of inclusive and sustainable development, leading policy debate on a wide range of social, cultural and environmental issues, including climate change and the pursuit of sustainable development.

An active member of many international organisations, Clark became patron of The Helen Clark Foundation in 2019. This non-profit, non-partisan public policy think tank is committed to finding new solutions to societal problems.

Leonardo Di Caprio and Helen Clark environmental heroes
Leonardo Di Caprio and Helen Clark

This article originally appeared in volume 40 of Signature Luxury Travel & Style magazine. Subscribe to the latest issue today.

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