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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Environmental Figures We Lost in 2023

Air Date: Week of

Biologist Roger Payne put the songs of humpback whales on billboard charts in the 1970s. (Photo: Pedro Szekely, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Household names like Jimmy Buffett, Harry Belafonte, and Senator Dianne Feinstein were among the environmental figures who passed away in 2023. Living on Earth Contributor Peter Dykstra and Host Aynsley O’Neill remember these and some other less recognized people who made contributions to environmental causes.


O'NEILL: With me on the line now from Atlanta, Georgia is our Living on Earth contributor, Peter Dykstra. Together, we're gonna take a look back at some of the people that we lost last year in 2023. Hi there, Peter, who do you have for us?

Dr. Roger Payne brought Living on Earth to his ship, “Odyssey”, to explain whale songs in 2008. (Photo: Iain Kerr)

DYKSTRA: Well hi, Aynsley. And let's start with Roger Payne, the scientist who bridged the gap between science and art. He was the first to record the songs of the humpback whale. It was so popular in the 1970s that humpback whales made billboard charts of hit music. Roger Payne was 88.

O'NEILL: It's incredible seeing people who are able to incorporate environmental messages in their artistry, in their music. Do you have anybody else like that, Peter?

David Crosby’s song, “To the Last Whale,” warned of the consequences of commercial whaling. (Photo: Eva Rinaldi, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

DYKSTRA: Couple of giants in music from that era. They devoted time, talent and cash to environmental causes. David Crosby's song, "Wooden Ships" told of a grim post-apocalyptic world, his song, "To the Last Whale," which he did with Graham Nash, warned of the consequences of converting our largest animals into some mundane commercial goods. Crosby was 81. Another huge artist was Jimmy Buffett. He died this year at age 76. He had a huge following of hedonistic "Parrot Heads" as they call themselves. But offshore, Jimmy Buffett's passions were drawn to protecting corals and sea turtles and manatees.

On and off stage, Jimmy Buffett advocated for the protection of coral reefs, sea turtles, and manatees. (Photo: Steven Miller, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

O'NEILL: Sadly this year, we also lost Harry Belafonte, known for songs such as, "Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)" or "Jump in the Line."

Musician Harry Belafonte was an ardent civil rights and environmental activist. (Photo: Thomas Altfather Good, Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0)

DYKSTRA: I promise I won't sing "Day-O" for you, but it's kind of sad that Harry Belafonte's lifetime of performing and his lifetime of activism have been condensed into that "Day-O" song, whose two words sung at ballparks all over the world. Harry was 96. President Obama said of him, "He lived a good life, transforming the arts while also standing up for civil rights. And among those rights, Harry Belafonte also stood up for environmental justice.

And Doris Bradshaw died at age 68. She was one of the strongest voices in America on environmental justice from her community in Memphis. She led protests against the siting of toxic waste facilities in poor and African American communities around the country.

O'NEILL: And Peter, sometimes we've talked about horrific consequences that come from people who stand up for environmental justice. In the past, we've talked about indigenous leaders who've been murdered for trying to protect their home.

Quinto Inuma was a prominent Kichwa leader who fought against logging operations, land trafficking, and other environmental threats in his community. (Photo: Vicki Brown, Forest Peoples Programme)

DYKSTRA: That's right, and one of the many who died in the past year is Quinto Inuma, the Peruvian activist and indigenous leader. He was killed for trying to protect the Amazon rainforest from logging around their community. We don't know how many indigenous and developing nations activists died in 2023. There are so many, sometimes over 100 in a given year, but that authoritative list won't be finalized for months.

O'NEILL: And Peter, we've talked a lot about art and activism. How about politics?

California Senator Dianne Feinstein (D) helped create Death Valley National Park and championed many environmental causes. (Photo: Senate Democrats, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

DYKSTRA: There are two strong women leaders of the Democratic Party. Senator Dianne Feinstein was 90 when she passed away a few months ago. She helped create the Death Valley National Park and supported all manner of environmental measures. Congresswoman Pat Schroeder was 82. She was big on Western forest protection and the protection of water sources throughout the West. Turning to environmental journalists, my friend JoAnn Valenti was 78 years old when she passed. JoAnn's career included stints as a reporter, a journalist and professor, a publisher of environmental journalism textbooks, and a longtime member of SEJ, the Society of Environmental Journalists.

Colorado Congresswoman Pat Schroeder (D) helped protect water sources throughout the West. (Photo: marciaphotog, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

O'NEILL: And Peter, I believe you had one more activist, this time from somewhere in South Asia?

DYKSTRA: Right, in India, Aditya, nicknamed "Dicky" Singh. He was a nature photographer who became a wildlife and forests advocate, calling for reforestation of some of the many areas in his homeland that have been damaged and deforested over the years.

Wildlife photographer and conservationist Aditya “Dicky” Singh advocated for the protection of wildlife and reforestation in India. He frequently photographed tigers in northern India’s Ranthambore National Park. (Photo: Julian Mason, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

“Earthrise” gave humans their first glimpse of Earth from space. Frank Borman commanded the crew responsible for the photograph, Apollo 8. (Photo: NASA, Archive.org)

And finally, we turn to Frank Borman, died at age 95 this year. He commanded the Apollo 8 crew that took Earth's first portrait. Their "Earthrise" photographs helped millions of Earth-bound humans realize that we're all in it together.

O'NEILL: More than a half century later, that photo is still I think one of the most iconic photos of Earth.

DYKSTRA: It is indeed.

O'NEILL: Well, thank you, Peter, for helping us remember these men and women who have had such an impact on our environment. Peter Dykstra is our Living on Earth contributor from Atlanta, Georgia, and we'll talk to you again really soon.

Frank Borman suits up for Apollo 8 on launch day, December 21, 1968. (Photo: NASA, Archive.org)

DYKSTRA: Aynsley, thanks a lot, and we'll talk to you soon.

O'NEILL: And there's more on these stories and these people on Living on Earth webpage, that's loe.org.



Learn more about Roger Payne

Learn more about David Crosby

Learn more about Jimmy Buffett

Learn more about Harry Belafonte

Learn more about Doris Bradshaw

Learn more about Quinto Inuma

Learn more about Dianne Feinstein

Learn more about Pat Shroeder

Learn more about JoAnn Valenti

Learn more about Aditya “Dicky” Singh

Learn more about Frank Borman


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