Real American Idols.

From left: Pete Seeger, Martin Litton, Rick Piltz, Theo Colborn  (Credits below)

In the past year, we've lost four science and environment icons whose impact will be felt for decades.

January 9, 2015

By Peter Dykstra

Americans have an unfortunate genius for anointing the irrelevant and forgetting those who truly mattered.  Let’s make sure we remember four who left  us  in 2014:  Pete Seeger, Martin Litton, Theo Colborn and Rick Piltz.

Seeger will surely be remembered for his music as a folksinging legend and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee (he converted a biblical passage into a Top Forty smash for the Byrds, “Turn, Turn, Turn.)

 But his politics and his half-century crusade to clean up the Hudson River outweigh his huge musical legacy.  Seeger was blacklisted during the  McCarthy Era, and unlike many of his fellow victims, he really was a Communist, and would gladly tell you so.

By the 1960’s, he’d turned his attention to opposing the Vietnam War and saving the Hudson River.  The sloop Clearwater, refurbished by Seeger and  friends, became a floating classroom, lab, single-masted bumpersticker and symbol of a spectacular, if still partial, comeback for the Hudson.  He used  his musical aura to keep up the fight, well into his nineties, until his death last January.

Oddly enough, listening to Dick Cheney take to the talk show circuit last month, doubling down on his defense of torture and the misbegotten Iraq War,  made me think of Pete Seeger.  During his bright Red days, Seeger defended the indefensible Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin.  But unlike Cheney, he had  enough backbone to admit a colossal mistake and move on.  If only more modern leaders could do that.

Martin Litton helped protect a river, too.  An even bigger one.

Considered the last surviving founder of the modern American conservation movement, Litton was an epic river-runner, shooting through the perilous rapids of the Grand Canyon in a wooden dory and making such a trip at age 87.  Along with David Brower and others, he fought against massive dam  projects along the Colorado River, losing the battle at Glen Canyon but defeating an effort that would have turned part of the Grand Canyon into a lake.

He was a World War II glider pilot, an editor at Sunset Magazine, and a giant tree of a man.  Which is probably why he also liked redwood forests.  Litton was a central voice in the effort to restrict indiscriminate logging of California redwoods for decades.

What Litton and Seeger did for rivers and trees, Rick Piltz did for scientific integrity in politics.  A mid-level staffer at the White House Council on  Environmental Quality (CEQ), Piltz was appalled by what he saw as naked political interference in climate science.  Phil Cooney, a CEQ political  appointee recruited from his lobbyist job at the American Petroleum Institute, made a series of changes in a White House climate change report,  weakening its scientific findings and inserting elements of doubt where little really existed.

Piltz became a classic whistleblower in 2005, quitting his government job, aligning with the Government Accountability Project (GAP) and handing the  story to The New York Times.  The George W. Bush administration limited damage by parting ways with Cooney, who soon found work with ExxonMobil.  Rick Piltz founded a widely read blog, Climate Science Watch, and toiled as an advocate for keeping ideology out of science until his death in October.

 Theo Colborn is often likened to Rachel Carson, a government scientist like Piltz was.  But Colborn’s remarkable career can also be compared to  Marjory Stoneman Douglas, who embarked on a lifetime of saving the Florida Everglades after turning fifty-seven.  Colborn was a 58 year-old divorcee  recently retired from a career as a pharmacist when she got a Ph.D. in zoology.

For nearly thirty years, she worked on water quality, studied the impacts of synthetic chemicals on human health, and convened fellow scientists to seek answers.  While a legion of other scientists focused on possible links between chemicals and cancer, Colborn led a smaller group to study chemical impacts on other ailments, IQ, vital organs, and reproduction.   They coined the phrase “endocrine disruptors” for a family of chemicals we’ve  made and deployed for decades, without knowing their true impact.   (Note: The founder/CEO of EHN and The Daily Climate, Pete Myers, was a co- author of the book “Our Stolen Future,” with Colborn and Dianne Dumanoski.)

In her eighties, Colborn turned her attention to the mix of chemicals, often undisclosed, used in the fracking process.  She didn’t live long enough to find  all the answers, but she asked all the right questions.

I had the honor of meeting each of these people, though no more than once or twice each.  The common quality they shared was a quiet, gentle passion for their work.  I hope humanity hasn’t stopped producing more men and women like them.

Top photo credit from left: RobertoRizzato/flickr; Sequoia Forestkeeper/flickr;; TEDX

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For questions or feedback about this piece, contact Peter Dykstra at or Brian Bienkowski at


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