Age is just a number and for these activists who believe in finishing what they started.
Whilst things may have moved on in terms of social, racial, climate and animal justice since the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and even the ’90s, they still aren’t where they need to be. With varied careers spanning many decades, these 7 trailblazing activists in their golden years are still fighting the good fight and leading the way to a better future for all.
1. Sir David Attenborough
With a broadcasting career that spans 60 years, this British “national treasure” has been encouraging people to love and protect their planet long before it was considered imperative to do so. Using the medium of television to inform the public about the beauty and vulnerability of the world’s wildlife, his stunning BBC series have entertained and – most significantly – educated three generations about the need to protect the planet.
Whilst his early programmes were narrated in an observation style, he adopted an overtly environmentalist stance in his post-millennium documentaries. “State of the Planet” (2000) used scientific evidence to illustrate humanity’s climate impact, whilst “How Many People Can Live on Planet Earth?” (2009) tackled population growth. Attenborough’s shows are the BBC’s bestselling international exports, reaching a global audience.
In his latest book “A Life on Our Planet” – an autobiography and mission statement – the legendary 94-year-old naturalist pares down complex environmental processes and concepts such as Kate Raworth’s “doughnut model” of boundaries. Equally effective the statistics about the planet at different stages of his life. When he was born, the world population was two billion. Just 90 years later, humans now number eight billion. Attenborough is regarded as the greatest narrator of the natural world and has brought climate issues into the mainstream. As the Sunday Times review of Attenborough’s autobiography urged, “Read this book to learn, but also to honour the man. We shall never see his like again.”
2. Sylvia Earle
Born in New Jersey in 1935, Sylvia Earle is a leading American oceanographer, explorer and former chief scientist. Active in the development of modern self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (SCUBA) gear, Earle designed and built a submersible craft that could dive to unprecedented depths of 3,000 feet.
In 1990, Earle was the first woman to serve as chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), researching ocean and marine life. However, she left the position after only 18 months, convinced she could do more good working independently than for the government. She cited America’s lack of money for deep-sea studies, noting that of the world’s five deep-sea manned submersibles (those capable of diving to 20,000 feet or more), the US has only one, the Sea Cliff. “That’s like having one jeep for all of North America,” she said in Scientific American.
A devoted advocate of public education, Earle has used her prolific output of books – such as “Sea Change: A Message of the Ocean” (1995) – and documentaries to raise awareness of the threats that overfishing and pollution pose to the world’s oceans. Currently, Earle is President of Mission Blue / The Sylvia Earle Alliance. Mission Blue is a global coalition of 200 ocean conservation groups raising public awareness and supporting a worldwide network of marine protected areas or “Hope Spots”. She is also a National Geographic Society Explorer in Residence, and is called “Her Deepness” by the New York Times, “Living Legend” by the Library of Congress, and “first Hero for the Planet” by Time Magazine. She also makes an appearance in the divisive new documentary, “Seaspiracy,” offering facts and insight about fish as well as hope for humanity informed by her long life on the planet.
3. Dr Jane Goodall
In 1960, at the age of 26, Jane Goodall left her home in England to make a new home with the chimpanzees in Tanzania, East Africa. Braving this unknown world with a notebook, binoculars, and a love of wildlife, this was the start of 60 years of groundbreaking work. Immersing herself in chimpanzees habitat and lives, her discovery that apes make and use tools is considered one of the greatest achievements of twentieth-century scholarship.
Her seminal book “In the Shadow of Man” (1971) transformed people’s understanding of the relationship between humans and animals and the urgent need to protect chimpanzees from extinction. Through her work at the Jane Goodall Institute, she has redefined species conservation to include the needs of local people and the environment. Currently, the Institute looks after 290 endangered chimps and gorillas, and has facilitated 600 girls return to school and 309 scholarships for young women.
Today, Goodall is still going strong, travelling the world to speaking about the threats facing chimpanzees. Inspired by the octogenarian activist, Apple Originals is releasing a kids’ show about protecting endangered species called “Jane”. Never one to rest on her laurels, Goodall has also just published a cookbook “#EatMeatless” encouraging climate-friendly plant-based eating.
4. Jane Fonda
Who can forget the photos of octogenarian Jane Fonda being arrested and escorted away by police in Washington DC at a climate change protest that went viral? But, this was not a first for the Oscar-winning actress, and it probably won’t be the last for the 83-year-old social, political, and environmental activist.
Since her acting career first took off in ’60s, Fonda has used her celebrity to promote causes she believes in. While pregnant in 1968, Fonda led civil rights protests with the Black Panther Movement and visited young Native American protestors occupying Alcatraz, San Francisco in 1971. In 1972, Fonda toured North Vietnam to speak against US military policy in the country. Radio broadcasts had Fonda appealing directly to troops, asking them to consider the role they were playing. In 1998, Fonda created The Fonda Family Foundation, focusing on human rights and social services.
A longtime champion of female equality, the Academy award-winner joined the V-Board in 2000, a group of women who provide vision, leadership, and wisdom to help guide and support the movement. In 2001, she set up the Jane Fonda Centre for Adolescent Reproductive Health, which aims to prevent teen pregnancy.
More recently, in 2016, her protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock, reminded her of her youthful activism. Writing for Time, she explained, “It has been 45 years since the Occupation of Alcatraz. At Standing Rock, we are witnessing the flowering of the seeds that were planted there and, again, it is the youth who seem to be leading the way.”
Inspired by 17 year old climate activist Greta Thunberg, Fonda decided to move to Washington DC and concentrate on the climate crisis. Partnering with Greenpeace, her “Fire Drill Friday” protests have led to 5 arrests for civil disobedience and one night in jail. That said, law enforcement has never stopped Fonda, and a global pandemic hasn’t either. Her online Fire Drill Fridays received 9 million viewers over 2020.
“I can no longer stand by and let our elected officials ignore–and even worse–empower the industries that are destroying our planet for profit. We cannot continue to stand for this,” she wrote on the Greenpeace website.
5. Angela Davis
Angela Yvonne Davis is a Black American political activist, philosopher, academic, author, and longtime vegan who has spent over 50 years campaigning for racial and social justice. A longtime member of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA), she has written over ten books on class, feminism, race, and the US prison system. ‘Women, Race and Class” – written in 1981 – is currently viewed as essential reading for anyone wanting to learn about being actively anti-racist.
Born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1944, her experiences as a Black, politicised woman were seminal. Davis was friends with some of those who died in the 16th Street Baptist church bombing in 1963 – a Ku Klux Klan act of terrorism that killed four girls. Her links to communism meant she was sacked from her position as assistant professor of philosophy at UCLA. Most significantly, in 1970, when a shotgun legally bought by Davis was used in a fatal courthouse escape, she was charged with “aggravated kidnapping and first degree murder”. She spent 18 months in prison but became a “cause celebre” with support from Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones, and John Lennon. This was the catalyst for Davis’ multi-decade career as an international figurehead for social and racial activism.
Key to the radical academic’s narrative is highlighting how much have and continue to contribute to the civil-rights struggle. For decades, she has promoted feminist thinking that eschews the need for a single male political leader. This is evidenced in her support for the Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements. In a 2020 Guardian interview, the 77-year old said,
“There are those here in this country who are asking: ‘Where is the contemporary Martin Luther King?’, ‘Where is the new Malcolm X?’, ‘Where is the next Marcus Garvey?’ And, of course, when they think about leaders, they think about Black male charismatic leaders. But the more recent radical organising among young people, which has been a feminist kind of organising, has emphasised collective leadership.”
6. Gloria Steinem
A trailblazer of the ’60s and ’70s American feminist movement, Steinem’s career as a feminist journalist and social justice activist has spanned six of her eight decades.
Starting as a political columnist for New York magazine, Steinem co-founded feminist Ms. magazine in 1969, frustrated by “female” publications only covering housekeeping articles. Wonder Woman appeared on the first cover. Her Ms. piece, “After Black Power, Women’s Liberation” brought her to national fame as a spokeswoman for female equality. In 1971, she co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus to train women seeking elected offices in government, and the Women’s Action Alliance to support feminist causes and legislation.
In 1984, Steinem was arrested for disorderly conduct outside the South African embassy while protesting against the South African apartheid system. In the ’90s, Steinem was instrumental in the “Take Our Daughters to Work Day”, to encourage girls to learn about future career opportunities, and co-founded Choice USA, a non-profit organization that promotes choice in reproductive health. In 2005, alongside actress-activist Jane Fonda, Steinem co-founded the Women’s Media Center “to make women visible and powerful in the media”.
This pioneer of political activism – whose career has been depicted in FX’s lauded “Mrs. America” tv series – knows the fight isn’t over just because she’s 86. As she explained recently in a New York Times interview, “The progress we’ve made is not sufficient. But there is an advantage to being old. I have a role to play in the movement by saying, ‘Here’s when it was worse.’”
7. Bob Barker
The host of CBS’s The Price Is Right from 1972 to 2007 – the longest-running daytime game show in American television history – 97-year-old Barker is also known for a lifetime of tireless animal rights advocacy. Famous for closing every broadcast of The Price Is Right—a show that never allowed fur to be used as a prize—with a plea to neuter pets, the tv icon was one of the first stars to publicly go vegetarian. More recently, he starred in PETA’s “Go Vegetarian, Prevent Alzheimer’s” video and “Vegetarian Icons” stamp series.
Other activist highlights include his “Caring Consumer” public service announcement to stop people buying products tested on animals, urging families to boycott SeaWorld until all marine mammals are released, and blocking an “ag-gag” law—designed to criminalize eyewitness exposés of cruelty in the meat industry.
A huge supporter of PETA – his multimillion-dollar contribution allowed PETA to open a Los Angeles office – the animal rights organisation named a horse rescued from India’s horse-carriage industry in honour of the former The Price Is Right host. The lucky horse has “come on down” a gruelling life of labor to enjoy a peaceful sanctuary retirement. Unlike Barker, who shows no signs of retiring anytime soon.
He’s also lent his support to marine protection organization, Sea Shepherd, donating $5 million to help the organization continue its work to prevent whaling and illegal fishing. There’s a ship named in his honor—the Bob Barker, which has its honorary home at the port in Hobart, Australia.