03/20/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Meatless Monday: Environmentalists Come in Every Shade of Green

Environmentalists come in all forms. Some of my favorites may not be tops on your green hero list, but Henry David Thoreau, Albert Einstein, and Martin Luther King Jr. each in their own way urged us towards a more sustainable way of life. The planet's future and ours, they believed, demands less selfish arrogance, more social activism.

Thoreau believed a plant-based diet was "the destiny of the human race" if only because eating animals caused too much struggle. As he wrote in Walden, "When I had caught and cleaned and cooked and eaten my fish, they seemed not to have fed me essentially and cost more than it came to. A little bread or a few potatoes would have done as well, with less trouble and filth."

Thoreau did more than write rapturously about "the innocence and beneficence of Nature." He was America's prototypical activist, speaking out against slavery, promoting women's rights and advocating educational reform. In the same way, it was not enough for Albert Einstein to snag a Nobel. He, too, was an activist, "an absolute pacifist," as he put it, and an outspoken advocate of nuclear disarmament. "Shall we put an end to the human race; or shall mankind renounce war?" he said.

Einstein embraced meatlessness in his last years, "feeling quite well this way," as he wrote a friend. It was to him a natural extension of pacifism. "Our task must be to widen our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is in itself a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security."

Our relationship to the planet, to each other and to what we eat is interconnected. It can make a scientist sound spiritual and give a minister a mission. Another pacifist and Nobel laureate, Martin Luther King Jr. said, "I'm convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered."

These words, which King said in 1967, resonate all the more almost half a century later. They are words and values his son, Dexter King practices by being vegan. "If you're violent to yourself by putting [harmful] things into your body that violate its spirit, it will be difficult not to perpetuate that [violence] onto someone else," he says. "I have no doubt that it is a part of the destiny of the human race, in its gradual improvement, to leave off eating animals...." The destiny of the human race -- the same phrase Thoreau used in 1857.

You don't have to be Einstein to figure out the path to a greener world also results in greater humanity. Take it from another of my favorite enviromentalists, 17-year old Jennifer Auceda, a student at Brooklyn's Green School. "Green is not just the environment. It's politics, government, social justice," she says. "It's all of these things."

It's all these things and all kinds of people. From spiritual leaders to students, we can all be green heroes. You might even turn out to be one yourself.

Quick and Casual Mediterranean Veggie Stew

Warming and easy when you're cold and stressed. Serve over quinoa, millet or whole grain couscous.

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 1-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and minced
1 zucchini, chopped
1 jalapeno
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon coriander
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 bunch greens, such as kale or spinach (roughly 3 to 4 cups)
1 15-ounce can garbanzo beans, rinsed and drained
1 15-ounce can diced tomatoes
sea salt and fresh ground pepper to taste

Heat oil in a soup pot over medium-high heat. Add chopped onion, garlic and ginger and jalapeno. Saute, stirring occasionally, until vegetables soften, about 8 minutes.

Add cumin, coriander and turmeric. Add greens a handful at a time. Toss until greens are coated and start to wilt, about 3 minutes.

Add garbanzos and tomatoes. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 20 minutes, or until vegetables are tender and flavors have blended.

Season with sea salt and pepper.

Serves 4.