05/18/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Where Have You Gone Jacques Cousteau? Wangari Maathai Comes to Chicago

Who is the most famous environmentalist in the world? A pretty straightforward question, but there isn't one obvious person that comes to mind. There are movie stars and musicians associated with environmental causes, but they are famous for their art, and the causes are secondary. What does it say about environmentalism in this country that there are so few environmental leaders that have transcended the committed few to become well known among the broader public?

Many people would suggest Al Gore as the current face of the environmental movement in the United States. Since leaving office, he has indeed worked tirelessly to build awareness about the urgency of addressing the climate change problem, and he has a Nobel Peace Prize and an Oscar to show for it. Back in November 2000 he received more votes for President than any candidate had ever gotten up to that time. But about half the voters also voted against him, so he's probably not the person who will unify the public around the climate issue.

A strong case could be made for California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger as America's #1 environmentalist. California's clean car legislation and global warming policies, which Arnold has championed and defended against attacks from the auto industry and the Bush administration, represent the most significant environmental legislation in the United States since the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts of the early 1970s. Of course, 10 years ago, the notion that Arnold Schwarzenegger could be seriously considered an important environmental leader would have sounded more far-fetched than the plots of any of his movies.

I think we really miss Jacques Cousteau. Inventor, explorer, writer, filmmaker and advocate, Cousteau spoke about preserving the oceans and the planet in a way that was sincere and compelling and often poetic. Jacques-Yves Cousteau died in 1997, and it's safe to say that in the 12 years since, no one has matched him as an effective spokesman for protecting the natural world.

So maybe the conclusion here is that the green movement needs to do a better job celebrating the achievements of its heroes, and shining a spotlight on its charismatic leaders.

All of this is by way of introduction to Wangari Maathai, who made a rare visit to Chicago Wednesday.

Wangari Maathai is an environmental and political activist from Kenya. She founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977, which has thus far planted more than 30 million trees across Kenya, to prevent soil erosion, and also to liberate women by easing the burden of carrying firewood long distances. In 2004, she was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize.

Her life story is a remarkable and inspirational one. In 1971 she became the first Eastern African woman to earn a Ph.D., and then became the first woman professor at the University of Nairobi. Her politician husband divorced her for being "too strong-willed" and unable to be controlled. She was imprisoned many times for her political activism, as well as knocked unconscious by police during a hunger strike and attacked while planting a tree in a would-be golf course. In 2002 she was elected to Kenya's Parliament, and later appointed as an official to the national environment ministry.

She is likely the most famous Kenyan woman in the world, or possibly a close second behind Sarah Obama, the president's grandmother.