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Evel Knievel continues to inspire in surprising ways

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Growing up in the 1970s, I idolized Evel Knievel. To me, he was a rock star, sports hero and folk legend in one. He was both a daredevil and a cool character. Back then, his jumps over buses, fountains and canyons inspired me to launch my bicycle, into the air and over puddles, mounds of dirt and my hapless friends. Occasionally, in honor of his ill-fated jump over the Snake River Canyon, I’d jump my bicycle into the neighbor’s pond.

Now, I find new inspiration in my childhood hero.

In 1961 Robert Craig Knievel, long before “Evel” became a household name, hitchhiked through the dead of winter from Butte to our nation’s capital to protest the culling of elk in Yellowstone National Park. He lugged the rack of a massive bull elk along as a gift. It dominated the White House office of Mike Manatos, assistant to John F. Kennedy. The administration responded and many elk were saved.

Half a century later our country and our world face ever more serious environmental crises — loss of biodiversity, a warming planet, collapsing fisheries, looming food and water shortages for billions of people and the realization that our pollution has reached nearly every corner. Scientists forecast the 2050 Scenario as the convergence of a hotter, dirtier, more overcrowded Earth where nature will have been forgotten by most of the nine billion inhabitants who fight in violent wars for what’s left.

Jumping that chasm is the greatest challenge we have ever faced. Waiting until later is foolish at best and disastrous at worst.

Solving the biggest problems we face will require the most revolutionarily of changes in society and technology, rather than incremental steps.

We must be brave, creative and outspoken enough to challenge the status quo in our respective industries, departments and neighborhoods. We must undertake the audacious, impossible and dangerous. We must risk financial, social and physical pain.

In other words, we must be EcoDaredevils.

Everywhere I go I meet EcoDaredevils. They are musicians, inventors, investors, scientists, activists, engineers, students, artists and entrepreneurs. They are debating, creating, evolving — sometimes crashing — and always coming back for more.

Two Texas women cleaned up their beach and inspired the International Coastal Cleanup, a global volunteer movement a half a million strong. Virgin Atlantic billionaire Sir Richard Branson is greening the aviation industry. Feliciano dos Santos campaigns for clean water in Africa with powerful music. In San Francisco, architect Renzo Piano designed the giant new roof of the California Academy of Sciences as a native meadow with solar panels. In Mexico, WaterKeeper Julio Solis drag races in Baja fishing villages to raise awareness of the ocean crisis.

Changing our light bulbs, inflating our tires and bringing our own bags are all important. But let’s be clear: it’s going to take actions far more thrilling and substantive for us to make it over this canyon.

For some, speaking up boldly about energy efficiency at the office is a risky bet. For others it may be a massive transformation to “green” their household. Others may undertake bolder actions at higher stakes. The point is to do something for the planet that feels like risk and derring-do — to you.

They say that Evel Knievel broke many, many bones, many times. But he kept on jumping his motorcycle through the air. He represented a combination of steely will, toughness, creativity and tenacity that enthralled me as an eight year old and still does.

It’s Earth Day. It’s 2008. Look inside yourself and grab a hold of your inner EcoDaredevil. Strap on your helmet, your red, white and blue leathers, and let’s go for a ride.

— Wallace J. Nichols is a senior scientist at Ocean Conservancy and a Research Associate at California Academy of Sciences. His Earth Day address at Duke University will be titled, “Jump the Chasm: Are you an EcoDaredevil?” After the address, he and Krysten Knievel will present the first annual EcoDaredevil Award.

Today at 4 p.m., Nichols will introduce a free showing of the film, “The 11th Hour,” in the Copper King Lounge in the Student Union Building at Montana Tech. This documentary explores the perilous state of our planet, and the means by which we can change course. Nichols, one of the experts interviewed in the film, will follow with a presentation beginning at 5:30 p.m. Nichols is the son of former Butte educator and Big Hole River Foundation president Sheila Youngblood.

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