Check the real estate section of your local newspaper and see what you can find for $600,000. In 1988, Doug Tompkins spent that amount to purchase 24,700 acres in Chile. That included a ranch, some cattle, and the volcano.
That was the beginning of Tompkins’s quest (or obsession, some might say) to save the planet. Since then, he has purchased several hundred thousand more acres of Chilean land in order to protect it. His plan to return pristine wilderness to the Chilean people –a seemingly magnanimous act—has met with disbelief, hostility, and even legal action by the government and the citizens of that country. As they say, no good deed goes unpunished.
But who is Doug Tompkins, and why does he care more about the Chilean landscape than do the people who live there? Like the other people profiled in Edward Humes’s book Eco Barons: The Dreamers, Schemers, and Millionaires Who Are Saving Our Planet, Tompkins is an environmentalist, an idealist who believes that the damage we’ve done to the planet can still be undone. The driving force behind the Esprit clothing line for most of its life, multi-millionaire Tompkins and his former wife made greater efforts than most to balance profit with responsibility. Eventually, however, Tompkins experienced a moment of clarity: “He had been on the wrong side too long… Esprit was never going to be green or sustainable or good for the earth, and neither was Tompkins – so long as he was part of it.”
Tompkins became one of the eco barons, those visionaries who “are using their wealth, their energy, their celebrity” in what Humes calls ‘a secret plan to save the earth.’ Eco barons recognize that what is good for the planet is good for people. Governments may give lip service to environmental protection, but anyone who’s paying attention knows that governments, like corporations and a significant number of individuals, suffer from tunnel vision; they are in it for the money and power, and the bigger picture gets lost in the scramble. Remember when the U.S. Government decided it was a great idea to flood the Grand Canyon in order to produce hydroelectric power? Remember when President Ronald Reagan proclaimed “Trees cause more pollution than automobiles”?
When we read about the Chilean government’s reluctance to accept Doug Tompkins’s offer of wild land, it seems ludicrous. Humes reminds us, however, that a few decades ago, the “proposed Grand Canyon National Park was denounced in editorials as a ‘fiendish and diabolical scheme’ and its champion, President Theodore Roosevelt, as an ‘idiot’.”
Despite the undeniable changes in our climate and the rapidly diminishing natural resources, saving the planet today is every bit as hard as it ever was. The difference is that we have run out of time, and eco barons like Tompkins, Ted Turner, Roxanne Quimby, and the grade-school students who work to save Ridley Turtles are our last best hope for salvation.
The eco barons in Humes’s book are a disparate group – rich, poor, young, old, scientists, lawyers, bee keepers, pool cleaners – who have two things in common: the ability to reason out the consequences and the gumption to step up to the plate. “They see, clearly, that what we’re doing as a society is not working… Their response is to do something about it….” Their stories are riveting, inspiring, frustrating, and humbling. These people, most of them unknown outside their own circle of friends, have devoted themselves to the protection of our planet.
The rest of us may not have the strength of character to follow their lead, but it behooves us to pay attention to what the eco barons are doing and why. If their optimism is justified, they will be hailed as heroes by our children and grandchildren. And if their optimism is misplaced? Well, then there won’t be anyone around much longer to notice.