Can rich Americans save the environment? Grassroots devotees may respond with an emphatic “no thanks” to the wealthy’s meddling. After all, perhaps more than many other social movements in America, environmentalism is hands-on; people find rinsing out their bottles and breaking down their cardboard wonderfully empowering. More to the point, many people would argue that consumerism — which makes some people very rich — and environmentalism have irreconcilable differences.
But if your gut reaction is to think that getting rich falls on the problem rather than the solution side of the “save the world” ledger, then reading Eco Barons might change your mind. Its author, Edward Humes — a writer for Los Angeles magazine and the author of eight critically-acclaimed nonfiction books — offers a study of a number of tremendously wealthy people’s actions on behalf of the environment, people he deems “eco barons.”
Some of these “eco barons” can trace their thread of environmental concern from their less-than-flush days to the present. Others underwent a social transformation on their way to — and from — the bank. Doug Tompkins, a son of wealth who became the well-heeled founder of Esprit and the North Face, had lived life as an outdoorsman — climbing, surfing, piloting private planes — from an early age and used his businesses to promote environmentalism. It was only natural for him to heed his friend’s call when this friend, Yvon Chouinard, who also happened to be the founder of the clothing company Patagonia, invited him to preserve vast amounts of wilderness in Chile, and then Argentina — by buying it.
Eco Barons details the phenomenal success of Kierán Suckling and Peter Galvin, co-founders of the Center for Biological Diversity, an activist group who have aggressively used the benign 1973 Endangered Species Act to protect species ever since their unlikely success protecting the endangered Mexican spotted owl against lumbering interests in Arizona and New Mexico. Suckling switched from engineering to philosophy to deny himself a security net, but followed a meandering path to the Center; Galvin realized his mission early on when studying biology at Lewis and Clark College. Through their work at the Center, they have secured protection for about 350 endangered species and over 70 million acres of habitat — by winning 450 of the 500 lawsuits they have filed over the last 15 years.
Roxanne Quimby was a quintessential hippie who developed a rock solid work ethic selling organic candles, honey, and lip balm from the back of her Volkswagen minibus (of course), which led to the creation of the natural cosmetics company Burt’s Bees. She is using the fortune she earned/amassed (over $360 million) to create a three-million acre public park in the Maine woods. Peace out.
Less likely eco warriors include Terry Tamminen and Carole Allen. Tamminen is a former Malibu pool cleaner who, with the support of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, drafted one of the most comprehensive environmental laws— California’s Global Warming Solutions Act. Carole Allen, a widowed single mother working at the juvenile probation department in Houston, rallied local schoolchildren to save the endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle by requiring turtle exclusion devices on shrimpers’ nets.
Indeed, if Eco Barons can be criticized for reading like a book on the lifestyles of the rich and the famous (Humes includes a chapter on Ted Turner), it’s the stories of Quimby and Tamminen and Allen that remind us of the power of the people. At the same time, the stories of the rich can remind us of their potential to effect progressive change. Indeed, the dichotomy Humes sets up with his title — contrasting the eco barons of today with the robber barons of yesteryear — seems at times a false one. Humes references the role John D. Rockefeller Jr. (heir to the Standard Oil fortune amassed by his father) played in establishing Grand Teton Park. Granted, it was the son, not the father, but without the father’s wealth, the son was less likely to become a conservationist on this scale.
The book offers a crash course in the history of environmentalism, albeit not a detailed one. We learn about the history of extinction, the history of hybrid vehicles (Humes outlines UC Davis Professor Andrew Frank’s invention of the plug-in hybrid), the history of the debate over global warming, and the rich history of how Maine has, and has not, protected its wilderness. In the fourth chapter, “image and reality” Humes explains Tompkins attraction to the philosophy of deep ecology, as laid out by the philosophy professor George Sessions and the ecologist Bill Devall in Deep Ecology: Living As If Nature Mattered (1985). Humes defends the philosophy from critics who would characterize it as radical by laying out its platform.
Still, despite the reasonableness of deep ecology, the North Face’s Tompkins faced significant problems in Chile, Humes explains, when, among other things, he took on the revered salmon industry. At the same time, as Humes recounts Tompkins’ often belated attempts to explain his actions to Chileans, one marvels at Tompkins’ bewilderment that criticizing the salmon industry, an important employer in Chile — a country where a considerable percentage of people live below the poverty line — may not make him very popular.
Indeed, many of the stories of the “eco barons” inadvertently support the claims of controversial environmentalists Ted Nordhouse and Michael Shellenberger, who in their very important but also resented book Break Through (2007), argued that only material comfort and security make environmentalism possible. Material, not moral, concern drives people’s concern for nature. If you want Brazilians to save the rainforest, they say, don’t lecture them about global warming — give them jobs that do not require them to cut it down.
It’s true, I think, that even the most idealistic environmentalists in America would admit that that only when behavior modification becomes easier and more economical, will the vast majority of Americans change how they treat Mother Earth.
All in all, Eco Barons reminds us, perhaps uncomfortably so, that money does indeed talk. Nevertheless, this understanding does little to eclipse the profound impact ordinary Americans have on their environment when they choose to reduce, reuse, and recycle. Change can, and does, come from many different directions.