In 1990, Doug Tompkins, founder of clothing companies Esprit and The North Face, decided to get out of “making stuff that nobody needed” and instead focus on the issues that really mattered to him: corporate globalization, sustainable agriculture, preserving wild places, and stopping the clearcutting of ancient forests. Or, as he puts it, saving the environment and communities from an out-of-control economic model that each day is edging civilization “closer to the abyss.”
photo Esteban Widnicky
So Tompkins started the Foundation for Deep Ecology and moved to Chilean Patagonia, where he began using his fortune to buy up large parcels of land to form Pumalin Park. In the last two decades, Tompkins has expanded his holdings to include 740,000 acres of snow-capped volcanoes, Andean mountains, temperate rainforest, and turquoise-colored rivers. Today, Pumalin Park is considered the world’s largest private nature preserve.
Among his other conservation initiatives, Tompkins has donated private land to establish two coastal national parks in Chile and Argentina. A third, the half million-acre future Patagonia National Park in the Aysen region, is in the process of being transferred to Chile. His most ambitious project is still in the works: a huge property at Esteros del Ibera in northeastern Argentina, which he aims to make the key piece of a 6,500-square-mile national park to protect that region’s wetlands.
These accomplishments have won Tompkins a shelf’s worth of environmental awards. The land acquisitions and his outspoken opposition to salmon farming and dam construction have also earned Tompkins criticism from many Chileans and Argentines who worry that his vast holdings compromise their national sovereignty and inhibit economic development. Tompkins is unapologetic and says he has as much emotional claim to the Patagonian wilderness as Chileans and Argentines. “You come to realize the passport is meaningless,” he says.
What brought you to Chile and Patagonia?
I came here the first time in 1961. So I knew this part of the world really well. I knew I wanted to live outside a big urban area like San Francisco. Once I got free of business, I also wanted to get a farm. I looked around, and this is a nice part of the world. And I have a lot of friends here from all my years of climbing here. I’m also a forestry activist, and in the late 1980s, Yvon Chouinard, Alan Weeden and myself helped buy the Cani forest near Pucón [a resort town in southern Chile’s Lake District]. That kind of got my feet wet [with land conservation], and then somebody told us about a farm in Riñihue, and that was attached to another piece of land Rick Klein told us about at Cahuelmo, and we went down to take a look at it, and one thing led to another.
You’ve gone through some difficult times in Chile and Argentina in your efforts to protect nature there.
Well, I feel totally at home in this part of the world. This is where I am going to croak. I feel a strong bond with Chile and Argentina. I have even begun to think that I am caring for Argentina and Chile perhaps more than Argentines and Chileans. I feel like I’m sort of a de facto citizen, because I am looking after their national patrimony – which is the land – very carefully. You come to realize the passport is meaningless. It is really your behavior that determines whether you’re a patriot. If you’re trashing your own country, ruining the soils, contaminating the waters and the air, cutting down trees, overfishing the lakes, rivers, and oceans, you’re not much of a patriot. I see a lot of these nationalists pumping their chests about being such a patriot and meanwhile they’re trashing their own country, the patrimony. I don’t find that so patriotic, I have to say.
“Unemployment is preferable to doing harm. You got to take the long view: There are going to be tremendous ecological collapses from the overshoot perspective.”
Are your relations with the Chilean and Argentine governments improving?
Well, our relationship with governments depends on who’s in power. We continue to have difficulties because we are also activists working against bad development projects. That doesn’t win you a lot of friends if you have politicians that are just pro-development and not conservationist.
In Chile, former President Eduardo Frei and some other politicians criticize you for taking too much land away from development.
Well, we don’t have enough parks, and biodiversity is in crisis. I think it’s really a question of which side of the coin you’re looking at. And I see Chile as overdeveloped. We have gone way past the carrying capacity of Earth to sustain all these people, activities, and consumption. Using all government measurements, nobody has shown that we’re as a globe underdeveloped. And yet we’re going for more overdevelopment.
Developing countries such as Chile often say that they deserve to exploit their natural resources as developed countries have done in order to grow their economies faster.
Unemployment is preferable to doing harm. You got to take the long view: There are going to be tremendous ecological collapses from the overshoot perspective. A few years ago, we were called the doom-and-gloomers, but it’s all being borne out every day. There are limits to growth. Go back and look at William Catton’s book, Overshoot, on the ecological footprint from 1980. It’s better today than it was when he wrote it. Better in the sense that people accept it hands down today.
Tell me about the national park you’re hoping to create in northern Argentina’s Esteros de Ibera region.
That’s a huge area, 1,700,000 hectares, a combination of wetlands, savannahs, and grasslands, sort of known as the Pantanal of Argentina. And we would like to see this as a national park some day. But there are lots of private landowners inside the master-plan area, which has been designated a reserve by the province for a long time. But the reserve doesn’t really mean much; the national park idea would ensure the best protection for conservation and biodiversity. But that requires the buying of a lot of private land over the next 20 years, and you never will be able to buy all of it. So we are looking at doing something like Adirondack Park did in New York State. Maybe over time, perhaps in 100 years, the rest of it could be bought. Adirondack is still buying land 150 years [after its creation].… When private people want to sell in the Adirondacks, the state gets a shot at it at competitive prices. I think that’s a really good model for amplifying protected areas because it is totally non-coercive. There’s no expropriation, it’s just that the state gets a chance to meet the best price.
What got you involved in environmentalism?
I joined the Sierra Club when I was 16, but I was very light green back then. I hadn’t a clue about the deeper issues, the structural problems, the root causes of the extinction crisis, for example. And then how the worldview was affecting all of this: our epistemologies, our worldviews, our decisions, how we formed economies, and even down to our personal lifestyles. It took me a long time to get to this point. And I think for the most part I don’t believe that young people today are really clued in either. It takes a lot of scholarship. You have to read a lot. Activism helps. I’ve been more of an activist in the last 25 years. Anyhow, one day, I was at work in San Francisco, at Esprit, and I realized I was more interested in campaigns to stop dams in Canada and things like that.
Your many climbing trips must have also had an effect on you.
Yeah, you go back to places that you had been to ten years before, and there are clearcuts everywhere, bulldozers pushing a road into wilderness areas. You just keep seeing this interminable growth, this sort of implacable march of so-called progress, and you start saying, “Hey, wait a minute!”
And you start extending that idea into just about everywhere you look, and you see things are getting uglier. You start paying more attention to what’s happening in the media, such as reporting on everything from oil spills to lack of fish in the ocean to loss of forest cover, the 1,001 different environmental disasters that we read about every day. Every day they come up with something new! They suddenly find that cell phones are ruining the reproductive exchanges of toads and the toads are all disappearing. It is one thing after another.
It’s not often that people as wealthy as you take the turn you took.
Well, everybody’s destiny is what it is. I just feel lucky that I somehow escaped from the confines of the business class. Hardly anybody can escape there. They’re just chained under that worldview, whether they believe that capitalism is sacred, and, you know, the cornucopia of resources are for our exploitation. I feel so fortunate that somehow I managed to break out of that world and get to do something that really had more meaning. It’s like David Brower used to say – to pay my rent for living on the planet.
You could have easily stayed making money at Esprit.
I’m not the only person with a certain amount of wealth that turns to philanthropy. That’s one of the great things about America – it’s full of lots of truly generous people. I think a lot of Americans do a lot of bad stuff, and the country as a whole does a lot of bad stuff that I’m not at all proud of, but on the philanthropic side, I really take my hat off to Americans and that tradition.
I learned from my parents that you have to get pleasure out of what you’re doing, or don’t do it. And I also learned that you do a lot better and have a lot more satisfaction, and a lot more fun for that matter, by striving after excellence in the craft that you’re involved in. You can be in the wrong craft. That is why I got out of making stuff that nobody needs, because I came to realize that all that needless overconsumption is one of the driving forces of the extinction crisis.
Are you still a capitalist?
There’s no doubt whatsoever that there’s no future in capitalism. It’s a relatively recent phenomenon. It’s probably no more than 500 years old, and it’s demonstrating over and over again that it is destroying the world. We are going to have to rethink that, and I wouldn’t even suggest that we are talking about other failed systems such as socialism and communism. We should take the best of socialism, the best of capitalism, and form new economic technologies that are going to sustain nature and not destroy it. I don’t think capitalism can survive: It’s built on the premise of endless growth, and anybody in their right mind knows you cannot grow endlessly. Even the worst impulses of capitalism are very difficult to contain, and the reforms end up changing it into something else. I think we will look back at this period one hundred years from now, something will have replaced it, hopefully something that really makes the world go round as if nature matters. This recent economic collapse has just shaken the whole foundation and premises of the free market that they call mega-capitalism. There will be and are frantic efforts to save the present system, but we have to see how it metamorphoses into other forms.
Are you still critical of ecotourism?
Yes, ecotourism can bring all sorts of problems. It has to be defined and it must examine carefully what its impacts are. To suggest that ecotourism is the cure-all and it’s going to sort out economic issues as they pertain to biodiversity conservation – I think that would be a very shallow analysis. Now, if you compare ecotourism with mass industrial tourism, I’ll choose ecotourism. But right now, with the overdevelopment issue and its impacts on biodiversity, it wouldn’t be hard to say that it would be good if everybody stayed home and found pleasure with their loved ones. If everybody raised their hand and voted that we are all to stay home to reduce pressure on the ecosphere, I would be the first to raise my hand.
You have opened Pumalin Park to tourism.
Yes, we are one of the few places in all of Chile that has public access on private property. Everywhere in Argentina the gate is locked. I think it’s not healthy for private individuals, foundations or companies to own a lot of land. I’d like to see land spread out in its ownership, and the way to spread it out best is through public ownership, because then everybody owns it. The national park is owned by every citizen. That appeals to me. I find that’s on the social justice side, and it is also very good for conservation. In our particular case, I think that we see ourselves as sort of provisional stewards. It’s a joke to think you own it forever. You’re just transient in this world. We’re all just brief tenants on the planet.
Jimmy Langman is editor of Patagon Journal, a new magazine about nature in Patagonia. He was an assistant to Earth Island Institute founder David Brower from 1991 to 1995.