Are environmental crusaders like Douglas Tompkins good for the planet?
Michael O’Donnell is a lawyer in the Chicago area. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Economist.
This article was published online on August 5, 2021.
Patagonia as many of us imagine it was born in 1968. That year, the vast region of South America became an exotic destination for outdoor adventure. Of course, residents of Chile and Argentina did not need their backyard discovered any more than Native Americans needed Christopher Columbus. But to a group of young men in California, the landscape held a mystical appeal. That summer they set out by van to drive 16,000 miles southward, drawn by the peak of Fitz Roy, a forbidding mountain that no American had ever summited. Despite weeks of storms, they succeeded. The five men returned home with film footage of breathtaking terrain at the ends of the Earth. Their 1968 expedition has enjoyed a romantic legacy, inspiring countless adventurers—and, in a way, outfitting them as well. One member of the party, Yvon Chouinard, later founded the apparel company Patagonia. The instigator of the trip, Douglas Tompkins, had already launched The North Face.
Tompkins, the group’s alpha male, traveled in search of achievement and discovery, but his journey was also an abandonment. The six-month trip stranded his wife, Susie Tompkins, with two very young children as she attempted to start her own clothing business, Plain Jane. Tompkins tossed her some cash and wished her luck (returning for a brief stint of troubleshooting, and then leaving again). She found herself in fearful limbo when the group was months overdue in returning from the dangerous ascent. A film of the expedition, called Mountain of Storms, elides these tensions. It shows Tompkins having his fortune read in a Central American city and being told that his family is thinking of him. The film then cuts to gauzy scenes of domestic life accompanied by guitars and flutes. Two children play happily with their father as his wife cradles his head and feeds him crackers. In a voice-over, Tompkins marvels at his own freedom of movement: “You never really thought about the motives.”
One adventurer’s selfish act more than 50 years ago might not bear emphasizing—except that Tompkins later became a famous altruist who renounced the business world and moved to a cabin in Patagonia. There he used his wealth to become what his biographer, Jonathan Franklin, calls “among the greatest conservationists of his generation.” From the early 1990s until his death in 2015, Tompkins led a campaign to preserve more than 10 million acres of wilderness in Patagonia, helping build or expand more than a dozen national parks throughout Chile and Argentina. In A Wild Idea, Franklin compares him, in his mercurial zeal and undaunted ambition on multiple fronts, to Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.
By now, we’re accustomed to the spectacle of visionary entrepreneurs who don’t excel in empathy, and literature reminds us of the long lineage of philanthropic myopia. Think of Mrs. Jellyby in Dickens’s Bleak House, fervently dedicated to a mission in Africa while her own brood goes neglected. Tompkins’s story reveals a new incarnation of the type, the imperious progressive as global savior. In the era of climate change, he is a figure who should prompt questions along with admiration. “It doesn’t matter,” he said of the bad publicity he accrued. “In fifty years they will be building statues of me.” In the half decade since his death, he has indeed been lionized as a giant of the environmental movement. But is relying on crusaders like Tompkins what’s best for the planet?
Raised in the Hudson Valley in a Mayflower-pedigreed family, Tompkins grew up watching his father acquire museum-grade pieces of antique furniture. In this way the young Tompkins cultivated his own eye for perfection. He was a star athlete in prep school, bound for the Ivy League until he crossed paths with Chouinard on a rock-climbing trip. Thus began a lifelong friendship between entrepreneurial rebels; one of the pleasures of A Wild Idea is Franklin’s patient chronicling of the connection, and the contrasts, between the two men over the years. Tompkins fell in with the dirtbag crowd and got himself expelled from high school in 1960, weeks before his graduation. He adopted an itinerant life of well-paid gigs logging and baling hay in Montana, then skiing and climbing in Colorado, South America, and Europe. (His parents refused to support him.) Within a few years, he was trying his hand at business, dabbling in mountain-guiding and selling camping equipment. Chouinard, who was forging climbing hardware in his own shop, offered inspiration and advice.
In the mid-’60s, Tompkins moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and founded The North Face, a company that produced and sold outdoor gear and apparel. The hallmark of his genius, visible even in his early 20s, was fanatical attention to detail, evident in his remarkable skill at marketing and presentation. The brand stood out for the ambience of its retail stores, which became places for hip outdoor types to hang out, and for its beautifully printed catalogs dotted with feel-good aphorisms (“Pack less and enjoy more”). Stunts and gags drew attention to the hot new company just as the counterculture took off. A North Face employee rappelled down a San Francisco skyscraper for a cup of coffee. The Grateful Dead headlined a partylaunching the 1966 winter season.
Yet in 1967, just a few years after starting the company, Tompkins grew tired of being an equipment expert and cashed out, soon leaving on his Patagonia expedition. After that trip, he continued to disappear for months at a time on almost comically dangerous adventures, ignoring his children. But the entrepreneur was busy as ever on his return. The most fruitful of Tompkins’s subsequent business enterprises was the clothing company that became Esprit, founded with Susie and another partner in 1968; he went on to serve as “image director,” a title he preferred to CEO. The company’s bold colors and patterns made it the label for cool teens and young 20-somethings of the 1970s and ’80s.
Their marriage and business partnership lasted 25 years but ended in acrimony. The interpersonal tension infected the company, which by the late ’80s was struggling financially. Tompkins had also begun to grow disillusioned with the fashion industry and the effects of consumerism on the planet. “I found myself caught up in the marketing. I lost track of the larger picture. I was creating desires that weren’t there. I was making products that nobody needed.” Tompkins recognized his own talents but felt he had put them in service of waste. He spent more and more of his time on environmental concerns, particularly deforestation, and found his eye wandering back to South America. He immersed himself in books about deep ecology, which called for a broader understanding of ecosystems and a less human-centric view of nature. Inspired by the youthful energy of activists in radical organizations such as Earth First and Greenpeace, he dedicated his life to conservation.
Here Tompkins’s path diverged from his friend Chouinard’s. You might call them the extremist and the pragmatist of green activism. Patagonia integrated sustainability into the ethos of the company by making clothing out of recycled and low-impact materials, discouraging customers from buying new products when old ones could be repaired, and donating 1 percent of sales to environmental causes. Its example led other firms to reduce their own carbon footprint while still prospering. Yet Tompkins seemed to see things in binary terms: He was either a businessman or an environmentalist. He left Esprit, selling his 50 percent stake for approximately $150 million and turning to philanthropy. He never looked back. His efforts, as they unfolded, revealed both the opportunities and the limitations of private conservation. When saving the planet relies not on law or policy but on the whims of idiosyncratic multimillionaires, we all have to live with their flaws.Paternalism informed Tompkins’s dealings with the people of Patagonia: I’m going to take this land and show you how it ought to be used.
Tompkins’s high-handedness at Esprit carried over into his reincarnation as a conservationist. Chouinard’s company has made fair working practices a hallmark of its identity, but Tompkins had fought bitterly with labor. When workers at Esprit’s San Francisco factory tried to unionize, he harassed and threatened them. After they went on strike, Tompkins locked them out and had strikers arrested. Promises made to end the strike turned out to be false.
In South America, Tompkins was as assertive as ever. He picked fights in a bold display of wealth and power. His ventures included 54 lawsuits against his neighbors and local governments in Argentina, fierce turf battles with the fishing industry, and controversial campaigns to protect endangered species. He used his marketing skills to help prevent a series of dams from being built, spearheading a national ad blitz that mocked the dams’ corporate backers. The project was abandoned in 2014. These moves made him influential enemies in the energy industry and the Argentinian and Chilean governments. But the heart of Tompkins’s decades-long Patagonia project, jointly led with his second wife, Kris Tompkins, was to buy as much land as possible, protect it from development, and donate it to South American governments to be used as national parks.
Although Franklin portrays Tompkins as humbler after remarrying, he made little effort to acquaint himself with the expectations and traditions of the area he had staked out to preserve. Locals could not believe that a gringo furiously buying up acreage would simply give it all away. Their skepticism was understandable in a region that had experienced colonialist abuses, property disputes, and military dictatorships. Ignorant of this history, Tompkins pressed ahead with plans for low-tech “pioneer villages” abutting and supporting his parks, their economy based on manual labor and sustainable agriculture. In one proposal, he suggested teaching beekeeping to local residents. The notion that Patagonia’s residents might aspire to a more modern existence—or that they simply preferred to choose their fates for themselves—did not slow him down.
A Wild Idea outlines the controversies surrounding Tompkins’s crusade. Still, Franklin could have offered a more nuanced (and better sourced) consideration of the white man’s burden that Tompkins carried in South America. Doug and Kris Tompkins ultimately did give their land away; they were not amassing it for some nefarious purpose as many had feared. But that end result shouldn’t eclipse the means employed or the response they elicited. In September 2014, Diana Saverin reported in depth for The Atlantic on the mistrust, anger, and resentment that local residents felt toward the strident American who swooped in and out on a plane and bought up the land. Some of it belonged to absentee landowners and had been leased to or claimed by campesinos and indigenous communities, who were abruptly evicted. One café owner pointed out that the large stone visitors’ centers the Tompkinses had built in the parks looked like they belonged in London rather than Patagonia. Critics said that turning grazing land into parkland eliminated the animal-husbandry jobs that the locals preferred, and that the pumas and other predators he’d reintroduced killed their livestock. Kris Tompkins batted away these critiques, arguing that the soil was overfarmed and that in 100 years, no one would be able to imagine the land as anything other than national parks.
The point is not that the locals were right and Tompkins was wrong. History may well thank him for preserving as much wilderness as he could before it was too late. Yet history isn’t complete without taking account of the way that his single-mindedness and confidence in his own righteousness blinded him to the needs of others, whether Patagonians, business subordinates, climbing buddies, or family members. His merciless altruism comes through with particular poignancy in a story his elder daughter recounted about Christmas when she was 4 years old. Thrilled to be greeted by a big pile of presents bought by her father, she and her sister opened them up—only to be told by him that they would each keep one and donate the rest to an orphanage. Generosity and anti-consumerism are noble values, but the encounter left the searing message that Tompkins cared more about his own dogma than his children’s joy. The same harsh paternalism informed his dealings with the people of Patagonia: I’m going to take this land of yours and show you how it ought to be used. Imagine how much more effective he might have been had he arrived with an open hand rather than a pointed finger. He might even have set a template for durable conservation, replicable elsewhere.
Chouinard wrote a well-received memoir about “the education of a reluctant businessman” in 2005 and gave it a fitting title: Let My People Go Surfing. The book captured the community-minded spirit of its author and his largely successful attempt to balance leadership, freedom, and conscientious stewardship. Tompkins, who died while kayaking in Patagonia with Chouinard and others nearly 50 years after the 1968 journey that changed both their lives, did not have a chance to publish a memoir of his own. It’s a shame, because he was a unique figure of wide-ranging cultural influence, and a bit more self-reflection might have done him—and us all—good.