Toward Eco-localism

Douglas Tompkins

October 13, 2006

Douglas Tompkins

More Information

Read an article from the Washington Post on Argentina and Tompkins
Read an article on the event by the Berkeley Review

Event Summary

"Deep Ecology, Eco-Localism: Where are the People?"
By Anna Browne Ribeiro
    In his khaki pants, grey sweater and sensible brown shoes, Doug Tompkins shifts from one foot to the other as he talks. Far from uncomfortable, Tompkins is confident speaking before an audience, be it composed of supporters or critics. His film, “Seven Projects in the Southern Cone,” has just been screened, and the audience at McCone Hall seems to have mixed feelings about Tompkins’ presentation, his opinions and his work. The first question, fired by an Argentine supporter of Tompkins, hits on an important and sensitive issue: What can Tompkins do to be better received in the countries where he stages his projects? Tompkins’ answer is immediate and sure and yet, dismissive in an unsettling way. Such projects he says, always cause controversy, which eventually fades into the fabric of history. Tompkins is a busy man and does not have “enough time to go out every day and make presentations like this.”
    Tompkins — currently president of the Foundation for Deep Ecology in San Francisco and president of the Conservation Land Trust in Puerto Montt, Chile — works to conserve and restore ecological landscapes. His largest and perhaps best-known project was the creation of Parque Pumalín, a privately endowed public park in southern Chile . During the 1990s, Tompkins, along with his wife Kristine McDivitt Tompkins, amassed over 700,000 acres of private land in order to conserve and protect some of Chile ’s most beautiful landscapes. Through efforts of the Conservation Land Trust, this land, which bisects the country and is roughly the size of Yosemite National Park , is now available to the public.
    Most recently, Tompkins has been in the news for opposing a government-funded construction plan that threatens to cut across Parque Pumalín. In Argentina , his efforts to build a similar preserve are under fire from the Argentine government, which has recently begun to consider large-scale foreign ownership of Argentine territory to be a national security risk.
    Back in Berkeley , Tompkins is casual but businesslike in his speech. He explains his involvement in environmentalism rather simply. His transformation from clothing magnate to environmental philanthropist, he said, had its roots in the realization that he had spent much of his life “producing things people really didn’t need” and contributing to an unsustainable consumerist model. In the late 80s and early 90s, Doug and Kristine sold their shares in Esprit and Patagonia and used the money to fund their environmental activism.
    Tompkins chose to focus his energies on the Southern Cone because of his long-standing connection to the region. As a young man, Tompkins traveled to Chile to ski. Over the years, he returned to Patagonia , repeatedly reestablishing his relationship with the landscape and developing lasting friendships with people in this region. These attachments inspired him to work to protect the landscape and, in 1988, he contributed to his first conservation effort, helping to protect 1,000 acres of auracaria forest threatened by development.
    Tompkins’ story is inspiring. It is possible to use money for good; power need not corrupt. His film tells the story of the vision he shares with his wife, a vision of environmental conservation, rehabilitation and economically sustainable, locally-based agro-ecology. “Seven Projects” stars seven locations in the Southern Cone, beginning with the Tompkins’ home, Reñihue Farm, which they have restored from an abandoned, dilapidated and overgrown plot, into a sustainable and productive landscape that is preparing for what Tompkins likes to call the “post-petroleum era.” The remaining six projects range from farms to national parks. The message is always the same: a move away from high-power urban lifestyles and toward low-energy agricultural ones, foregrounding local materials and culture, ecological recovery and sustainability.
    Even as Tompkins addresses his first interlocutor at the conclusion of the film, several other hands shoot up. A glance around the room shows what a large and diverse audience the reclusive Doug Tompkins has drawn. Among them are concerned members of the Southern Cone community, direct stakeholders in Tompkins’ projects. 
    It is invariably this latter community that inspires the most incisive questions. Tompkins has already made it clear that he has no plan to build bridges with his critics in the Argentine community, and questions regarding his past interactions with communities in Chile are similarly dismissed. As one student points out after the talk, this attitude stands in sharp relief against the background of the “Seven Projects” film, which relies constantly on the refrain, “these are good people…” If the people are good, then why can’t Tompkins make time to talk to them or even about them?
    A final question from the audience challenges Tompkins to envision the future of the small farmer in Patagonia . Tompkins replies that there must be a shift from aquaculture to “good, natural fisheries;” that the government needs to push for and be involved in reform; and that ecotourism might be the region’s most sure future. Yet again, the answer comes, not in terms of the local, but of the global. He speaks of 90,000 km of dead zones, areas of depressed marine bioproductivity, in the waters along the Pacific Coast . He speaks of governmental policies, the politics of the national arena. He speaks of tourism, a model that depends on the exterior for revenue. What happened to the “local” in Eco-Localism?
    Tompkins’ efforts to protect the natural and the ecological is laudable, but what of the people? Tompkins has been accused of being an imperialist and a colonizer. Although these claims are perhaps too harsh, Tompkins is in fact importing an American model into communities whose histories are completely separate from his own.
     Beyond questions of imperialism and colonialism, there is the question of feasibility. As we close, one question hovers in the air, unasked and unanswered: to what extent is Tompkins’ model viable? Tompkins aims to create a model of living that is appropriate for life in the post-petroleum era. Reñihué and the other farms are beautiful, well-equipped, comfortable and productive, but getting there was no easy task. For Doug and Kristine Tompkins, comfortably supported by their foundations, money is no object. But how can people without access to millions of dollars find the means to create such farms?
    There seems to be a disconnect between the local and the global in Tompkins’ approach. The old slogan, “Think globally, act locally,” is not a platitude. The global and the local implicate each other in a complex network of causes and effects, and even though actions take place within a locale, their repercussions are often far-reaching. Every action has not only local, but regional, national, and global stakeholders. If Tompkins can be said to be thinking of local stakeholders, he is not thinking any farther than the boundaries of his secluded farms and parks.
    Douglas Tompkins, American entrepreneur and philanthropist, is currently the president of the Foundation for Deep Ecology in San Francisco and president of the Conservation Land Trust in Puerto Montt, Chile. His presentation, “Toward Eco-localism,” was held at UC Berkeley, on October 13, 2006 .