In Memory of Doug Tompkins

Adapted with permission from an essay originally published on The Dark Mountain Project.


Photo Credit: Sam Beebe © CC BY-SA 2.0.

Photo Credit: Sam Beebe © CC BY-SA 2.0.

On December 8, 2015, the conservationist and philanthropist Doug Tompkins died at 72 years old in a canoeing accident in Patagonia, Chile, where he lived. I knew Doug a little, having spent some time with him and his wife Kris in Chile a few years back, and I was in communication with him for a long time after that. I admired him and his work hugely. I don’t have many heroes, but Doug was one of them. I believe his loss is a tragedy, and not just for those close to him.

Between them, Doug and Kris Tompkins spent the last 25 years working on one of the most ambitious conservation and rewilding projects on Earth, creating protected national parks in vulnerable areas of Chile and Argentina to provide a vital refuge for endangered wildlife at a time when the human demands on the non-human world increase daily. Between them, they protected more land from “development” than any other private individuals in history—over 2 million acres in total, and there were plans for more.

This remarkable display of both philanthropy and ecological ambition was a long-term project not simply to preserve wild nature and give it some chance of recovery, but also to persuade others to contribute to an overarching plan to connect protected areas throughout the continent, and in so doing to provide a wild corridor through which non-human life could move and survive. There is nothing else quite like it anywhere on Earth, and Doug’s widow, Kris, who was a partner in the work and who similarly dedicated her life to it, has made clear in the last few days that she will continue, and even accelerate, it.

For me, though, perhaps the most significant thing about Doug and his work was not the amount of money he’d made setting up the clothing companies Esprit and the North Face (which he later came to loathe as the epitome of the corporate culture destroying the planet) nor even the way he spent that money conserving and restoring so much wild land. What struck me most about Doug was the worldview which drove this work, which was rare, honest and uncompromising.

Doug saw the protection of non-human life, in the face of the human onslaught, as the crucial work of our time. He saw much of the green and conservation movements—rightly, in my view—as fatally compromised both by their need to remain broadly popular and by their increasing interest in human-centered social and political concerns. For the mainstream green movement today, human “social justice” often seems as important as protecting non-human nature from human rapacity, despite the fact that the two are often in conflict (“there’s no social justice on a dead planet” was one of Doug’s favorite aphorisms). The deep denial which runs through our civilization right now, across the political spectrum—a refusal to accept the reality and implications of everything from climate change to human population numbers to the impossibility of limitless growth—is to be found everywhere, including in the green movement, and in most of our lives, most of the time.

Doug’s worldview, in contrast, was so long-term as to be incomprehensible to many people. He was a deep time thinker, aiming to preserve wild places and species in order to get them through the bottleneck of the “great acceleration,” as the human economy consumes all around it in a desperate struggle to keep growing. The work he did was not designed to pay out today, tomorrow or next year; it wasn’t especially designed to pay out to humans at all. It was a grand project designed with just one aim: to save as much of the wild world as possible from destruction.

This kind of work will always be hard and unpopular, and perhaps only people as determined, bloody-minded and ultimately wealthy as Doug Tompkins can really do it. Doug knew that civilization and nature were on a collision course—indeed, were already colliding, and that the consequences for wild nature were terrible. He didn’t finesse that truth, he simply spoke it, whether people liked hearing it or not—and most, including many mainstream conservationists and establishment greens, didn’t like it at all. But he spoke it anyway. And then he did something about it.

For his pains, he was often described—when his opponents were feeling polite—as “radical” or “controversial,” words that are regularly used about anybody foolhardy enough to undertake work that does not put the interests of “developed” human beings before anything else that lives. To me, what he was doing was neither of these things—it was just blindingly obvious, common sense, necessary work for the age of ecocide. The real controversy is that more people aren’t doing it.

I like to compare our culture’s treatment of Doug with its treatment of Steve Jobs, another wealthy US entrepreneur of the same generation. The two were friends, though friends with very different worldviews. Jobs, who spent his life creating a global web of oil-based digital technologies which encourage humans to divorce themselves from nature and disappear into virtual worlds, is lionized to such a degree that Hollywood will make a gushing biopic about him. Doug, who walked away from the same culture to dedicate himself to preserving huge swathes of the wild Earth, remained largely unknown until his death. Benedict Cumberbatch is unlikely to be portraying him on the big screen anytime soon, which is at least one crumb of comfort.

Being unknown, in any case, can be a blessing. In the end, the work, and the legacy, are what matters, and Doug’s is huge. If humans make it through the bottleneck, and if other life forms do as well, and if future generations come to properly appreciate a worldview that does not see the world as a human plaything, it will be at least partly because of the work done by Doug and his companions. His loss today, though, is a hard blow, and I for one will miss him.

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