The very rich are different from you and me. For one thing, their carbon footprints are bigger. Between their private jets, fleets of cars and large (often multiple) houses, the wealthy tend to suck up more than their fair share of the earth's resources. And that's not even counting the environmental impact of the businesses that built their bank accounts.
But as Edward Humes makes clear in his new book Eco-Barons: The Dreamers, Schemers and Millionaires Who Are Saving Our Planet, a high income-tax bracket gives the rich another advantage: a platform on which they can advance the causes that matter to them. And believe it or not, a surprising number of super-wealthy Americans are using their money to fight for what Humes calls "a secret plan to save the earth." (See the top 10 green stories of 2008.)
These are Humes' "eco-barons" the modern-day counterpart to the 19th century robber barons who helped set the U.S. on its resource-gobbling path and they're using their vast wealth and will to help protect the earth's quickly vanishing wilderness. The eco-barons' mission, Humes says, became all the more important when Washington shrank from its role as environmental guardian. "In an era in which government has been either broke, indifferent or actively hostile to environmental causes," writes Humes, "a band of visionaries ... are using their wealth, their energy, their celebrity and their knowledge of law and science to persuade, and sometimes force, the United States and the world to take a new direction." (Listen to Humes on this week's Greencast.)
In his book, Humes profiles an assortment of eco-barons, from businessmen to inventors, and discovers that what binds them is, he says, a "clear view of the insanity attached to the way we live." Doug Tompkins, who founded the clothing line Esprit and then left it behind for conservation in the 1990s while it was still wildly successful is the quintessential eco-baron and the source of Hume's best writing. Tompkins was always an outdoor adventurer even while heading up Esprit, he would regularly disappear for months-long trips to the forests of South America so when he burned out in the corporate world, Tompkins took his fortune, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and began steadily buying acre after acre of threatened virgin forest in Chile. But he met with considerable resistance from the Chilean government and media: the idea of a rich gringo going down to South America to protect nature, not exploit it, seemed so absurd to post-Pinochet Chileans that they suspected Tompkins was up to something.
He was, but it wasn't what the Chileans thought. Tompkins and his wife Kristine DeWitt, the former CEO of the ultragreen clothing company Patagonia, were planning to create a nature sanctuary in the middle of Chilean rain forest. Slowly, gradually, as Humes aptly chronicles, they convinced the government that they wanted nothing more than to protect one of the most beautiful and heretofore untouched stretches of forest in the world what the Chilean poet Mario Miranda Soussi once called the "Patagonia of infinite land and water." Today Tompkins and his wife own 2 million acres in Chile and Argentina centered on the private nature sanctuary of Pumalin Park, which Tompkins plans to turn over to the Chilean people eventually. "He's preserved more rain forest than anyone else on Earth," says Humes.
Eco-Barons profiles other do-gooders, including Andy Frank, who created the plug-in hybrid car, but those stories are less compelling than Humes' description of Tompkins. The book starts to feel repetitive as we're introduced to one extraordinary green after another. But Humes' ultimate point is well taken: at the very moment when the government began abdicating its responsibilities to the environment, the eco-barons stepped in. "We'd be years behind where we are now without these individuals," says Humes. (Read about Chevy's electric car.)
We may no longer need them to lead the way, now that the Obama Administration has promised the country that its environmental agencies are back on the job. And in a recession, there will be few barons, eco- or otherwise, left standing. But even with a friend in the White House, the environmental movement still faces hurdles, from oil companies to civic passivity, so there will always be a role for those with the will and sometimes the wealth to make a difference.