The eco-story of 2008, it seemed, was about how the little tweaks that you and I can make to our lifestyles – biking rather than driving to work, or carrying reusable totes to the grocery store – could, in aggregate, change the world. While that premise is certainly debatable, it was repeated in practically every publication in print and online and it did help stoke the eco-consciousness of Main Street, USA. Perhaps the story of 2009 will be about iconic (and often exceedingly wealthy) figures that take their environmentalism much, much further and serve as inspiration for others who want to do the same. That is the premise of Edward Humes’ new book, “Eco Barons: The Dreamers, Schemers, and Millionaires Who Are Saving Our Planet” (Ecco/HarperCollins), due out next month.
Humes is a writer-at-large for Los Angeles Magazine (where he earned a Pulitzer Prize for specialized reporting) and contributes to the Huffington Post. The book profiles a number of already-prominent environmentalists, as well as some whose names won’t ring bells with most readers, such as Texan Carole Allen, who a New York Times review of the book describes as “a widowed single mother who works at the juvenile probation department in Houston [who] rallied a group of local schoolchildren around the cause of saving the endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle.”
A scrappy figure like Allen represents tenacity and fortitude and also a fight we can all take up, but other people profiled in the book rely on their extraordinary wealth to do what they do, and that’s what’s behind the name “Eco Barons.” Humes likens these figures to modern day counterparts to the Robber Barons who worked hard to industrialize land and consume natural resources for profit. In fact, some of the Eco Barons that Humes writes about make land-acquisition a main tenant of their work.
For example, Humes profiles Douglas Tompkins, founder of The North Face, and Roxanne Quimby, who created the Burt’s Bees line of natural products–both of whom used many millions of dollars of their own money to preserve many millions of acres of land in Chile and Maine respectively. But in doing so, both have arguably attracted as much contempt as praise, given that their land-grabs often go against the interests of loggers or other parties that are more interest in utilizing the land than leaving it untouched.
This raises questions about how to balance commercial interests with the goal of growing public parklands. In Quimby’s case, she has raised the ire of many residents of the north woods of Maine, where she is buying up land while also limiting access to it from families who have used it and worked on it for many generations.
Must there always be winners and losers in the battle to stave off development or curb business practices that are environmentally unsound? Allen’s fight for the sea turtles led to regulations that forced shrimpers to change the way they catch shrimp, so even though she’s not rich, she raised hackles within industry.
In his New York Times review, Harry Hurt III says “the inherent flaw in ‘Eco Barons’ is its sprawling scope. Although Mr. Humes is an able reporter and a passionate writer, he tries to cover too many ecological crises and praise too many people. At times, the book reads like a roster of nominees for the environmentalist hall of fame.”
Readers, what are your thoughts?: If the term Eco Baron turns into a common moniker, and if praise-filled profiles of environmentalists become the common green story of 2009, will their efforts be seen as overly radical, and therefore polarizing, among Americans who have always relied on jobs in logging, fishing, or other industries based on exploiting natural resources and who may now be especially hurting in a sour economy?