The environmental "story" is THE story of our age — encompassing not only pollution, climate change, extinctions, deforestation, dying oceans and vanishing wildlands, but also energy, sprawl, globalization, industrial agriculture, fossil fuel dependence, economic security and national security. It is, in short, everywhere we look — our generation's toughest challenge, our biggest threat, our greatest opportunity. But this story is so big and so daunting, it can be paralyzing.
How do you get your head around it? How do you find your way into such a big topic and begin to make sense of it without your heart sinking through the floor? What do we do when our entire way of living, building, working and traveling is the problem? Our backyard vegetable garden, the proper light bulbs I dutifully screw into our ceiling fans, the composting and bicycling we do — all that is well and good, but what we all really want and need is a plan, a plan as big as the challenge before us. And that's what drew me to these men and women I call Eco Barons.
My journey began when I heard about Doug Tompkins, the mountain climber turned CEO of Esprit who made his millions in the fashion business, then began using his fortune to buy up the forests of Patagonia to create parks and preserves. He and his wife Kris have now saved more rain forest and grasslands than any other individuals on the planet. And they have shared their wealth with other environmentalists and grassroots activists, a trail which next led me to the Center of Biological Diversity. This group started twenty years ago with a couple of ex-Forest Service guys in a $17-a-month cabin in New Mexico, working to save the spotted owl. Today their center is now responsible for saving more habitats and endangered species than any organization in the country, as well as forcing George Bush to admit global warming is real and to list the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act before leaving office. From there I found Terry Tamminen, the former Malibu pool man who crafted California's ground-breaking climate change legislation, then Roxanne Quimby, who is turning the money she made from a little enterprise called Burt's Bees into an engine for conservation, then Andy Frank, the father of the plug-in hybrid, who builds cars that can help save our world. These and the other Eco Barons I've met are the sort of dreamers and schemers who do not throw up their hands, who are not paralyzed, who are changing the law and defying the conventional wisdom by brushing aside the deniers and partisans in order to save the earth. They show us it is not too late. That's a part of the story worth telling, something human, graspable and hopeful — and an example worth following.