Doug Tompkins, founder of The North Face & Pumalin NP in Chile

Article 1  Jimmy Langman. Spring 2012. Conversation: Doug Tompkins. Earth Island Journal.

I see Chile as overdeveloped. We have gone way past the carrying capacity of Earth to sustain all these people, activities, and consumption. Using all government measurements, nobody has shown that we’re as a globe underdeveloped. And yet we’re going for more overdevelopment.

Unemployment is preferable to doing harm. You got to take the long view: There are going to be tremendous ecological collapses from the overshoot perspective. A few years ago, we were called the doom-and-gloomers, but it’s all being borne out every day. There are limits to growth. Go back and look at William Catton’s book, Overshoot, on the ecological footprint from 1980. It’s better today than it was when he wrote it. Better in the sense that people accept it hands down today.

I joined the Sierra Club when I was 16. I hadn’t a clue about the deeper issues, the structural problems, the root causes of the extinction crisis, for example. And then how the worldview was affecting all of this: our epistemologies, our worldviews, our decisions, how we formed economies, and even down to our personal lifestyles. It took me a long time to get to this point. And I think for the most part I don’t believe that young people today are really clued in either. It takes a lot of scholarship. You have to read a lot. Activism helps.

You go back to places that you had been to ten years before, and there are clearcuts everywhere, bulldozers pushing a road into wilderness areas. You just keep seeing this interminable growth, this sort of implacable march of so-called progress, and you start saying, “Hey, wait a minute!”

And you start extending that idea into just about everywhere you look, and you see things are getting uglier. You start paying more attention to what’s happening in the media, such as reporting on everything from oil spills to lack of fish in the ocean to loss of forest cover, the 1,001 different environmental disasters that we read about every day. Every day they come up with something new!  It is one thing after another.

I feel lucky that I somehow escaped from the confines of the business class. Hardly anybody can escape there. They’re just chained under that worldview, whether they believe that capitalism is sacred, and, you know, the cornucopia of resources are for our exploitation. I feel so fortunate that somehow I managed to break out of that world and get to do something that really had more meaning.

I learned from my parents that you have to get pleasure out of what you’re doing, or don’t do it. And I also learned that you do a lot better and have a lot more satisfaction, and a lot more fun for that matter, by striving after excellence in the craft that you’re involved in. You can be in the wrong craft. That is why I got out of making stuff that nobody needs, because I came to realize that all that needless overconsumption is one of the driving forces of the extinction crisis.

There’s no doubt whatsoever that there’s no future in capitalism. It’s a relatively recent phenomenon. It’s probably no more than 500 years old, and it’s demonstrating over and over again that it is destroying the world. We are going to have to rethink that, and I wouldn’t even suggest that we are talking about other failed systems such as socialism and communism. We should take the best of socialism, the best of capitalism, and form new economic technologies that are going to sustain nature and not destroy it. I don’t think capitalism can survive: It’s built on the premise of endless growth, and anybody in their right mind knows you cannot grow endlessly. Even the worst impulses of capitalism are very difficult to contain, and the reforms end up changing it into something else.


In 1990, Doug Tompkins, founder of clothing companies Esprit and The North Face, decided to get out of “making stuff that nobody needed” and instead focus on the issues that really mattered to him: corporate globalization, sustainable agriculture, preserving wild places, and stopping the clearcutting of ancient forests. Or, as he puts it, saving the environment and communities from an out-of-control economic model that each day is edging civilization “closer to the abyss.”

So Tompkins started the Foundation for Deep Ecology and moved to Chilean Patagonia, where he began using his fortune to buy up large parcels of land to form Pumalin Park. In the last two decades, Tompkins has expanded his holdings to include 740,000 acres of snow-capped volcanoes, Andean mountains, temperate rainforest, and turquoise-colored rivers. Today, Pumalin Park is considered the world’s largest private nature preserve.

Among his other conservation initiatives, Tompkins has donated private land to establish two coastal national parks in Chile and Argentina. A third, the half million-acre future Patagonia National Park in the Aysen region, is in the process of being transferred to Chile. His most ambitious project is still in the works: a huge property at Esteros del Ibera in northeastern Argentina, which he aims to make the key piece of a 6,500-square-mile national park to protect that region’s wetlands. (Langman)

Article 2. Jo Confino.11 July 2013. How technology has stopped evolution and is destroying the world. Doug Tompkins, founder of The North Face, on battles with Steve Jobs and why we need to dismantle our techno-industrial society. The Guardian.

It has become something of a mantra within the sustainability movement that innovations in technology can save the world. But rather than liberating us, Doug Tompkins, the cofounder of retail brands The North Face and Esprit, believes technology has enslaved us and is destroying the very health of the planet on which all species depend.

Tompkins, 70 has used his enormous wealth from selling both companies to preserve more land than any other individual in history, spending more than £200m buying over 2 million acres of wilderness in Argentina and Chile.

He challenges the view that technology is extending democracy, arguing that it is concentrating even more power in the hands of a tiny elite. What troubles him the most is that the very social and environmental movements that should be challenging the destructive nature of mega-technologies, have instead fallen under their spell.

“We have been poor on doing the systemic analysis and especially in the area of technology criticism,” says Tompkins. “Until we get better at that, I think we’re cooked, we’re going to continue to extinct species and we’re going to continue to dig the hole deeper of the whole eco-social crisis.

“If you just hold your cell phone for 30 seconds and think backwards through its production you have the entire techno-industrial culture wrapped up there. You can’t have that device without everything that goes with it. You see mining, transportation, manufacturing, computers, high-speed communications, satellite communications, it’s all there, you see and it’s that techno-industrial culture that’s destroying the world.”

Championing the environment

Tompkins is considered a hero in the deep ecology movement and works hand in hand with his wife Kris, the former CEO of the outdoor clothing and equipment company Patagonia.

They have been instrumental in creating two huge nature reserves and are in the process of creating another one in the South American region of Patagonia, despite opposition within Latin America, including being accused by rightwing Chilean politicians of effectively splitting the country in two in a conspiratorial land grab.

Together, they also fund numerous small activist NGOs, arguing that more established organizations such as WWF and Greenpeace have become too closely enmeshed with corporations.

“When WWF started out, they were doing some good stuff,” says Tompkins. “Now, they’re burning up money like crazy and they don’t really get too much done. Most all of these organizations grew too big for their own good”

Tompkins derides those who pin their hopes on technological developments in areas such as wind, solar and nuclear as coming from the smart resource management school, saying they fail to understand that this will not address the core issue, which is that capitalism is addicted to growth.

“Resource efficiency is the wrong metric,” he says. “We should use nature as the measure, using nature’s wisdom as a template for our economic systems.

Capitalism doesn’t function when it starts to contract and we can see that quite clearly right here in the eurozone. It’s like pushing a giant monster underwater that’s gasping for air. It goes nuts. Capitalism may have all sorts of things that are good, but ultimately it’s bad for everyone.”

Tompkins believes most sustainability practitioners have made the mistake of spending their time creating strategies and projects, without taking the time to gain a deep understanding of how we got into a mess in the first place. As a result, they may end up doing more harm than good.

“As we get sucked more and more into the technosphere, we become less and less capable of understanding it because it becomes a technological milieu that we’re in,” he warns.

“It’s similar to air; we’re basically unconscious about the air. What we need is to understand what technologies themselves bring with them when they’re introduced into culture.

“If you extinct all the biodiversity and we end up living on a sandheap with a Norwegian rat and some cockroaches, that doesn’t have too much logic to it. That would show that our behavior as a civilization today is to the pathological. But, if you make a systemic analysis, that’s exactly where we’re going.”

A strategic embrace, not a substantive embrace

Tompkins was a friend of Steve Jobs and the two men had many arguments over the years, with the former Apple CEO trying to convince Tompkins that computers were going to save the world, and Tompkins insisting the opposite.

Tompkins recalls the Apple advertising campaign that highlighted the 1,001 great things that the PC was going to give to us and would tell Jobs that these represented a mere 5% of what the computer did while the other 95% was all negative and exacerbating the biodiversity crisis.

“He’d get mad at me when I’d tell him that,” says Tompkins.

“He was locked into a view that these technologies were going to bring all these good things. But that’s typical of the purveyors of new technology. They’re selling their product and their idea, and their prestige, their power and their influence. Their self-esteem is wrapped up in that. It’s impossible for them to see it or to admit it, you see? Because, it pulls the rug out from underneath their purpose, especially when it’s attached to a moral purpose.

“That’s typical of everybody who introduces a new widget into society. They don’t tell you the negative side effects that this introduction of this new invention could provoke.”

While there has been much talk of the democratization that the internet has brought, Tompkins points out that while individuals use it largely for their own narrow interests, large corporations are the big winners as they are able to take advantage of it to become ever more powerful.

Is technology stemming evolution?

Rather than adding to our knowledge, Tompkins argues computers and smartphones represent “deskilling devices; they make us dumber. We’re immersed in a system that now requires the use of a cell phone just to get around, just to function and so the logic of that cell phone has been imposed on us.

“The computer is a mechanism for acceleration, it accelerates economic activity and this is eating up the world. It’s eating up resources, it’s processing, it’s manufacturing, it’s distributing, it’s consuming. That’s what the computer’s real work does and it does that 24/7, 365 days a year, non-stop just to satisfy our own narrow needs.”

Tompkins foresees a dark future dominated as he puts it by more ugliness, damaged landscapes, extinct species, extreme poverty, and lack of equity and says humanity faces a stark choice; either to transition now to a different system or face a painful collapse. The extinction crisis is the mother of all crises. There will be no society, there will be no economy, there will be no art and culture on a dead planet basically. We’ve stopped evolution.”

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