Profile: Douglas Tompkins

Newstatesman.com profiles Douglas Tompkins, millionaire property magnate turned ecologist

Ever heard of Douglas Tompkins? The name may not ring any bells over here in Britain but cut across to the Americas and it’s a quite different story.

A former fashion magnate who co-founded North Face and Esprit, Tompkins was prompted to sell-up after an “epiphany” in the 1980s. He has since devoted his $150m fortune to buying up vast tracts of land in Chile, then Argentina, creating what is now one of the world’s largest privately owned conservation sites.

Born in 1943, he was raised in Millbrook, N.Y., a summer resort for Manhattan's upper middle class. Tompkins dropped out of high school and found his way to California to try to make the US ski team in time for the 1964 Olympics. He then met first wife and first business partner, Susie Russell.

He failed to make it onto the ski team but soon found another niche. He decided to pursue his talent for business and design and in 1966 in San Francisco founded clothes company North Face. Two years later he sold the business for $50,000.

Along with his wife, Tompkins then set up a dress making company that would become Esprit. In the late 80s, when Esprit was flying high in American fashion Tompkins read George Sessions's and Bill Devall's primer, Deep Ecology: Living As if Nature Mattered, and decided to make a change.

As he states on his Deep Ecology website: "Within the few hours that it took to read the book, I experienced a powerful epiphany. Everything suddenly made sense. The book offered a new vision of how things got the way they were. It combined the activism of David Brower, my environmental hero (founder of Friends of the Earth), with the insight of Robinson Jeffers, my poet hero."

His passion for commercial industry was waning. "Fashion is one of the most intellectually vacuous industries," he has said since. "We had to manufacture desires to get people to buy our products. We were selling people countless things that they didn't need."

In 1988 he and several friends bought 1,000 acres of forest in Chile's Lake District. And in 1989 founded the Ira-Hiti Foundation, the name often given to the Deep Ecology Foundation. Then in 1990 he sold his share of Esprit for a reported $150million.

Tompkins had bought a ranch 600 miles south of the Chilean capital Santiago, originally intending it to be used as a retreat. Then he slowly, and quietly, began purchasing more land – he and second wife Kristine McDivitt, have spent about $150 million buying two dozen properties covering 2.2 million acres of Chile and Argentina.

He has not been without his opponents. Once it became known that an American was buying up huge tracts of land the Chileans started to take notice and speculate about this foreigner’s motives.

The claims have been predictably wild - some have suggested that he wants to create a nuclear dumping ground, others speculated that he wanted to seize control of water supplies in a world with a growing thirst - there have even been accusations that Tompkins, “a buttoned-down, grey-haired WASP”, had acquired the land as the site for a new Jewish state.

Antonio Horvath, a conservative senator for southern Chile said: "If I were to go to the United States and buy a big area of Florida as an environmental preserve and tell people they can't go here or there, I think the U.S. would kick me right out of there".

In 1996 when Tompkins made efforts to join the north and south sections of Pumalín Park by buying a further 74,000 acres, his efforts were blocked Chile’s then Christian Democratic government.

The Roman Catholic University of Valparaiso, that owned the land, eventually sold it to a Spanish-controlled power company.

Tompkin’s latest battle has been concerning energy production. In 2004 two utility firms, Spanish-owned Endesa and Canadian-owned Hydro-Quebec announced a $4bn plan to build four dams.
Chile was experiencing perpetual power crises and needed the 2,400 megawatts expected to be generated. The impoverished region also needed the proposed 38,000 jobs.

Along with his wife, Tompkins began a campaign against the project – it was close to their newly acquired land in Valle Chacabuco.

Hesitantly and almost apologetically, many local business leaders and politicians agreed with them, calling the dams “gargantuan, destructive and a threat to the local lifestyle”.

In 2006, Rafael Mateo, the CEO of Endesa's Chilean operations, told the Santiago business magazine Capital that the dams would avert a national "energy crisis." He blamed opposition on "radical groups with unadapted ideologies." He declined to discuss the Tompkins's role, briefly describing him as "a private gentleman with land that would be crossed by a transmission line".

A new socialist president, Michelle Bachelet, who took office in March 2006, seems to have backed away from the previous government’s support of the dams saying her administration would review carefully the potential environmental impact of the proposals.

Meanwhile the Tompkins have become big employers in the region but there remains a clash of cultures over the rich Americans who are buying up vast tracts of Chilean territory.

Miguel Stutzin of the National Committee for the Defence of Fauna and Flora (Chile’s oldest and most organized environmental group): "This kind of philanthropy doesn't exist in Latin America -- giving without getting something in return. And that has created enormous suspicions”.

Tompkins is aware of this: "We want to do something good, but you've got to be very naïve and out to lunch to think that certain sectors of society are not going to put up resistance"

It has always been the intention of Tompkins to preserve the land he has bought and then return it to government of Chile and in 1995 the park was granted sanctuary status by the Chilean government.

For outside environmentalists, his work has worldwide significance because it combines large-scale wilderness protection, land restoration and organic farming. As to whether the Chilean government will eventually take over Pumalin and make it a national park, as Tompkins hopes, only time will tell.

Getty
Show Hide image

The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times