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The New York Times, February 14, 2009

Visionaries on a Mission: Save the Earth
By Harry Hurt III

SCIENTISTS and environmentalists have reached a growing consensus that time is running out for Planet Earth. The polar ice caps are melting. Three-quarters of the world’s flowering plant species are at risk of extinction. One in eight bird species is vanishing. Ninety percent of big fish like cod, tuna and swordfish that once swam the oceans have already disappeared. Air, water and ground pollutants from fossil-fuel sources are poisoning major population centers.

But according to Edward Humes, author of “Eco Barons: The Dreamers, Schemers, and Millionaires Who Are Saving Our Planet” (Ecco/HarperCollins, $25.99), there is “a secret plan to save the Earth.” This plan is being carried out by a group of “eco barons” — both men and women — who are the modern-day heroic counterparts to the villainous 19th century robber barons who originally set the nation on the path to environmental destruction.

“In an era in which government has been either broke, indifferent or actively hostile to environmental causes, a band of visionaries — inventors, philanthropists, philosophers, grassroots activists, lawyers and gadflies — 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,” Mr. Humes declares.

A writer for Los Angeles magazine and a frequent contributor to The Huffington Post, Mr. Humes is the author of nine previous nonfiction books. In 1989, he won a Pulitzer Prize for an investigative series about the United States military.

“Eco Barons,” which will be released next month, offers encouraging, often inspirational, profiles of nearly a dozen would-be planet savers. Among the more compelling of these characters are Douglas Tompkins, a surfer, climber and private-plane pilot who founded the North Face and Esprit clothing lines, and his wife Kristine McDivitt, the former chief executive of the Patagonia outdoor wear firm.

Mr. Tompkins sold out of the apparel industry after concluding that he had been merely “manufacturing desires to get people to buy products they don’t really need.”

Over the past 18 years, the couple has acquired more than two million acres for conservation in Chile and Argentina. The crown jewel is Pumalín Park, a vast nature sanctuary which they finally succeeded in giving to the Chilean government after debunking initial public suspicions that they were conspiring in a mysterious plot to undermine national security.

Even more controversial and no less results-oriented are Kierán Suckling and Peter Galvin, co-founders of the Center for Biological Diversity, an activist group whose aggressive use of the 1973 Endangered Species Act has prompted other environmentalists to brand them as radicals.

In the early 1990s, they won both fame and infamy by protecting the endangered Mexican spotted owl against the intrusion of lumbering interests in Arizona and New Mexico. (“We effectively ended the timber industry in the southwest,” Mr. Suckling boasts.)

According to Mr. Humes, the center has won about 450 of some 500 lawsuits filed over the past 15 years, resulting in first-time protections for 350 endangered species and the preservation of 70 million acres of critical habitat.

Another eco baron demonstrates what individuals of modest economic means can achieve on the environmental front through vision and persistence. Carole Allen, a widowed single mother who works at the juvenile probation department in Houston, rallied a group of local schoolchildren around the cause of saving the endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle.

In so doing, she provoked the wrath of the 17,000-vessel shrimp trawling fleet in the Gulf of Mexico, whose drag nets routinely scooped up thousands of turtles every season.

But thanks to the unrelenting efforts of Ms. Allen and her youthful cohorts, Texas officials ultimately agreed to enforce laws that require turtle exclusion devices on the shrimpers’ nets and a partial ban on shrimping within five miles of the coast.

THEN there is Roxanne Quimby, who started out selling organic honey, candles and lip balm from the back of a Volkswagen minibus, and went on to help create the national cosmetics company Burt’s Bees. Having recently sold her stake in the company, Ms. Quimby has amassed a fortune of over $360 million, which she is using to create a 3.2 million acre public preserve in the Maine woods.

Mr. Humes extols the accomplishments of Andrew Frank of the University of California at Davis, who invented and patented the plug-in hybrid, a vehicle that can run on a combination of gasoline and electrical power. Mr. Frank has since used off-the-shelf parts to turn a Ford Explorer into a vehicle with “the efficiency equivalent of a 100-mile-a-gallon motor scooter.”

Mr. Humes also applauds the efforts of Terry Tamminen, a former Malibu pool cleaner, in formulating California’s Global Warming Solutions Act, one the nation’s most comprehensive environmental laws, and cheers the eco-conscious philanthropy of Ted Turner, who annually supports over 500 environmental organizations and plans to bequeath to conservation most of the 2 million acres of land he owns in the United States.

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.

But his urgent message is clear: We must all strive to become “eco barons” in our own right if we are to save Planet Earth.

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton