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Reuters, March 4, 2009

Ed Humes finds "eco barons" working to save earth
By Belinda Goldsmith

ANBERRA (Reuters Life!) - Depressed by the constant deluge of dire news about the environment, writer Edward Humes saw a light when he came across a couple of stories about people taking action to conserve land and wildlife.

In "Eco Barons: The Dreamers, Schemers and Millionaires Who Are Saving Our Planet," the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer highlights about a dozen of would-be planet savers.

Take Douglas Tompkins, who founded The North Face and Esprit clothing lines, and his wife Kristine McDivitt, former CEO of Patagonia outdoor clothing firm. The couple has acquired more than 2.2 million acres for conservation in Chile and Argentina.

Or Kieran Suckling and Peter Galvin, co-founders of Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity, known for its work in protecting endangered species such as spotted owls.

Then there's Roxanne Quimby, who started out making candles from beeswax and built the U.S. cosmetics company Burt's Bees that describes itself as "earth friendly." Since selling the company, she's buying forestland in Maine for a national park.

Humes, who has previously written five books on crime and the criminal justice system, told Reuters that his "eco barons" shared a common vision:

Q: What got you into writing about environmental issues?

A: "It is something I have been interested in professionally and personally for some time. But what inspired me was the long spate of dire news we have been getting about climate change and the environment and it is so unrelentlessly grim. I became aware of Douglas Tompkins and how he cashed in and used his money in a very remarkable way, seeding environmental organizations around the world and buying up South American rainforest. I became interested in how and why he was doing this."

Q: Was it hard to limit who you included in the book?

A: "Yes. You could publish a series of encyclopedias if you wanted to include everyone doing something important for the environment. I tried to have a representative sample like Roxanne Quimby of Burt's Bees on one hand and on the other hand Carole Allen, a single mum, who in her spare time is a volunteer marshalling an army of school children to stop a species of sea turtle being devastated by the shrimp industry."

Q: Why do you call them "Eco Barons?"

A: "The idea is that they are the opposite of the old robber barons who made their fortune by despoiling the landscape to get what they wanted and needed. The common thread is that these individuals are also visionaries and have a big impact in an opposite fashion - trying to preserve and restore the landscape."

Q: Some are unknown. Were they all happy to come forward?

A: "Well, they all have a message. One of the things about these people is that they are out in front. They are where the rest of the world needs to be in the next 10 or 15 years and really leading in a number of ways, in thinking of the environment, in thinking of local versus global, in thinking of the importance of preserving land that most people drive by without a thought. They are seeing things that lots of us miss. We need people like that. It is the challenge of our generation, if not multiple generations."

Q: Will you continue along this line? 

A: "I will. I do think this is such a vital issue and this book only scratches the surface of both the storylines and individuals worth writing about. I am not going to write an "Eco Barons" part two but I have another project in mind that is just as fascinating but might be a little more focused on story lines in the world of business and the environment."

Q: Did the book put you in a more positive mindset?

A: "Yes, but with the qualification that if you look at the science of climate and of the growth of certain types of energy production, particularly coal plants, it is very alarming. It is not too late but there is no time to waste."

(Editing by Miral Fahmy)

© Thomson Reuters 2009

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton