The Conservationist Underwriting a Brainier Environmentalism

Douglas Tompkins is best known in environmental circles for his massive land purchases in South America. But the former clothing line millionaire’s work in the U.S. has a more philosophical bent, building up the intellectual strength of the environmental movement.  

Tompkins started the Foundation for Deep Ecology back in 1989, around the time he decided to walk away from the clothing business, having made his money off of brands like the North Face and Esprit. Now married to former Patagonia CEO Kristine McDivitt Tompkins, the couple are active conservationists. Aside from huge nature preserves Tompkins has been establishing in Chile, the couple makes grants for work in biodiversity and wilderness protection.  

But the Foundation for Deep Ecology has another focus, called its Intellectual Infrastructure program that seeks to strengthen the conceptual foundation of the environmental movement. As the foundation describes it, they try to provide a counterweight to right wing think tanks (like The Heritage Foundation, ALEC, or the Cato Institute), which promote an unhindered free market philosophy. 

On the political left, such investments have been spotty, and within the environmental movement, there has been very little institutional funding for journals, think tanks, and symposia that could help build a deeper, more effective response to the plunder of the Earth by challenging the fundamental ideas and worldview of the despoilers.

Examples of investments by this program include support for AdBusters, the magazine that sparked the Occupy Movement, as well as journals like Wild Earth, Resurgence, and Plain. They also have funded conferences, some of which led to the formation of new organizations.

Perhaps most impressive is an entire environmentally focused publishing house funding books on subjects as warm and fuzzy as national parks, and as gritty as mountaintop removal mining. 

The philosophy behind this work draws from the Deep Ecology movement, the foundation’s namesake, and the writings of Norwegian conservationist Arne Ness, but also Thoreau, John Muir, and Gifford Pinchot. The platform calls for not just technological fixes, but fundamental changes in how we think of and interact with nature, rejecting consumerism and consumption-based values and prioritizing diverse, healthy ecosystems.

Quite a stance for a guy formerly entrenched in 1980s designer fashion. But when he sold his holdings in Esprit and started his foundation, Tompkins swore off consumer culture and his role in bolstering it all those years. 

It’s an approach that casts aside a current trend in environmental philanthropy of embracing capitalism and inviting in corporate partnerships. It’s old school, but then again, support of something like AdBusters adds a flair of modern inequality activism. 

To learn more about the Foundation for Deep Ecology, see our IP profile here, and read more about the Tompkins’ conservation work here

Also Related: Fundraising for Conservation