Hypocrisy, heroes and environment

photo via loco

In a recent article in the The Guardian, North Face founder and environmental champion Doug Tompkins has expressed a hard line against technology, arguing that it is destroying the health of the planet and bringing an end to evolution itself.

My environmental sympathies are well documented, but Tompkins' brand of solution says more about him than the problem at hand. It can also be summed up with a single quote: 

"I did not want to compromise my engagement so I was forced to use the very technology that is undoing the world," he says. "I have a strategic embrace, not a substantive embrace. The problem is that 99.9% of the people in our own movement love this thing, they think this is going to lead us to the promised land. I have no such pretensions."

I won't try to dissect everything wrong with that statement, and admittedly I'm a bit awestruck that Tompkins, and Tompkins alone, possesses the wisdom and temperance to responsibly wield the destructive forces of technology. One ring to rule them all. Regardless, there's a deeper problem here than pure narcissism, namely that Tompkins' claim to authority is based on his position at the evolutionary peak of the system he's deriding.

Doug Tompkins' personal wealth numbers in the hundreds of millions of dollars, all of which was generated through the tools of technological innovation and the petroleum economy. Tompkins encourages others to contemplate their cell phones, to see that they encompass every aspect of the system that is destroying our planet, yet he fails to run the same thought experiment on the products he created. Products like North Face jackets—mass produced with high-tech Gore-Tex and distributed globally with complete reliance on petroleum and computer automation. Tompkins lack of pretensions aren't relevant to his enormous role in the techno-industrial society he's criticizing and the massive wealth he's generated from it. 

What is relevant is that Tompkins has the good fortune to consider society's actions (in a relatively holistic way) from a world perspective. It's this type of perspective that leads to genuine sustainability, and the point he misses is that technology is enabling that perspective for more people than at any other time in human history, including Tompkins himself. Everything he has accomplished rests on the laurels of the high tech world. He claims we don't see the impact of technology because it's become invisible to us like air, but he's blind to technology's role in his own success.

Environmental destruction has always occurred. Jared Diamond's Collapse showed that many previous cultures were very good at engineering their own demise, without the help of the internet and tablet computers. Eliminating electronic devices isn't a sufficient condition for environmental salvation. In all likelihood it's not even a necessary one. The environment will outlast any folly humans can come up with. It may take it a million years for nature to heal once we're gone, but what does the earth care about time? Our challenge is our own preservation and that will only come as we collectively accept the natural world for what isan integral part of ourselves.

Tompkins deserves no criticism for his business success or environmental contributions, nor should his warnings be dismissed because of his personal hypocrisies. The criticism is that he's a paragon for one of the most poisonous and pervasive myths of the environmental movement—that the environment needs saving, and that he is the man for the job.