‘Eco Barons: The Dreamers, Schemers and Millionaires Who Are Saving Our Planet’ by Edward Humes

Eco Barons

The Dreamers, Schemers and

Millionaires Who are Saving

Our Planet

Edward Humes

Ecco: 368 pp., $25.99

Excepting the facts that the title is absurd and the premise conceptually fractured, this is a fine little book: a collection of starry-eyed portraits of environmentalists who have devoted their lives and/or fortunes to saving the Earth. And yet by invoking the industrial barons of the 19th century -- the dangerous men who amassed inconceivable wealth in railroads, real estate, steel -- Humes’ title creates the expectation that his subjects will be farsighted ecopreneurs, who are profiting in solar and wind energy, biomass technology and sustainable farming. The wind and solar barons are out there, and they are making a bundle. In ignoring them, Humes fumbles the promise of his own trope.

Humes devotes most of this book to conservationists such as Doug Tompkins, the fashion mogul who founded Esprit and then took his fortune to South America to buy up vast swaths of Patagonia, forming Pumalin Park; Ted Turner, the media empire-builder who is now the nation’s largest private landowner; and Roxanne Quimby, the hippie-chick workhorse behind Burt’s Bees products who, after cashing out in the 1990s with nearly $400 million, devoted her fortune to saving the Maine North Woods. God bless them all.

These philanthropists are evidence of “a plan,” writes Humes, in a passage that sounds directly lifted from the book proposal. “It is audacious. It is huge. . . . It is already unfolding, a secret plan to save the Earth.”

Well, excuse me for saying so, but this is a lousy plan. To suggest that a handful of chlorophyll-loving millionaires’ fencing off paradise somehow spells deliverance for our suffering Earth is not only implausible but actually risible. Such a notion embraces, to an astonishing degree, a messianic faith in the world’s financial elite that -- perhaps you’ve noticed lately -- is indifferent to the general welfare. Bear in mind that the baron-philanthropists of the Gilded Age -- the Rockefellers, Carnegies and Stanfords -- converted their wealth to an honorable posterity out of a sense of noblesse oblige. “The man who dies rich,” Andrew Carnegie famously said, “dies in shame.”

If we take no other lesson from the Wall Street apocalypse -- from the spectacle of inept, paper-pushing functionaries walking off from their ruined companies with tens of millions of dollars -- we should at least recognize our collective failure to stigmatize extreme wealth. One percent of the U.S. population controls 50% of the nation’s wealth. The current crisis was predicated on a handful of elites expropriating vast sums of the nation’s industrial and social fortune, and the devil take the hindmost.

What we know from history, from Toynbee and Jared Diamond, is that aristocracy tends to use its means and privileges not to save the world but to keep it increasingly at arm’s length, secure behind castle walls (or sequestered in gated communities?) until the last tree is felled and the last well runs dry. Humes’ millionaires are so atypical as to be, in a way, sociopaths.

Indeed, Humes quickly runs out of eco barons per se and turns the balance of his book to profiles of notably un-wealthy greenies: Peter Galvin and Kieran Suckling, founders of the Center for Biological Diversity, which, through some fascinating legal maneuvering, got the Bush administration to concede that climate change was threatening species such as the polar bear; professor Andy Frank of UC Davis, who virtually invented plug-in hybrid automobile technology; Terry Tamminen, founder of Santa Monica BayKeeper and the man spearheading California’s climate-change action plan; and Carole Allen, whose one-woman campaign to save the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle brought the species back from the brink.

If these people are barons, it’s a peerage of hard work, of walking the walk.

Meanwhile, examples like Galvin and Suckling -- who started their operation in a $17-per-month cabin in New Mexico with a solar-powered fax machine and went on to score landmark legal victories over the logging industry and the Bush administration -- seem strangely at odds with Humes’ other narrative. What these people have done is harness the power of grass-roots collective action, without glorying in their own financial leverage or building leafy monuments to themselves. And I would argue their environmental legacies are more secure. For example, Tompkins’ crowning achievement in Patagonia, Pumalin Park -- I’ve been there and it is spectacular -- is threatened by a plan by South American energy giant Endesa to dam wild rivers and build power-grid infrastructure through the heart of the park. Tompkins’ battle with Endesa comes down to a fight between those with millions of dollars and those with billions of dollars. Who do you think will win?

Look, I get it. Tompkins, Turner and Quimby are using their fortunes to buy up as much of the remaining Eden as possible; as Tompkins’ wife, Kris, noted at a ceremony in their honor: “We’re in a hurry.” I share their sense of urgency and salute their determination. Indeed, everyone profiled in this book deserves a crown of organic laurel, or a lifetime supply of arugula, whatever.

I only object insofar as anything in this book gives readers the slightest reassurance that the financial ruling elite will save us. These few class traitors notwithstanding, rich people are the problem, not the solution.

Neil is a Times staff writer.