Eden: A Gated Community

The plot contains elements of Lost Horizon and Heart of Darkness, Fitzcarraldo and The Tempest. After making a fortune as founder of North Face and Esprit, Douglas Tompkins embraced the principles of deep ecology. Then, forsaking civilization, he bought a Yosemite-sized piece of wilderness in Chile, where only he and a like-minded few would live. They intended to show the world how an eco-community could flourish even as the ancient forest was kept pristine. Tompkins ran into one big problem: other people

In southern Chile, where the Andes sink into the Pacific, on the cold and rain-soaked coast of Patagonia, lies a province called Palena. It is a mountainous land of virgin valleys and steep-walled fjords, a labyrinthine wilderness inhabited by a scattering of peasant settlers who cling to its shores, fearing the evils of the deeper forest. It is a naturalist's dream. And a big part of it is owned by a Californian, Douglas Tompkins, a rich environmentalist from San Francisco who arrived nine years ago to save the trees and today lives besieged in an isolated fiefdom like a Crusader going down to defeat in a fight for the salvation of the world.

The capital of Palena is a town called Chaitén—a concentration of bedraggled wooden houses on a stony beach, reachable from greater Chile only by sea or by air. I met the provincial governor at his office there, on the central square. He was a plump, bearded fellow in a rumpled suit, a grandson of Chaitén's earliest settlers, and a man of unabashed resentments. He was angry about the seasonal influx of gringos who fish and kayak in one of the local rivers and leave no wealth behind, but angrier still about Tompkins, who had come and stayed and intervened. The governor did not enter into details at first; he wanted me to understand that he could, without explanation, simply hate all foreign interlopers—and, by the way, he presumed that I was one. Without looking directly at me, he said, "You come down here thinking we are very humble, but you have found your opposition."

Once we got that straight, we could move on to Tompkins, whose thinking the governor said he had studied. I assumed he meant that he had read the summaries being circulated by Tompkins's opponents in Santiago, the nation's capital. Whatever his source of information, he had the basics right. Tompkins believes in "deep ecology," an absolutist version of environmentalism—which contains little to surprise a North American reader. It is an "ecocentric" view that rejects the idea of inherent human superiority and instead gives equal moral weight to all elements of nature—from the living to the inanimate. The deep ecologists are purists. The governor understood the importance that they place on trying to live according to their principles, and he even knew about the Norwegian Arne Naess, an academic philosopher, now eighty-seven, whose work launched the movement.

But emotion kept getting the better of the governor. He equated deep ecology with Nazism. And he confused population control with genocide. He implied that Tompkins might be building a dangerous cult in his forest fastness—a suspicion just plausible, because of the stories of survival here in the south of the last Nazi fugitives, and the existence farther north of a German-led fascist group that has held off the Chilean authorities for years.

The governor enumerated what he called Tompkins's contradictions. He said, "First, Tompkins does not want our province to grow, but he himself has moved here. Second, he believes our settlers maybe do not need electricity, but he installs generators of his own. Third, he says he wants to save our forest, but what is his house made of?"

"His house is made of wood."

"And what does he heat it with?"

"He heats it with wood."

"So you admit the contradiction!"

I knew that Tompkins was so sincere that he harvested his firewood from dead trees coming down the rivers, but I did not want to quibble with the governor now. I said, "Tompkins disapproves of engines, but he flies his own airplanes. He believes in animal-powered farms, but he works his fields with tractors."

"More contradictions!"

"That's clear. But we all contradict ourselves—probably even you. Maybe the Pope doesn't—I don't know. But no other Catholic is a good Catholic all the time."

The governor refused to budge. He did not need to debate these things. He had the hometown advantage, and was convinced that he would prevail.

I said, "It seems to me you're asking too much. The only way for him to avoid contradictions would be to go off and live in a cave."

The governor was pleased with the thought. He said, "And that is precisely what he should do."

The story is full of ironies. Tompkins started his career by dropping out of high school in upstate New York and going off to climb mountains. When he was still very young, he moved to San Francisco, where he founded and then sold the North Face climbing-equipment company. He is rich because he then co-founded Esprit, a clothing company that became very big and did business all over the world. Throughout that time he continued to take off several months a year to run rivers and climb mountains. He was not a faddist; it was obvious to those who knew him that he genuinely loved the outdoors. Nonetheless, it came as a surprise when at the height of his success he embraced the essentially anti-materialistic teachings of another mountaineer, the deep ecologist Arne Naess. His wife and business partner, Susie Tompkins, thought he had lost his mind. He thought he had found it. He was tired of business, tired of the empty social life of San Francisco, tired of the empty consumerism that Esprit had come to represent to him. He and his wife divorced, and he sold his share of Esprit. In 1990 he endowed the Foundation for Deep Ecology, in San Francisco, and cast around for what to do next. His children were grown. He was not yet fifty. He wanted to live as if his thinking mattered.

He came to Palena on a tourist visa that same year and moved into a candlelit hut on a fjord where the rainfall amounted to eighteen feet a year. He did not mind the rain. The land was like a paradise to him, and it was cheap. For approximately $12 million he assembled a thousand square miles of untouched nature, a tract the size of Yosemite through which rivers flowed with pure drinking water past stands of ancient alerces—redwood-like trees that grow only in that part of the world. He wanted to lock it away and keep it pristine, not for himself but for nature. After a few years he got married again, to Kristine McDivitt, an old acquaintance from southern California who as a part owner of the company called Patagonia had made a fortune of her own in the clothing business. She quit her job, moved to Palena, and threw herself into the conservation project. She was used to managing things, but it was still very much his show. He thought that he would establish a park and give it to Chile, that Chile would be grateful, and that then perhaps he would leave. He thought he might be given honorary citizenship. And, of course, he was wrong.

Chile in effect refused his gift, and in the years since has grown so hostile to Tompkins that strategies against him are openly discussed in the national senate. To his allies in faraway San Francisco, Tompkins appears to be engaged in a struggle against the arrogant, cynical oligarchy of a corrupt nation. But here in this insecure and newly democratic country it is Tompkins—the righteous Californian, actively backed by the U.S. embassy—who seems increasingly to represent the arrogance of power. While insisting on his rights as a foreign investor—in a nation built on foreign investment—he is spending an apparently unlimited fortune to pursue his surprising ambitions. He has sidestepped the government with plans to create a private Chilean foundation to which he will deed the land to be locked away in perpetuity. He has funded environmentalist groups throughout the country. And he has set about building an eco-community of workers' hamlets, visitors' facilities, and organic demonstration farms on his property—a dispersed utopia meant to demonstrate a better way of living. The scale of his generosity in a country with no philanthropic tradition suggests to many Chileans that he anticipates their wholesale conversion.

Presented by

William Langewiesche

"Enclosed are Two Pieces on Algeria." With those words, typed on plain white bond, William Langewiesche introduced himself to the editors of The Atlantic Monthly. Although neither piece quite stood on its own, the editors were drawn to the unusual grace and power of Langewiesche's writing and sent him on assignment to North Africa for a more ambitious piece of reporting. The result was the November 1991, cover story, "The World in Its Extreme"—his first article to appear in a general-interest magazine. (He had, however, written frequently for aviation magazines; he is a professional pilot and first sat at the controls of an airplane at the age of five.) Since that article, from which his book Sahara Unveiled: A Journey Across the Desert (1996) grew, Langewiesche has reported on a diversity of subjects and published four more books.

A large part of Mr. Langewiesche's reporting experience centers around the Middle East and the Islamic world. He has traveled widely throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa, reporting on such topics as the implementation of the shari'a in Sudan under Hassan al-Tarabi, North Africa's Islamic culture, and the American occupation of Iraq. Other recent assignments have taken him to Egypt, the Balkans, India, and Central and South America. In 2004 he won a National Magazine Award for excellence in reporting.

In 2002 his book American Ground: Unbuilding The World Trade Center was published. It is based on a series of three cover stories he wrote for The Atlantic as the only American reporter granted full access to the World Trade Center clean-up effort. His latest book, The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime, was published in May 2004.

The Man Who Owns 40,000 Video Games

A short documentary about an Austrian gamer with an uncommon obsession

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The 86-Year-Old Farmer Who Won't Quit

A filmmaker returns to his hometown to profile the patriarch of a family farm

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

Video

An Ingenious 360-Degree Time-Lapse

Watch the world become a cartoonishly small playground

Video

The Benefits of Living Alone on a Mountain

"You really have to love solitary time by yourself."

More in Global

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In