A Death in His Own Paradise

Douglas Tompkins, the founder of North Face and Esprit, died in the terrain he was devoted to conserving.

Douglas Tompkins shakes hands with Chilean President Ricardo Lagos in 2003. (Reuters)

For those with antennae particularly attuned to schadenfreude, the headlines announcing the death of an eccentric-seeming billionaire in a kayaking accident in Chile might present a story that’s impossible to resist.

But with the case of Douglas Tompkins, the headlines and context don’t match up. Tompkins, who co-founded North Face and Esprit, died in the ecological empyrean of Patagonia that he had sought to protect after cashing out of his life in America and moving to South America.

The high-school dropout turned outdoors-loving mogul turned eco-baron devoted the last quarter of his life to conservation advocacy. Tompkins bought more than 2 million acres of land and set about creating private parks that kept rainforests from development across Chile and Argentina before his death at 72 on Tuesday.

“He flew airplanes, he climbed to the top of mountains all over the world,” his daughter told The New York Times. “To have lost his life in a lake and have nature just sort of gobble him up is just shocking.”

In 1999, William Langewiesche provided The Atlantic with one irreplaceable piece of writing on Tompkins’ ideological shift, which led him to sell his stake in Esprit and move to South America and denouncing the consumerism that built his fortune.

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.

As Langewiesche details, Tompkins’ efforts aroused suspicion in Chile, where land purchased to be held and not developed (and not turned into an creator of many jobs) was unheard of. “He must have felt the frustration of an environmentalist who heard himself sounding like the very developers he wanted to stand against.”

Along the way, he married Kristine McDivitt, the former CEO of Patagonia, who joined him in establishing numerous foundations. Revisiting their work in The Atlantic last year, Diana Saverin wrote of how Tompkins’ fealty to his ideology kept him a misunderstood figure.

Rumors now range from the conspiratorial to the phantasmagorical: Tompkins is creating a second Israel in South America; he is siphoning off the world’s last freshwater resources for other American millionaires; he is building bunkers for a pending nuclear war.

Nevertheless, she adds, “They have protected more land than any other private individuals in history.”