When people say "biography," many think about big books, such as Lincoln by David Herbert Donald or John Adams by David McCullough. Readers of biography, however, do not always have to devote days or weeks to big books to get the pleasure of learning about celebrated characters. Though they do not often get much notice, collective biographies have long been an option for biography readers. We Are Lincoln's Men by Donald and Brave Companions by McCullough are notable examples. Even Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson has tried her hand at collective biography, having written American Heroines and Leading Ladies. Now, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Edward Humes offers Eco Barons: The Dreamers, Schemers, and Millionaires Who Are Saving Our Planet.
If I were a great follower of the business pages in newspaper and magazines, I might have known more about the subjects profiled in Eco Barons before I picked it to read. Doug Tompkins, who supports many environmental organizations and is buying vast reserves in Chile, started the North Face camping equipment and clothing company and then made a fortune selling fashionable clothes under the Esprit label. Roxanne Quimby began selling her Burt's Bee's products at craft fairs and ended up with millions of dollars in land in rural Maine. Terry Tamminen advanced from cleaning swimming pools for the rich and famous to becoming California governor Arnold Schwarznegger's secretary for the environment. Of course, I did know Ted Turner, the media mogul who started Turner Broadcasting and CNN, who has bought vast ranches in the West to turn into wilderness preserves.
As you might expect, rich people turning vast areas into wilderness does not always please area residents who earn their livings from industries that exploit natural resources. Tompkins and Turner in particular seem to have upset many people with secretive purchases and sudden announcements that their lands were closed to mining, lumbering, hunting, fishing, off road vehicles, and development. They have also fought the building of roads and the damming of rivers. Humes also profiles aggressive environmental lawyers, including Kieran Suckling and Peter Galvin of the Center for Biological Diversity, who have used the Endangered Species Act to halt clear cutting of forests and force various governmental administrations, Democratic and Republican alike, to enforce environmental laws. All of these people have received death threats from opponents. While the author's profiles of these men and women are mostly admiring, he does show how some have lacked basic understanding of their opponents. The most inspiring story may be that of Quimby who found listening and speaking with the people affected by her plans, offering them some reassurance, helped her save more land.
Humes's very readable profiles range from 20 to 80 pages and include quotes from the subjects, their colleagues, and opponents. Because Eco Barons includes much economic and scientific information, most libraries are shelving it in their ecology section, though it could justifiably be kept with biographies.
Humes, Edward. Eco Barons: The Dreamers, Schemers, and Millionaires Who Are Saving Our Planet. Ecco, 2009. 367p. ISBN 9780061350290