The environmental crisis is the most important story and challenge of our era, and potentially its biggest opportunity. However, it can also be paralyzing says Edward Humes, author of Eco Barons: The Dreamers, Schemers and Millionaires Who Are Saving Our Planet. The endless talk of deforestation, dying oceans, global warming, extinctions, fossil fuel dependence and urban sprawl can make the task of reversing the damage seem vast and herculean. “My idea for Eco Barons was to find a more graspable, human approach to this story,” says Humes, “and a more hopeful one.” By the time he finished writing the book, Humes did feel more hopeful about the future, realizing that “It's late, but not too late, to turn things around.”

As a former newspaper reporter Humes covered environmental stories for years, from PCB contamination of swimming holes in Arkansas to the asbestos no-man's land of Globe, Arizona to the plight of America's atomic veterans. He favors hard-hitting stories that require in-depth reporting (his investigative series about the U.S. military won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1989) and has written nine non-fiction books that have seen him write about such hot topics as religion, education, and prison. On the face of it, Eco Barons may seem like a milder and less controversial work than its predecessors, but the facts Humes discovered while writing it were ultimately as disturbing as anything he had uncovered before.

It became clear to Humes as he did his research that many of the solutions to our environmental problems were in fact making things worse: corn-based biofuels, the pursuit of hydrogen as an automotive fuel, the constant focus on future technology (such as the infamous and, according to Humes, “non-existent clean coal”) instead of on existing technology that works and can be deployed now. But he was most scandalized by the following discovery: “That for at least 10 years, probably more, we have had the technology to build affordable, clean electric and hybrid vehicles that get up to 150 miles on a single charge,” he says.

The cars he is referring to were built by car-making giants Toyota and GM as part of the state of California’s Zero Emissions Vehicle Mandate back in the early 1990s, but the program was later canceled after persistent lobbying and lawsuits by the auto industry. (See the fascinating documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? for more details.) All the GM models were crushed and destroyed but many of the Toyotas are still in service now over a decade later he reports. What’s more, they are operating on their original battery packs. They are “wonderful cars” he says, “affordable, low maintenance and with zero emissions.” It became clear to Humes that the barriers to clean cars were not technological or economic. They were political and cultural.

The trailblazing men and women Humes reports on in his book are measured not by their bank accounts, but by their impact on the planet. Which is why as well as examining at length the story of millionaire Doug Tompkins (who founded clothing labels The North Face and Esprit and has, along with his wife, spent the past two decades creating 11 parks and preserves in more than two million acres of invaluable wilderness in Chile and Argentina) he spends as much book space looking at the work carried out by the Center for Biological Diversity, which operates out of a donated warehouse in Tucson, Arizona that the staff has to vacate one month out of the year to accommodate the city’s annual gem show. “It may be the most influential eco-baron of them all despite its shoestring budget,” he says. “The activists and lawyers there have been the most effective environmental group on the planet when it comes to protecting endangered species, slowing urban sprawl, and compelling government to act on climate change.” They were the people who got the Bush administration to admit that global warming was real. No small feat.

Other eco-barons looked at in the book include Terry Tamminen, a Malibu pool cleaner and part-time actor turned Chief Energy Policy Advisor to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger who formulated Schwarzenegger’s far-reaching and landmark climate change law, and Andy Frank, the inventor of the plug-in hybrid car who has rallied against the city of Detroit’s best efforts to sideline him. What these eco-barons all have in common, says Humes, is that they are visionaries. “They believe that their efforts will pay off -- not just directly, but through inspiring others to take up the cause as well.” Also they are indefatigable and endlessly tenacious. “I asked Tompkins once if he got discouraged sometimes,” recalls Humes, “and he said ‘Sure, sometimes I get up and think, there's no hope.’ So why go on? I asked. And he said simply, ‘Because I might be wrong.’”

When asked which of his eco-barons most impresses him, Humes says that is an impossible question because they are all extraordinary. What’s more, they are just a small sample. “You could write a set of encyclopedias called The Eco Barons if you wanted to.”

And of course they cannot undo all the environmental damage perpetrated alone. “I think if we are to succeed in resolving our environmental crises,” says Humes, (note the plural of the term crisis), “it will take a combination of forces -- inside government, inside the private sector, and the outliers, like my eco-barons, who have the knack of leading the pack.”

(MNN homepage photo: Mikey_Man/iStockphoto)


Meet the eco-barons
In a new book, author Edward Humes reports on titans who are measured not by their bank accounts, but by their impact on the planet.