Activist Athletes

by Yvon Chouinard
Fall 2005

Last fall, Patagonia launched a controversial “Vote the Environment” campaign: We encouraged those who love the outdoors and wild places to connect their passions to political action. After the election, people were asking “What can we do now?” Here, and in the next few catalogs, we will address this question from different points of view as we continue to explore what it means to be an environmentalist right now. Look for upcoming essays by Bill McKibben, Theodore Roosevelt IV and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.

Democracy works best in small, homogeneous societies where everyone has to take responsibility for his or her actions. In the early days of our country and until the end of the 19th century, we had three powerful social forces: the federal government, local government and civil democracy. Of the three, I would argue that civil democracy has been by far the most powerful. Activists were responsible for breaking away from Britain in the first place. Civil democracy, funded by private philanthropy, fueled the two great social movements of the 19th century: the abolition of slavery and the struggle for women’s rights.

Creating Yosemite National Park was not Teddy Roosevelt’s idea; it was the activist and inveterate hiker John Muir who talked Roosevelt into ditching his Secret Service men and camping under the redwoods.

African-American women and children, who refused to sit in the back of segregated buses and stood up to federal marshals, forced the government to finally enact civil rights legislation.

Anti-war activity stopped the war in Vietnam.

If you read a newspaper on any given day, you will see that most of the gains we are making as a society are still being done by activist citizens’ organizations. These activists are taking politicians and CEOs to court for their malfeasance. They are forcing corporations to clean up sweatshops, sell only sustainably harvested wood, recycle their computers and cut down on toxic wastes.

Among these citizens are people I call activist athletes: citizen kayakers and fishermen who work to bring down obsolete dams and let the rivers flow. Falconers who brought the peregrine falcon back from near extinction. Duck hunters who have done the most to protect waterfowl in North America.

People may be afraid of the term activist because they associate it with ecosabotage and violent protests, but I’m talking about normal citizens who want the government to live up to its obligation to protect our air, water and all other natural resources. These activists have a contagious passion for the issues they support, whether they are mothers fighting to clean up toxic landfills that are killing their children, farmers losing their fourth-generation family businesses to urban sprawl, or surfers who want to keep the ocean clean. These are the people on the frontlines, trying either to make the government obey its own laws or to recognize the need for a new law.

That’s why Patagonia’s Earth Tax, 1 percent of our sales, goes primarily to them. I’ve learned from a lifetime of being outdoors that nature loves diversity. It hates monoculture and centralization. A thousand activist groups, each working on a specific problem that they’re passionate about, can accomplish much more than a bloated organization or government.

Whom do you trust to protect the remaining 5 percent of old growth forest and the few healthy salmon streams left in North America? The Forest Service? State and local governments? Corporations like Pacific Lumber or Weyerhaeuser? I don’t trust any of them. The only ones I trust are small grassroots citizens organizations made up of people willing to tree-sit for months or stand in front of bulldozers. We need the River Keepers, the Bay Keepers, the Forest Guardians and the protesters who chain themselves to the front doors of government agencies.

Worldwide, more than 100,000 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are working on ecological and social sustainability. In the United States alone over 30,000 nonprofit organizations are addressing such issues as biodiversity conservation, women’s health, renewable energy, climate change, water conservation, trade laws, population growth and wilderness protection. The fact that they all have arisen independently, without any common institutional framework, is a tremendous statement about civil democracy and the extent of the environmental crisis. Most of them are local groups working long hours with minimal resources, and they are hanging on to existence by the thinnest threads, depending on small donations and fund-raising events like benefit auctions and bake sales.

Patagonia’s financial contributions to activist causes have been significant (between 1985 and 2005 we gave $22 million in cash and in-kind donations), but I’ve always thought we should provide more than dollars. Among our other programs and in-kind assistance, Patagonia holds a “Tools for Grassroots Activists” conference every 18 months, where we teach activists the organizational, business and marketing skills that small groups need to survive in a competitive media environment. This is one of the most important services Patagonia provides. These people are often isolated, scared and bravely passionate, and most of them are woefully unprepared to confront big business or big government with their teams of attorneys and hired experts. By giving activists the tools to present their position clearly and effectively, we do as much good as by giving them financial support.

Right now, the environment is under even greater attack than before. Laws and regulations developed in a bipartisan spirit have been gutted, repealed or ignored. Pristine wildlands are suddenly vulnerable to mining and drilling, and corporate desires take precedence over conservation. We need all the activist athletes we can find. If you love the places where you practice your sports, join with us in protecting them. We need to encourage civil democracy by joining up, volunteering, or supporting financially all the groups fighting on behalf of the environment. Remember, we are the voice of democracy.

Adapted from and reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman. © 2005 Yvon Chouinard. Publication date: October 10, 2005. For an extended preview, see the October issue of Outside magazine.

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Yvon Chouinard is the founder and owner of Patagonia, Inc.