Hometown: Huntington, Vermont
Year joined TC: 2005
Position: Vice President for Conservation Advocacy
Favorite mustelid: wolverine (Gulo gulo)
Favorite landscape: northern New York’s Adirondack Park
At Tompkins Conservation, our work is driven by the core values of the fundamentality of natural health and beauty, the intrinsic value of all life, the need for deep, systemic global change, and the obligation that each individual has to help ensure planetary health. Tom Butler is the guardian of these ideals, always encouraging the team to align organizational values with the philosophy of deep ecology that inspired Douglas Tompkins’s work. From overseeing the Foundation for Deep Ecology’s book publishing program to presenting our work to broader audiences, Tom is key to the dissemination of our collective voice. His title is Vice President for Conservation Advocacy, but the team truly views him as our “Chief Philosophy Officer,” acting as a guiding compass, ensuring we retain the values that sparked the creation this groundbreaking family of organizations and initiatives.
I posed a few questions to Tom to understand what brought him to conservation work and what inspires his activism. Below is our conversation:
How do you relate to the philosophy of deep ecology?
I’d say I am an enthusiastic but not very knowledgeable proselytizer for deeply ecological thinking and practice. I’m not particularly well read in the literature of deep ecology—but the happy news on this front is that it takes less than a minute to read the 8 point deep ecology platform written by philosophers Arne Naess and George Sessions and to understand its central tenet—that all life has intrinsic value. That is the foundation for recognizing, analyzing, and rejecting the dominant, anthropocentric (human-centered) worldview that undergirds the present global eco-social crisis. Understanding intellectually the ecocentric vs. anthropocentric dichotomy is a good start, but to create an emotional bond with wild nature, I think you have to spend time outside, at least sometimes in big wild places where the scale of the world teaches humility. Stroll down a mudflat in Lake Clark National Park and see brown bear paw prints the size of dinner plates—at such moments the idea that we human are masters of the universe will seem less convincing.
I am lucky to live in the foothills of Vermont’s Green Mountains where I can walk out the back door and be immersed in wild beauty. We have moose and black bears, fishers and coyotes for neighbors, and we value them as much as our human neighbors. Last year my wife built a Shinrin-yoku trail in our woods, a path for “forest bathing” in the Japanese tradition. Almost every day, rain or shine, I walk (or ski) that short path, greeting the trees and rocks and plants. Not only are there health benefits including stress reduction from that kind of daily practice, but it’s a great way to reinforce an ecocentric worldview.
How did you first get involved with the Tompkins Conservation family of organizations and initiatives?
I became a grassroots wilderness activist in the 1980s, inspired by Dave Foreman and others on the leading edge of the conservation movement. In the 1990s I worked for the conservation journal Wild Earth, which Dave cofounded and which Doug Tompkins had long supported through the Foundation for Deep Ecology (FDE). So I first became acquainted with Kris and Doug as a grantee. I assumed the editorship of Wild Earth when its original editor John Davis went to work as a program officer for FDE in 1997. When Wild Earth folded in 2005, Doug hired me to work on a book project; that effort resulted in Wildlands Philanthropy: The Great American Tradition, a book that was partly inspired by the Wild Earth theme issue on that topic that Doug had read. There are many examples in conservation history of people using their time, energy, and wealth to save parks and other nature sanctuaries. By that time Kris and Doug had already acquired, through their foundations, huge amounts of wild habitat in Chile and Argentina with the idea of saving it for nature, but initially I don’t think they were really aware of the historical examples of individuals buying and donating land for protected areas, including national parks. Of course they have done just that at an unprecedented scale.
What recent project would you care to highlight, and why?
Putting together the recently released 25-year retrospective on Tompkins Conservation’s accomplishments was useful to me personally—I learned many new things about our team’s efforts—but also think it will be compelling to external audiences. Many people have the idea the Kris and Doug Tompkins are just those American entrepreneurs who bought up land in Patagonia for new national parks. Which of course is true, but there is so much more to the story—the activism, the organic farms and ranch operations, the reintroduction programs putting extirpated species such as giant anteaters back into their native habitat, etc. People looking through the 25-year book often have the reaction: “I had no idea that Tompkins Conservation is doing all this.” And in reality the book only scratches the surface of what the team has accomplished over the past quarter century. Moreover, it doesn’t cover the ongoing, and even accelerating, land conservation work underway currently.
What does the future of Tompkins Conservation look like, in your view?
Under Kris’s leadership, I see the team that she and Doug assembled over the years doing exceptional conservation work in Argentina and Chile. The scale and ambition of it—trying to breed captive jaguars and reintroduce their offspring to the Iberá marshlands, and working to add at least five new national parks to Chile’s national park system while jumpstarting ecotourism along the “Route of Parks”—these are audacious, but achievable goals. I think we will get them done, and it is tremendously exciting to be part of the effort.
You’ve written or edited books about various topics including population overshoot, the toxic energy economy, mountaintop-removal coal mining and the value of protected areas. What, in your view, is the greatest threat to nature and how would you suggest we combat that threat?
The key driver of the global extinction crisis—which is the greatest contraction in life’s diversity in the last 65 or so million years—is habitat loss. Overkilling, especially of marine wildlife, and invasive exotic species and climate change are also in that deadly-to-life mix. All of these stem from overpopulation and overdevelopment—that is, humanity has grown too large and we use the world badly. Our numbers and behavior are linked to the overarching question of how we view the world—is it a community of life to which we belong (as good neighbors!) or just a collection of “resources” for our use, enjoyment, and profit? Commodity or community—that is the fundamental question. The language we use helps undermine, or reinforce, the current dominant worldview of human supremacy. This is a particular interest of mine (see a brief talk on the “language of dominion”).
I could answer the second part of your question in the standard way—make family planning tools and education universally available, educate girls in the developing world and work for gender equity everywhere, reform the carbon-emitting energy economy, and protect lots more wildlife habitat in interconnected systems of protected areas on land and sea. Of course I believe in all those things, and we’d be on the way to a flourishing biosphere if we can make progress toward those goals. To do so, however, to really gain broad-based cultural support for such life-affirming policies, I think we need a cognitive revolution, something Doug Tompkins recognized decades ago when he launched the Foundation for Deep Ecology.
We need to change the way we think about our place on Earth, the language we use to describe our kin in the community of life (not “natural resources”!), and from that new worldview our behaviors and societal trajectory will change. And in the meantime, protecting wild habitat, especially in new national parks, can help buy time and save species, as well as mitigate climate chaos. It’s good work, and there is plenty to do: every individual can find their own place in a global effort to rewild the Earth, and rewild ourselves.