Sierra Magazine

Interview

"The Revolution Starts at the Bottom"

An outdoor legend says each of us can help save the planet.

by Daniel Duane

Yvon Chouinard has skied Andean volcanoes, made first descents on Montana rivers, bonefished Christmas Island, pioneered Baja surf breaks, and put up new climbs everywhere from Patagonia’s Fitzroy to Yosemite’s El Capitan. His passions carried over into business success and environmental commitment. After reinventing mountaineering hardware in the 1960s, Chouinard started outdoor-clothing manufacturer Patagonia in Ventura, California, and now donates 1 percent of sales—or 10 percent of net profits, whichever is more—to grassroots environmental organizations. In little over a decade, this has amounted to more than $15 million. In 2001, along with Craig Mathews, owner of Blue Ribbon Flies, Chouinard founded 1% for the Planet, a nonprofit encouraging other companies to follow in Patagonia’s philanthropic footsteps. Hoping to hear about 1% for the Planet and Chouinard’s extraordinarily adventurous life, author Daniel Duane caught up with the 60-something vagabond to surf and chat at a remote beach in central California.

Daniel Duane: Did you have a eureka moment as an environmentalist?

Yvon Chouinard: In the early 1970s, I attended a Ventura City Council meeting about channelizing the Ventura River, which would’ve ruined it. Here’s one scientist after another, talking about how there’s nothing alive in the river anyway, so it’s not going to hurt anything. It sounded like a done deal. Then this 19-year-old student got up and gave a slide show. Birds nesting on the willows, snakes, all these different animals living along a supposedly dead river. He brought the house down—one guy. So I got involved. I started my activism close to home. Some of these businesses that have never given away money for the environment, they want to be members of 1% and they’ll ask, "Where do we start?" I tell them, "Start locally, and you’ll realize how much fun it is."

Duane: Any particular environmental accomplishment that gives you the most pleasure?

Chouinard: When we moved our warehouse from Ventura to Reno, a lot of our employees realized there wasn’t much official wilderness in Nevada. So they traveled all over on weekends, and they looked at some 12 million acres that could qualify under the Wilderness Act. They started with the easiest, the Black Rock Desert, and a couple of the guys said to me, "Look, if you continue paying our salaries and give us a desk, we think we’ll have a wilderness bill within a couple of years." They joined up with the Nevada Wilderness Coalition, and both Nevada senators, and one of the employees went back to Washington and they pulled it off. There’s over a million acres of new wilderness in Nevada because of that. I asked those guys to calculate how much it cost us, and it was ten cents an acre. That’s why most of the money that we give away goes to activist work.

Duane: To the grassroots, you mean?

Chouinard: If you think about all the gains our society has made, from independence to now, it wasn’t government. It was activism. People think, "Oh, Teddy Roosevelt established Yosemite National Park, what a great president." BS. It was John Muir who invited Roosevelt out and then convinced him to ditch his security and go camping. It was Muir, an activist, a single person. If you look at civil rights, it wasn’t Johnson or any of the presidents, it was the black kids standing up to federal marshals. That’s why I started 1%. Government can use taxes to cause harm. Corporations can use profits to cause harm. But all these little NGOs have to hold a bake sale, for Christ’s sake, to exist. I want to find a way to fund them, the housewives willing to stand up in front of the bulldozers, forcing the government to obey its own laws. If we want a healthy planet, we’ve got to dig into our pockets—I look at that 1 percent as not even a charity. It’s an Earth tax, for being part of the problem.

Duane: What sort of reaction to this voluntary tax are you getting from business leaders?

Chouinard: Well, we have 30 members, we’re just starting. They’re little companies—yoga studios, wineries, fly-fishing shops. But the revolution starts at the bottom. If we can get enough companies and enough people saying, "Hey, I need an attorney and here’s one in the yellow pages with a logo that says he donates 1 percent. That’s my guy."

Duane: Let’s talk about the outdoors. Any particular adventures that stand out?

Chouinard: In Antarctica, we were stuck in a tent fighting for our lives for 72 straight hours in a monster storm after heading down this wall. We were in our sleeping bags with our boots on, trying to prop up the tent in 60-mile-an-hour winds with gusts at a hundred. The tent was held down with pitons and we had no food, no water. It was the worst experience of my life. Well, I was in an avalanche in Tibet, where people were killed. That was bad, but that was over fairly quickly.

Duane: In terms of more enjoyable experiences—your favorite surf trip ever?

Chouinard: I hitched a ride from Hawaii to Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean on a sailboat with a bunch of young kids. They really didn’t know how to sail and neither did I, but I offered to be the cook because I wanted to surf Palmyra Atoll and Fanning Island and go bonefishing. Everything on the boat was electronic, including pumps to retrieve freshwater. They had 300 CDs and their compass was off between 3 and 20 degrees. Sure enough, we lost all electricity. At one point, I was steering the boat by the stars. I had no idea of their names, so I’d just pick a star and think, "That’s the direction I want to go," and when it went behind a cloud, I’d pick another one. We barely made it, but we got some great surf. That was just a few years ago.

Duane: Favorite river trip?

Chouinard: I did the first descent of a river in Montana called the Clark Fork, through this canyon with 1,000-foot walls. There were some unrunnable waterfalls with sheer walls on both sides, so we’d traverse out, do some five-seven climbing, put in an anchor, and then lower a guy in his boat. You hold on by locking your knees in the boat, and then you unclick the ’biner once you’re in the water.

Duane: Fishing trip?

Chouinard: I don’t know, there are so many. My favorite thing to do is to disappear in the South Pacific with my fishing pole and my surfboard.

Duane: How recently have you done that?

Chouinard: Last year. Some friends and my son, we chartered a boat and went around the Tuamotus.

Duane: Good waves?

Chouinard: Perfect. We’re going again in February. My wife doesn’t like the tropics, but I’d disappear there. If I were 20 or 30 years younger, I’d get out of the country, because just by living here I feel like I’m supporting the Bush administration.

Duane: Do you have a next act in mind?

Chouinard: 1% is the most important thing I’ve ever tried to do, because that could be a revolution. We could get people thinking they’re not going to wait around for the government to solve their problems, that there are ways of doing it right now. I’ve got to get all these aware people to act. They feel like they have no effect on events or other people or anything, and that’s why nothing happens. If they could get to the point where I was at that city council meeting in Ventura—I thought, "Oh my God, one person can defeat all of these prostituted scientists and all these so-called experts." One kid. That’s amazing power.


Daniel Duane is author of Caught Inside: A Surfer’s Year on the California Coast (North Point Press, 1997) and other books, including a forthcoming novel from Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

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