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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. And, as always, you can re-read our enviro essays online.

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.

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