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Nat Geo's 'Wild Life' Asks Whether Saving the Environment Justifies Colonialism

By Diana Helmuth | Film | March 28, 2023 |

By Diana Helmuth | Film | March 28, 2023 |


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Wild Life tells us about the extraordinary efforts of environmental entrepreneurs Kris and Doug Tompkins as they plan the largest private land donation in history to create more national parks in Patagonia. At its heart, it’s a love story. The tagline on the poster is “love is a force of nature,” and the affection between Kris and Doug is deep, believable, and almost miraculously un-syrupy. The affection between the Tompkinses and the governments of Patagonia, however, is non-existent, until they apparently find an ally in former president Michelle Bachelet to get their parks created. As much as I admire the relationship between Kris and Doug, I can’t help feeling that the filmmakers missed an opportunity here, and focused on the wrong love story.

Funded by National Geographic and directed by Academy Award winners Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin (makers of the intimate rock climbing biopic Free Solo), Wild Life is a movie that knows its audience: people who dream of summiting peaks on weekends then retiring to a custom-built house with the love of their lives in some enchanted valley a thousand miles deep into the middle of nowhere (it should be noted: I am one of these people). As you might expect from a Nat Geo film, the visuals are a sumptuous feast of granite mountaintops, rare wildlife, and green valleys with gold-thread rivers flowing into sunsets. Jimmy Chin’s photography makes it easy to understand why, in the mid-1990s, self-made millionaire Doug Tompkins quit his job to move to Patagonia and dedicate the rest of his life (and fortune) to buying up land — with the express goal of donating it back to the government as protected national parks.

The film takes us through Kris and Doug’s mid-life meet cute. Kris is a powerhouse in her own right, a competitive skier and surfer, who had been the CEO of Patagonia, Inc for almost 20 years by the time she meets Doug. Meanwhile, Doug is in the process of abandoning his career as imaging director of iconic ’90s fashion brand Esprit, in order to live in the wilderness. Doug Tompkins seems to be the original template from which all modern puff-jacketed entrepreneurs are cut. He possesses a brand of self-assurance that borders on alien; he was kicked out of high school; he is a millionaire; he does whatever he wants, when he wants, and seems a bit unable to understand why others don’t. This includes daredevil rock climbing, co-founding The North Face clothing brand because no one was making the outdoor clothing he actually wanted, telling his Esprit customers to be better environmentalists by buying fewer of his products, and purchasing millions of acres of property in other people’s countries so that he can tell them what to do with it. The only thing that redeems him from coming off as a complete douchebag is his commitment to deep ecology, and his love for Kris. At one point, he sends her a card titled “rare and beautiful birds,” with images of several avians, and in the center, a candid picture of his middle-aged wife.

Doug passed away in 2015 after his kayak overturned in a lake in Southern Chile. He was wearing a life jacket. The trouble was the 40-degree water. This side plot struck a chord with me as an avid hiker, former Patagonia tourist, and newly minted kayaker to the chilling waters of the Pacific Northwest. It’s hard to imagine how water can kill you while your head is clean above it. I had tears in my eyes as Doug’s tripmates recounted his final hour, humming into the sky as his brain succumbed to the terminal fog of hypothermia.

Kris’ grief for her husband is practically palpable through the screen. My heart ached for her, then cheered her on as she pulled herself off the floor by re-dedicating her life to finishing the national parks project to which the two of them were so committed. She begins buying even more land in Chile. She has nothing left to lose, she is fearless, demanding, a woman on fire. She wins. And this is where the film begins to miss an opportunity.

At some point, the Chilean government went from seeing Kris and Doug Tompkins as dangerous, pretentious invaders, to helpful heroes. It’s clear that this happened. It’s not clear how.

Vasarhelyi and Chin share early 2000s footage of Chilean senators and congresspeople expressing skepticism at Kris and Doug as they began buying up untold masses of Chilean land. They are accused of kicking farmers off their ranches (they didn’t), and building American military sites (they weren’t). The fear was not without basis, however. The CIA spent millions of dollars in covert operations between 1963 and 1973 trying to influence presidential elections in Chile; Nixon had great fears that the country would become “another Cuba.” It appears the South Remembers. Additionally, the Chilean economy was (and is) heavily reliant on mining — that is to say, digging deep into the very mountains Kris and Doug wanted to save, and millions of people (like me) will eventually pay a lot of money to hike.

Near the end of the film, we watch former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet cheerfully sign the new parks into reality. It’s a triumphant moment for Kris, the audience, and apparently Bachelet. However, at what point the government, and the people of Patagonia, actually got on Kris and Doug’s team is not entirely made clear, and this is where I feel an internal tension that never gets addressed by the film.

I consider myself a liberal: I am anti-colonial and pro-environment. And here I am watching a story about what is effectively colonialism leading to environmentalism. I didn’t want to see Kris and Doug as Western millionaires imposing their privileged values on a poorer nation, but, well, that’s what they were doing. And I liked them, because they were imposing values I cared about (ecology). It was a weird feeling.

I am not saying the mining companies that might have taken over Kris and Doug’s planned parks would have been better for the people of Chile, but it wasn’t clear that these new national parks were better for the working class, either. It is very easy for Westerners to point to a non-Western country and demand that they protect their wild spaces — that they are too beautiful, too important for the climate to be destroyed. But we never want to talk about the vacuums that result from such starry-eyed demands, the uneven burdens that fall on the working class when a country changes its industries. It is ultimately arrogant to tell someone to stop doing something bad for money without also proposing how they will recover their lost income, especially if you are rich, and they are not. Kris and Doug, foreign millionaires, clearly figured out how to convince the Chileans that they all wanted the same thing, that these parks were good for everybody the world over. But it’s never made clear how.

This untold story could be an important roadmap for showing how well-meaning Westerners can actually approach formerly colonized countries (especially those whose economies are reliant on mineral exports) with proposals to save their wildernesses without, well, coming off as rich assholes. Wild Life is an apparently successful example of this love story, but we only get the happy ending. I am so curious about the intercultural work it undoubtedly took to get everyone on the same page.

Perhaps I’m asking this movie to be something it never set out to be. But with funding from National Geographic and an obvious audience of upper-middle-class outdoors enthusiasts, I think we would have wanted to hear that particular love story, too.

Wild Life was screened at the 2023 SXSW Film & TV Festival. It will screen in theaters on April 14th and will air on Disney+ on May 26th.

Diana Helmuth is an award-winning non-fiction author with a tendency to overshare about travel, humor, romanticizing nature, and millennial cultural trends. Find her on TikTok and Twitter or at dianahelmuth.com.



Header Image Source: National Geographic