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Although he is an environmental pessimist, Yvon Chouinard believes ‘we can save a few special places.’Tim Davis

The end of the Second World War sparked Hollywood's golden age – red carpets, palm trees, Bogie and Bacall. But not far from all the glamour and glitz, a boy haunted the banks of the Los Angeles River, fishing for crawdads and hunting rabbits with a bow and arrow.

Although Yvon Chouinard lived in Burbank, his family roots were Québécois; as a boy, he had wanted to be a fur trapper. And although he would later make his mark as a hugely successful businessman, he grew up with a love of the wild and a passion for waterways that burns as intensely as ever nearly seven decades later.

Last month, that passion brought him back to Canada, where he and his film DamNation were the closing-night attraction at the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival. The documentary, executive-produced by Mr. Chouinard, reveals something unsettling about many dams in the United States: They no longer serve any useful purpose.

The screening was sold out, largely because Mr. Chouinard's love of the outdoor life also has brought him fame and great fortune. At 76, he is "America's most unlikely business guru," according to The Wall Street Journal, and his company – Patagonia, which is more successful than ever, with sales of about $600-million worth of high-end outdoor clothing this year – is "perhaps best understood as a sort of performance art."

But this business guru is also well aware of plans that were given the official go-ahead this week to build a third massive hydroelectric dam on the Peace River in northeastern British Columbia. Known as Site C, it is expected to cost almost $9-billion – the biggest infrastructure investment the province has ever made – with construction to begin next summer and to take as long as a decade.

Mr. Chouinard questions B.C. Hydro's case for flooding 55 square kilometres, much of it farmland and traditional First Nations territory. "It really is a fallacy that hydro is clean power," he argues. "It's like 'clean' coal. There's no such thing. I mean, with wind turbines and solar, it's pretty crazy to destroy an entire river, destroy an entire valley, destroy some of the best agricultural land in Canada."

Challenging the necessity of something isn't new for him, just as DamNation, his company's first feature-length documentary, is far from the only sign of its social conscience. A 2010 case study by Harvard University's business school pointed out that, "most radically," Patagonia has asked its customers to "buy less and think twice before they purchased a garment." Or as Mr. Chouinard frames his anti-sale sales pitch: "Do you really need it, or do you just want it?"

Such an attitude seems odd for the sole owner of a company nicknamed "Pata-Gucci," and whose customers have an average annual household income of $160,000. But Mr. Chouinard has never been driven solely by profit. Since those boyhood days when he dreamed of becoming a trapper, he has been a pioneering rock climber, a blacksmith and an inventor, as well as an environmentalist.

The last thing he ever wanted to be is a businessman. In fact, he explains on the phone from his home in Ventura, north of Los Angeles, fresh from a morning of surfing, "I'm a socialist, to tell you the truth."

'This sucks' is the mindset

Yvon Vincent Chouinard was born Nov. 9, 1938, in Lewiston, Me., and grew up in nearby Lisbon, speaking only French until he was 7. That was when his family (he had three older siblings) piled into a car for what he calls a "Grapes of Wrath migration" to Burbank. His mother, Yvonne, felt that California's drier, warmer climate would ease her husband Gerard's asthma.

They were not the first Chouinards to go West. Gerard had been born, one of nine children, in Tingwick, a village in Quebec's Eastern Townships. Searching for work, his father moved the family to Western Canada, only to find anti-French prejudice instead, and soon hobbled back home. Then, like so many Quebeckers, Gerard and his own father crossed the border to find jobs in New England's milling industry. Gerard was just 10, and his schooling had ended at Grade 3, but his mechanical acumen carried him, and he would eventually work as a repairman, plumber, electrician, carpenter and plasterer.

But he was a distant father. Jarred by the move to L.A., Yvon became a loner. He inherited his father's ability to work with his hands, but Gerard "was pretty much an alcoholic … and just worked all his life," his son says. "He had nothing to do with the outdoors."

As a teenager, Yvon joined a falconry club, and then fell in love with rock climbing, eventually becoming one of the sport's greats. He took part in first ascents on Yosemite National Park's iconic granite monolith, El Capitan; and also in the Bugaboos, granite spires in B.C.'s East Kootenays. In 1983, People magazine called him "America's premier mountaineer."

To fellow climbers, he was the ultimate "dirtbag" – someone devoted to the sport and to living on the cheap. At one point, his diet consisted of porcupine and blue grouse that he hunted, along with tuna cat food (dented cans bought in bulk).

Patagonia began as an equipment company: At 18, Mr. Chouinard bought a used forge and anvil and set up as a backyard blacksmith so that he could make his own climbing gear. His father helped him build a workspace in an old chicken coop and lent him $825 for more equipment as the enterprise expanded.

At first, he made equipment for himself, and sold enough to fund his own climbing. Then, through the 1960s, a real business began to flourish. In 1970, he happened on a rugby sweater in Scotland that was well-suited to climbing, and a clothing company emerged. The 1980s saw rapid growth and dreams of becoming a $1-billion enterprise. But after expanding too rapidly, he would later sell the equipment business and lay off 120 people – one-fifth of his work force.

Bruce Hill, a former logger turned fishing guide and conservationist, had met Mr. Chouinard in 1990 when he was fishing on the Skeena River in Northern B.C. He promptly asked for money for a conservation project. Mr. Chouinard said yes, and the two later became friends.

Asked what Mr. Chouinard is like, Mr. Hill laughs and calls him "a piece of work." Then, he pauses and weighs the question: "I think he's one of the major figures of his generation. He's had a lot of effect on a lot of people. He's very generous. He's ruthlessly honest. He doesn't care a lot of times about making people uncomfortable. I think he enjoys making people uncomfortable."

Mr. Chouinard has certainly never liked being told what to do, and loves to say that, to his mind, what makes a great entrepreneur is also what drives the juvenile delinquent – "This sucks" is the mindset and "I'm going to do my own thing" is the goal.

He is something of a rascal. He called his 2005 memoir Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman. And, on the phone, he slips into a Québécois-inflected accent as he describes being asked by deans at Yale University, during a visit there, what he'd do to make the place better. His wry suggestion: Lower the height of the campus urinals. (He is 5-foot-4.)

More a guiding light than Patagonia's hands-on boss, Mr. Chouinard describes himself as the "company philosopher," but his latest innovation aims to change another industry. Patagonia Provisions represents a notable departure for a clothing manufacturer. Launched in 2012, it sells organic, sustainably fished smoked sockeye salmon, as well as tsampa, a Himilayan soup made of grains and vegetables.

The business stumbled at first, handicapped by supply problems and Patagonia's inexperience in the food industry. But Mr. Chouinard remains optimistic. "I see it as a bigger company than Patagonia," he says. "I feel like my work with Patagonia, the clothing company, is over. What I set out to do is make a really good-quality product, and cause the least amount of harm, and then influence others to do something similar with their companies.

"I feel like I've done that. I want to do the same thing with food."

Naked minimalism

Mr. Chouinard did not envision becoming a businessman, and he didn't plan to become an environmentalist.

But in the early 1970s, there was a proposal to create a concrete channel at the mouth of the Ventura River. He was vaguely aware that a significant population of steelhead trout had been destroyed when the river had been dammed upstream. But his real concern was surfing – the proposed channel would ruin the surf break at the mouth of the river, near Patagonia's office.

With financial support from Mr. Chouinard's fledgling company, the opponents of the proposal were victorious; that victory, in turn, gave Mr. Chouinard a sense of mission.

A guiding philosophy, throughout his life, has come from French writer and pioneering aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (who worked in Argentina and flew in the Patagonia Mountains): naked minimalism as functional ideal. Strip something to its essence to discover its greatest strength. Mr. Chouinard has taken to tenkara, the Japanese method of fly fishing that uses a rod but no reel. In fact, he co-wrote a book on the subject, Simple Fly Fishing, that was published this year.

And in that same spirit, Patagonia doesn't maximize its profits at all costs. In 2001, Mr. Chouinard co-founded a program, 1% for the Planet, that now sees 1,200 companies in 48 countries donating 1 per cent of their sales to environmental causes, something Patagonia has done since the mid-1980s.

The company has also attracted attention with its counterintuitive marketing – for example, ads telling consumers "Don't buy this jacket" to spotlight Patagonia's "common threads initiative," a program to bolster the appeal of "worn wear" by encouraging people to repair and recycle what they already have.

'Snip here'

Now comes DamNation, the foray into feature documentaries. Although Mr. Chouinard is executive producer, Matt Stoecker, his biologist son-in-law, was the project's co-producer, working with Felt Soul Media, a small Colorado filmmaker.

DamNation begins with "this great feat of mankind" – words uttered by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt on Sept. 30, 1935, as he dedicated the famous Hoover Dam (then called the Boulder). But the film argues that dams need not be forever – many are now obsolete and should be removed to restore fisheries and watersheds to their natural states.

More than 40,000 of the world's dams are considered large – taller than 15 metres, the height of a four-storey building. The U.S. has about 5,500, and Canada another 933, with more on the way – some of them highly controversial.

Site C, for example, has generated such a spirited pushback and compelling counterargument, says Mr. Chouinard, that "you have to ask: 'Well, wait a minute, there has to be a reason for this. So what is it? Is it going to power 450,000 homes? Or is it going to industry?' "

His film, which has been on tour this fall, and will continue screening into next year, ends not far from where Patagonia's environmentalism began: the Matilija Dam, about 25 kilometres upstream from the mouth of the Ventura River, where four decades ago Mr. Chouinard was fighting for surfers.

Built in 1948 for water storage and flood control, the Matilija is long obsolete, its reservoir choked in sediment. The documentary shows activists decorating it with scissors and a dashed line indicating "Snip here." They were inspired by the jagged black crack painted by an eco-activist in 1987 on a 64-metre-high dam on the Elwha River north of Seattle – one of two on the Elwha whose removal was completed this year. The largest such project in history, the dam's dismantling almost instantly allowed the river to spring back to life.

A funny contradiction

Bruce Hill, the former logger, who is now director of the Headwaters Initiative, a program that promotes the conservation of B.C. rivers, recalls how his second request to Mr. Chouinard for money was granted so quickly. They were not yet friends, and Mr. Hill asked if he could pose a personal question: "Will this work? Why do you give money away?"

Mr. Chouinard smiled, he says, and answered: "Naw, there's no way we're going to make it. But we can save a few special places."

Indeed, despite his efforts on behalf of the planet (and the fact that friends say he has one of the world's great laughs), the philosopher of Patagonia is anything but an unbridled optimist.

Ian Gill, a Vancouver journalist turned environmentalist, and a friend of Mr. Chouinard for 20 years now, calls him "kind of a funny contradiction." According to Mr. Gill, "he's incredibly driven and positive about what he does, but he has almost a Malthusian despair about where we're going."

It almost seems that the more Patagonia thrives – sales have risen by 60 per cent in the past five years – the less confidence its company philosopher has in humanity's ability to safeguard its own future.

"Until Manhattan is five feet under water," he says, "we're not going to do anything."


Although Yvon Chouinard's DamNation argues for the destruction of large dams, some are still being built – but on a much shakier foundation.

Once considered great engineering feats that generate electricity, provide irrigation and reduce flooding, they are increasingly seen as outmoded.

British Columbians were reminded of this on Wednesday when the province approved construction of Site C, a highly controversial hydroelectric project on the Peace River.

Work is to start next summer, with completion slated for 2025, and the dam may meet 1/12th of B.C.'s future electricity needs.

"We need to ensure there is power," Premier Christy Clark said in making the announcement.

In fact, dams often make no economic sense, according to a study published this year by British researchers.

Four professors at Oxford University – specialists in public policy, business and statistics – writing in the Energy Journal argued that dams typically cost far more and take far longer to build than projected. Describing preliminary estimates as "delusional," they concluded that project backers "systematically and predictably" underestimate what dams will cost and overestimate their resulting value.

In the case of Site C, the cost estimate has risen nearly $1-billion in the past week alone – to $8.8-billion from $7.9-billion.

How firm is this figure? The new Wuskwatim dam in northern Manitoba serves as a cautionary tale. It was completed in 2012, at a cost of $1.8-billion – double the original estimate.

Opposition to Site C is fierce, and the project faces numerous lawsuits, including actions filed last month in Federal Court by First Nations in northeastern B.C. and neighbouring Alberta who hope to halt construction.

Also among the opponents is Andrew Weaver, the province's only sitting member of the Green Party. Although a renowned climate scientist (he was the Canada Research Chair in climate modelling and analysis at the University of Victoria), Mr. Weaver was a vocal supporter of Site C until five years ago.

He now argues that B.C. is making a major mistake, saying that he changed his mind solely on the basis of economics.

The prices of solar and wind power have plummeted and he now feels the vast cost of the dam endangers the province's triple-A credit rating.

"Site C makes no economic sense," he concludes.

The project also has drawn "mixed reviews" from the corporate community, says Jock Finlayson, an economist in charge of policy at the Business Council of B.C. Again, cost is a concern, he says, noting the absence of a full outside vetting of the project's budget.

B.C. Hydro promotes Site C's 1,100-megawatt capacity as enough to supply 450,000 homes. But there are other proposed demands for power in the province, starting with that needed to produce liquefied natural gas.

Exporting LNG is a principal pillar of B.C.'s future economic strategy, and Calgary-based power producer TransAlta Corp. has estimated the province may need as much as 4,000 megawatts – almost four Site Cs – to run its LNG plants.