by John Bobey
photographs by Jeff Gale | September 1, 2011 | Lifestyle
|A young boy carries water to his village in Rwanda|
|Giraffes in Rwanda|
When thoughts turn to the organizations that have defined the environmental movement, they usually head to the oldies but goodies. Greenpeace got its start in 1971, the World Wildlife Fund a full decade earlier in 1961, The Nature Conservancy 10 years before that and the Sierra Club all the way back in 1892. However, it’s a relative newcomer to the green team that has been shaping today’s environmental discussion and gaining the attention, involvement and respect of the world’s leaders.
It wasn’t until 1987 that Conservation International (CI) got in the game and immediately started changing it. From a handful of passionate individuals, the organization has grown to nearly 1,000 employees in more than 30 countries around the world, charged with protecting myriad plant and animal species as well as plenty of land. Over the past 20-plus years, CI has partnered with numerous presidents, prime ministers and other heads of state, engaging 1,200 partners around the globe and, in each of the past three years, giving away about 31 percent of its total expenditures to other nonprofit organizations.
25 Years of Good
With the celebration of its silver anniversary coming up in January 2012, CI held its annual dinner gala on a warm night in late June at the American Museum of Natural History. The focus of the event was equal parts fundraising for CI’s conservation work, and discussing the state of CI’s union and how climate change continues to impact the entire world—so much so that if we don’t take serious, immediate measures, those attending the event at the museum could eventually become an exhibit in it. The evening’s centerpiece was a conversation between ABC’s George Stephanopoulos and former Prime Minister of Great Britain Tony Blair, who helped put climate change on the international political agenda at the 2005 G8 summit.
When CI’s cofounder and current chairman and CEO, Peter Seligmann, first met the former Prime Minister, he found they shared the same no-nonsense approach to recognizing the danger of climate change. “I met him about a year ago, when I was speaking to the JPMorgan Chase International Advisory Board—he chairs that board,” says Seligmann. “He knows the topic very well; he’s very interested, very concerned. He was one of the first to say this is a really significant challenge that has to be addressed.”
During his talk at the gala, Blair emphasized that a key point in his strategy for improving environmental awareness is “good should not be the enemy of best.” That’s practical, that’s efficient, and that’s why Blair is such a natural fit with CI and Seligmann.
Getting the Message Across
When you meet the organization cofounder, it’s immediately clear that you’re not dealing with some idealist spouting green philosophy and feeling really good about his outfit from the Sundance catalog. He understands that he and his organization live in the real world, and Seligmann’s plainspoken demeanor leaves no mistaking that he’s the guy who puts aside poetry and politics to get things done. “A few weeks ago I had the real pleasure to be... at the Microsoft CEO summit,” he recalls, “and I had a chance to talk to Bill Gates, who originally didn’t think that climate change was necessarily caused by burning fossil fuels. I asked him, ‘What changed your mind?’ He said, ‘If you’re in Washington, DC, there’s the science that says climate change is real, and there’s the science that says climate change is not real.’ Science is used as a tool to get across whatever your ideological belief is. Gates said, ‘What I like to do is make my decision based on real science as opposed to ideological science, so I eliminated the ideology.’”
Silverback gorilla in Rwanda
|Former Prime Minister of Great Britain Tony Blair and ABC News correspondent George Stephanopoulos|
|Lion in Tanzania|
The way Seligmann tells this story, it’s obvious he shares Gates’ approach and tries to impart that kind of nonpartisan sensibility to influential thinkers everywhere. Maybe you can’t get elected to office that way, but when you’re trying to build an international network of partnerships—a Seligmann and CI specialty—it’s a sound strategy.
“The point I made to this JPMorgan Chase International Advisory Board meeting [with Tony Blair]—and they all had their own planes—was this,” recalls Seligmann. “If there was a 1 percent chance that your plane was going to crash, and you knew it beforehand, but it was just 1 percent, would you put your children on that plane and fly across the country? Would you fly across the country? The answer was no. So let’s step back. Are we 100 percent certain that fossil fuels are the cause of climate change? The answer is, we’re not. We know it’s not a 0 percent probability, and it’s probably not 50 percent—the likelihood is it’s probably higher—but let’s pretend it’s just a 10 percent probability. When you have intense weather shifts, bad things happen, and we see that from what we’ve observed in the past year or so… tornadoes in Alabama, the floods along the Mississippi, Katrina, the droughts in Russia and China, the floods in Australia. Are we certain that those were caused by increases in CO2 in the atmosphere? No, we’re not, but there’s a possibility, and it’s sure a lot higher than 10 percent, and we sure see the damage. I think there’s a very strong likelihood that CO2 emissions are the underlying cause of some of this shift in global weather patterns. I’m not 100 percent certain, but certain enough to not put my kids on the plane.”
Conserving the Future
Since its founding, CI has embraced the vision that people need nature to thrive. More than just a talking point, CI works to convert business and governmental leaders across the globe to this way of thinking with three key messages that offer a bit of gospel for every denomination. Conservation contributes to and helps: national security, enlightened self-interest and safeguarding the “treasury of nature.”
“National security” are two words that get people’s attention, and too often they’re used as a tactic, the rhetorical equivalent of, “in case of emergency, break glass.” Seligmann doesn’t play that; he doesn’t need to—he’s got the numbers that break the glass all by themselves. “We have 6.9 billion people on planet Earth today,” he says. “[By 2041, we will pass 9 billion.] That’s a 30 percent increase—2.1 billion more people on the planet. We’re going to double—on this earth, which is very, very fragile—our demand for food, energy and water. How do you supply that? Who wants it, who gets it, who earns it, who controls it? When you have loss or shortage, then your stability is threatened.”
Cl president Russell Mittermeier; cofounder, chairman and CEO Peter Seligmann; and Roger Altman, a director of CI
|CI’s 14th annual dinner gala at the American Museum of Natural History|
Unlike many environmental organizations that want you to be believe that you—the person carrying the free-with-membership tote bag and pasting the bumper sticker on your Volvo wagon—are their only hope for saving the world; it’s a little different with CI. Of course they want you to be a member, but they also want to team with McDonald’s, Marriott, Disney, Coca-Cola, Starbucks, Bank of America and yes, Walmart. For years Walmart has been a piñata for groups citing corporate environmental violations, and some of it was assuredly deserved. But as Seligmann and CI see it, it makes a lot more sense to have one of America’s largest corporations as an ally rather than an adversary. “The reason that Walmart bought in to addressing environmental issues is because it’s really good for them, in the same way it would be good for every business in the United States,” says Seligmann. “It saves them money. It addresses customer concerns, it gives them a better product, it increases employee enthusiasm and interest, it increases bottom line and it protects their reputation. That’s enlightened self-interest— it’s true with the biggest company, it’s true with the smallest.” This is Seligmann’s siren song. When he shows a company that going green keeps them in the black, and can do so with the added bonus of a clean conscience, it’s an offer they can’t refuse.
Finally, there’s preserving the environment because, for so many millions around the world without material resources, they should always be able to depend on the gift that keeps on giving—nature. “The real ‘treasury’ for most people on the earth is nature,” is how Seligmann puts it. “Nature gives them their fuel, nature gives them their protein, their shelter, their clean water. We work with nations and states to figure out how they can maintain their renewable natural capital… that there’s an economic value in nature. This is given to us for free. Don’t squander it—actually steward and cherish it, because it’s an endowment that’s giving us what we need—essential services.”
Putting the Environment First
So in just under 25 years of fighting the good fight, with all its successes and setbacks, Seligmann remains that rare breed—the optimistic pragmatist. He feels encouraged, as “this is an open moment,” he believes. “There are more companies, more universities and more nations thinking about these global environmental issues than ever before.” And it’s a good thing, because Seligmann also believes that we need to “start looking at our earth as the only place we have to live.” It’s tough love, but he’s right. “It’s impossible to ignore that over the last century, we’ve treated this planet like a spring break hotel room, and Mother Nature isn’t bringing us fresh towels. Until moon cities become the stuff of science instead of science fiction, we’d better love the one we’re with. It’s a simple idea, but the best ones usually are.”
When asked what it was that turned a kid growing up in New Jersey into one of the world’s leading spokesmen for the environment, Seligmann thought a moment, and he offered this: “When I really fell in love with nature and thought this is where I want to be, I was 13 and working for a rancher in Wyoming. I was working in irrigation ditches, moving water from one ditch to the next, and I was waiting for the water, lying on the grass, listening to the bees and thinking, This is actually pretty nice.”
Funny how we sometimes need reminding of that, how spending time in nature is “actually pretty nice.” It’s an easy message to pass along, and at its core, that’s essentially what Conservation International does. As Seligmann says, “We want to give everybody the chance to do the right thing and be good. We want you involved in the environmental movement. We basically say, none of us are perfect, but we have to have aspirations to perfection. So let’s go there together.”
PHOTOGRAPHS BY JASON KEMPIN/GETTY IMAGES (BLAIR); HENRY DZIEKAN/WIREIMAGE.COM (GALA, SELIGMANN); JEFF GALE (CHILD)