David Mayer de Rothschild, Eco-activist
“Curiosity is one of the mainsprings of change.”
A global adventurer with a purpose, David Mayer de Rothschild is someone who refuses to abide the status quo, especially when doing so only causes harm. He is insatiably curious and determined to seek a better, more thoughtful way to move forward into the future. Rebellious from the start, de Rothschild learned early on that pursuing knowledge through traditional methods didn’t work for him. Instead, this scion of one of world’s wealthiest and most admired families blazed his own trail with dangerous but purposeful adventures into remote corners of the globe in an effort to raise awareness of environmental causes among students. His most recent adventure involved crossing the Pacific on “Plastiki” – a craft manufactured out of plastic water bottles – to raise awareness about the pollution of our oceans due to our dependence on disposable plastic. Although some have questioned the wisdom and need for his extreme adventures, de Rothschild has proven their worth many times over. We met with him at the Natural History Museum, London. The handsome, young and very charismatic de Rothschild was quickly at ease among the exhibits in one of Britain’s finest museums.
The Focus: Given the adventures you’ve had, including crossing the Pacific Ocean on a boat made of plastic bottles, some might call you an eccentric in the mode of a classic British explorer. Is that something that resonates with you?
David Mayer de Rothschild: Not at all. I think the old British explorers were of a generation that was very much about conquering nature, about being the first. Let’s plant a flag and name that mountain! It was always very ego-driven, and for some that is still the case. But for me it is more a medium to deliver a message than a medium to satisfy my ego. That’s not to say that what they did wasn’t amazing – it was – and I often look to their accomplishments for inspiration.
The Focus: You come from quite a renowned family. How did their accomplishments affect what was expected of you, or what you’ve expected of yourself?
Rothschild: At the end of the day you are what you do, and not what you are called. Our last name sits behind me, but if I waited for this name to do everything for me, I’d never get anything done.
I think one has to identify with one’s passions, and I have been very fortunate to connect a few areas that have always fascinated me and bring them together. I’ve been very lucky to find that path very early on.
The Focus: Your family is known for banking, and yet there seems to be a naturalist strain that runs through it as well.
Rothschild: That’s very true. I think that a lot of people don’t recognize that a very big part of my family is connected with this museum, as well as the museum at Tring, which is just north of here and was started by my great uncle. The largest collection of butterflies and fleas in the world was established by my aunt Miriam. Whereas we may be synonymous with banking or wine and other things, my family’s affinity for science and natural history receives a lot less attention.
The Focus: Did that influence or direct your interest in natural phenomena?
Rothschild: Not really. I think I’m just naturally curious about nature and always have been. Thankfully I had the freedom as a child to be in nature, to go and explore. My interest in natural medicine was simply a good fit and complements my innate interest in the environment because they are so interrelated.
Being curious about the natural world and finding these two elements of passion was, as I’ve said, very fortunate. My interest in adventure was a great medium for taking these two areas and making them less abstract for others. People are naturally interested in adventure, and through it they can enter this world.
The Focus: Your school career doesn’t seem to have been very easy on you. Given your experiences with book learning, do you see adventure as a necessary ingredient for education?
Rothschild: I was very bored in school. I didn’t find it stimulating at all. Our education system teaches us what we cannot do, rather than what we can do. We are crushing the dreams of children and limiting their potential instead of igniting their passion. We are teaching out-of-date subjects and methodologies for a world that has moved very quickly. Children shouldn’t have to spend all their time being lectured to inside a classroom. How about some fresh air? Children are happier, even calmer, in nature. And yet, for many educators, it’s like some great revelation that nature can be a classroom, too.
The Focus: How does this relate to what you’ve termed the “equation of curiosity”?
Rothschild: Schools should be a breeding ground for curiosity. Curiosity is one of the greatest drivers of change. Asking questions is a good starting point for any education. Those questions stimulate ideas and adventures – which don’t have to be adventures in the traditional sense. They don’t have to involve climbing the mountain and putting the flag in. An adventure is simply being present. As soon as you break out of the box you are on an adventure, you are an adventurer. The outcome of any adventure is that you generate stories, and those stories inspire people all the way back to where curiosity begins, which is with a dream.
As soon as you stop being curious you become lazy, and you stick with the path of least resistance, and dreams die. And that is one of the biggest themes of our times. When I look at leaders today, they lack curiosity because the system is so rigid. The time frames for politicians are not conducive to long-term change, and time frames for businesses now are just quarterly cycles. It doesn’t allow a lot of maneuverability to start questioning, because you are constantly chasing. But if you don’t ask questions of yourself or of the people around you, then we really have little chance for change.
The Focus: How can we break these short-term cycles?
Rothschild: Right now we are seeing our economic model collapsing around us. The model is broken. We are too scared to ask the right questions and take the time to find the right answers. The only way we are going to fix the system is by breaking the shell that encompasses our current understanding, which is trapped. We have to create an integrated approach to business, to our political leadership, to our way as citizens on this planet. Nature does nothing in isolation, and neither should we.
The Focus: Could you tell us the single most important trigger for what you are doing?
Rothschild: The entry point is that I plugged into a passion, an area that I am fascinated by. I wake up every morning and say: Thank you for what I get to do, and where I get to go, and what I get to experience! That is what drives me. And then, once you get into the environmental world, you realize that there are so many incredible challenges that need to be addressed.
As I see it, the environmental movement is a very bad communicator. The challenge for me, therefore, is communication. It’s something that needs to be undertaken. The movement spends too much time telling people what they can’t do. That’s anything but inspiring. The challenge is to reengineer what we are telling people about the environment and make them feel connected to the great issues of our day. Most people care about the environment; but let’s be honest, it’s not on the top of their list. How can it be? It’s not some sort of luxury item. It’s the most essential ingredient in our ability to continue on this planet.
The Focus: How do you want to contribute to that goal?
Rothschild: Through telling stories and using those stories to inspire businesses, politicians, and citizens. It’s about reenergizing people to recognize that we all have a stake in our future. We all have an ability to vote for a leader, and we can make good choices. We all have an ability to become the champions that we want to be.
The problem is we are so disenfranchised, disempowered, and cut off from our community. We have Facebook, Twitter, and all these virtual communities. But we have very little contact; we have very little sense of community when it comes to specific issues. To me the biggest challenge is: How do we actually inspire people to say I don’t want this? And we have seen that happen recently, we have seen the uprising in the Middle East, and we have seen it happen on particular issues where people are using virtual communities to create physical communities of change. So it can happen. Change can happen very quickly, but it is not going to happen unless you can get people’s attention.
The Focus: It’s a new paradigm in environmentalism that you’re calling for, isn’t it?
Rothschild: Absolutely. We have to tell more inspiring stories. We have to try and get these stories out to a wider audience. We shouldn’t be so academic, but keep the narrative simple, because in many ways it is. We have only so much that supports life, and we have a voracious appetite for these things that support life. And if we keep on eating all of it up, then we won’t be able to eat any more.
The traditional messages aren’t working. We’re consuming more of nature’s resources than ever. Our population is growing faster than ever. We are degrading our glaciers quicker than ever. Our forests are still being cut down as quickly as ever. The narrative of destruction isn’t working.
The Focus: How do you respond to traditional environmentalists who criticize you for collaborating with industry?
Rothschild: I think you have to work with everybody, because we are all on the same spaceship. It’s not like there’s an escape capsule. We all have impacts – and business has the biggest impact of all. But business can also be the biggest driver of change. We have to look at that, and the traditional environmentalists should stop saying: You are a massive disaster for society. We are just going to point the finger at you for doing that. Rather than saying: Well, hang on for a second. If you are creating this impact, you can un-create it. You can help to lessen the impact.
The Focus: When you speak about the environment, you often mention brand loyalty. How are they related?
Rothschild: I feel that when it comes to the environment, we should be brand loyal. I find it perplexing that we aren’t. We’ll support a football team until we die, but why aren’t we supporting the polar bear until we die? We support a branded car, and we’ll scream our head off when somebody bumps it. You dented my BMW! But you won’t see somebody stand there and scream that much when a tree gets cut down. Somehow our brains haven’t the capacity to fully accept and understand these things. Therefore we have to find triggers that do.
The Focus: Do you see a difference in the new generation coming up through business hierarchies?
Rothschild: Yes. Many of today’s executives were brought up in a generation where they are starting to see the effects of our past behavior. But there are some fundamental mistakes in corporate culture that make it difficult to change. There is the constant demand that a company put profits over the environment. It’s hard to slow down, even if you want to slow down. We need to start saying: Well, we know that a corporate model of exponential growth, growth, and growth is unsustainable. Nothing grows like that, nothing! It just can’t. Nature doesn’t do it. What makes us think we can do it?
The Focus: How can environmental organizations best work with businesses?
Rothschild: I feel it is important to focus on quantifiable causes and effects. Businesses need quantifiable outcomes. We need to marry outcomes such as deforestation and desertification to products and services from businesses.
We just worked on a program at Levis. They know that every pair of jeans accounts for a quantifiable consumption of water. It’s an important measurement for them, because as water becomes scarcer, their costs of goods will rise dramatically. Therefore, they need to come up with a sustainable plan. As a large consumer of water, they have to. We will probably see them becoming a very large champion of water in the future. The same goes for companies like Nike and Puma. They will need to become custodians of the natural resources they use because their entire business models are predicated on having a resource base. If you have no more trees, you can’t be a printing company. If you haven’t any more fish, you can’t be a fisherman. If you have no more minerals, you can’t make computers or cameras.
The Focus: What other business shifts do you currently see? What about the growth of so-called green products?
Rothschild: I think we are seeing a shift, but some of these shifts are based upon short-term profit. Green has unfortunately become something of a commercial selling point, and a lot of companies are suddenly trying to rush towards being considered “green”. But you can never truly be green within this system; the entire system has to change. Take green packaging. Reduced packaging is fine, but the question really is, Should there be any packaging at all? It’s all about, Oh, let’s make the packaging green! And then take credit for it. Versus: Let’s actually look at a system where there doesn’t need to be packaging. That is a much smarter model.
We will get there if there is consumer and citizen pressure on a particular business or political party. We need to re-empower consumers to recognize their own control. If we can educate them on buying products and services that are actually “green”, then businesses will follow. It should be a human right that we can have clean air and clean water, and access to food that isn’t chemically enhanced. But we’d better hurry up because you can’t mess around with the balance sheet of nature. Sooner or later it’s game over.
The Focus: What do you think your next big issue will be? Will it continue to involve extreme adventures?
Rothschild: I think there are lots of stories that I’m trying to tell. I’m constantly evolving and constantly looking at new campaigns. And I’m still figuring out my strengths and where I’m getting most traction. If it continues to be in the field of adventure, then great. If it means embracing more of an advisory role toward governments and businesses, then that’s fine, too. If it means sitting more alongside scientific institutions and helping them, then I will.
But at the end of the day, to get your message across, you have to make it fun and exciting, dynamic and interesting. You have to make caring about the environment inspiring.
David Mayer de Rothschild
Born in 1978, David Mayer de Rothschild is the third and youngest child of Sir Evelyn de Rothschild and Lady Victoria de Rothschild. After college, de Rothschild ran his own music merchandising business until he became enthralled with naturopathic medicine and got a degree in it. He undertook the first of his many expeditions in 2004, when he traversed Antarctica in 70 days – a new world record. Upon his return, he set out to educate children about the environment through adventure – something that quickly became a life calling. He formed Adventure Ecology and soon set out to traverse the North Pole to call attention to global warming. Along the way, he wrote blog entries, took photos, and ignited an interest in the Arctic for thousands of school kids – and set another speed record when crossing the Greenland ice cap. De Rothschild is best known for building a catamaran out of plastic water bottles named “Plastiki” and setting sail across the Pacific to call attention to the giant trash vortexes that plague our oceans. He set sail with five crewmates from San Francisco, and four months and more than 9,000 miles later he reached Sydney, Australia, having survived massive swells, blistering heat, high winds, ripped sails, and being in the midst of a giant ocean on a very experimental boat. Other recent projects include a trip to the Ecuadorian rain forest to document damage caused by international oil companies, several books about the environment, and serving as the host of a TV series called Eco-Trip about the true cost behind consumer products.