Ed Wilson, Earthwatch CEO, answers Grist’s questions
What’s your job title?
President and CEO of Earthwatch Institute.
What does your organization do?
First, we help gather objective science-based information that allows us all to understand complex environmental and social issues and make informed and sustainable management decisions. We support over 130 research expeditions in 55 countries that help inform important agendas, such as the United Nations Millennium Development Goals.
The second thing we do is even cooler. Each year, we send 4,000 volunteers to work alongside scientists on these expeditions. We believe we have to get people involved to make these global issues relevant and understandable on a personal level, but also to inspire change in their communities, schools, or workplaces.
What are you working on at the moment?
We’re using media to help kids teach kids about the environment. (Any parent knows they never listen to grown-ups!) Our Live From the Field education programs have been a great success, but we wanted to go beyond the classroom. So last year, we sent three high school students on 12 Earthwatch expeditions and filmed the experience. The film, called A Year on Earth, follows them as they do things like catch crocodiles in the Okavango Delta and dig up ancient burial grounds in Thailand. The film will debut on Discovery channels this fall, and we are very excited about seeing that multiplier effect.
How do you get to work?
I do drive, but in my defense, I did move so that I am fewer than five miles from my office.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
As a military kid, I grew up nomadic and lived in Pakistan and Hong Kong among other places, though I was sent to boarding school in Britain when I was seven. Before entering college, I took a gap year, which I spent in South Africa with Dr. Ian Player. He started the Wilderness Leadership School in Natal, and it was the simplicity and power of his model that stuck with me. He saw the connection between wildlife and communities, and brought South African inner-city kids to the national parks, where many of them had never been. Working with him made a big philosophical impact on me, showing the importance of getting people engaged, which still influences me today.
I then returned to England, where I read geography at King’s College, London University. After college, I had no clear direction, so I followed the family tradition of military service. I spent five years specializing in counterterrorism in Northern Ireland, but I knew that this wasn’t where I wanted to end up. I left the service and took a job as a consultant with Conservation Direct, a start-up nonprofit that recruited teams of electricians, plumbers, and other people with technical skills to go to places like Zimbabwe, and teach their skills to local people in support of the national parks.
It was on a trip to the U.S. to visit my parents that I was introduced to Brian Rosborough, then the president and founder of Earthwatch. He swept me into his vision, and I began working as an office volunteer in the mailroom of Earthwatch U.K., doing everything from licking stamps to working on marketing strategy. In 1988, I moved to the U.S. headquarters to lead the marketing efforts. That was followed, over the last eight years, by the COO job and eventually executive vice president and interim CEO.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born in Shropshire, England. My wife, Imogen, and children, Titus and Tallulah, and I now live in Concord, Mass. (We are part of a secret British attempt to take back the Old North Bridge.)
What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?
In the mid-80s, during the famine in Sudan, I was visiting some friends and was able to see some of the refugees displaced from the South. Talk about how bad things can get — it was a real disaster on so many levels.
What’s been the best?
In my time at Earthwatch, I’ve participated in several expeditions as a volunteer, doing everything from catching snakes in the Tian Shan Mountains to digging up mammoth bones to riding camels in the Gobi desert. I still really love that feeling of making a difference and would head out on another expedition at the drop of a hat (though that is seldom possible these days).
What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?
Complacency about the ocean — the idea that we can just dump whatever we want and there are no consequences.
What’s your environmental vice?
My secondhand convertible Saab.
How do you spend your free time?
I try to devote any spare time I have to my family. I’ve been traveling so much recently, my staff actually made a cardboard cutout of me to sit at my desk when I’m gone.
What’s your favorite meal?
Curries — probably a relic from my youth in Pakistan.
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
I am a manic recycler. We have four large bins and a compost pile, and I drive my family nuts with what goes where.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
The African savannah. Or my parents’ farm in Vermont.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
Everyone would be obligated to do a local environmental-service project each year. It need only be a weekend, but it would start to build communities and a whole new social movement from the bottom up.
Who was your favorite musical artist when you were 18? How about now?
The Clash. Still The Clash.
What are your favorite movies?
Which actor would play you in the story of your life?
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Join an Earthwatch expedition and tell all your friends about Earthwatch, of course. It may seem like a self-serving answer, but I really believe in the value of what we do. It’s also a hell of a lot of fun!