With what environmental organization are you affiliated?
World Wildlife Fund. I’m the president and CEO.
What does your organization do? What, in a perfect world, would constitute “mission accomplished”?
Our mission is the conservation of nature. We seek through our network of offices in about 100 countries around the world to save the most biologically rich and distinctive places on the lands and in the seas.
What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis?
I try to support a great staff, troubleshooting on issues and ensuring that clear decisions get made and communicated. I spend a lot of time with our board getting advice and ensuring that our governance remains first rate. And I spend a large amount of my time outside WWF, communicating the urgency of our mission and the importance of engaging to donors, decision makers, and the public.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
I’ve always loved nature and wanted to make a difference from my earliest childhood, reading books about field researchers and looking for critters in the woods and ponds near my home. After college I had a chance to join a field researcher in Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater studying wildebeest behavior. That time in Africa confirmed my commitment to pursue a career in conservation. So I went to law school — my undergraduate degree was in English and American literature and I wasn’t prepared for graduate studies in science — with the goal of becoming an environmental lawyer.
I then found myself helping to start the Justice Department’s Wildlife and Marine Resources Section, which I later headed. In the meantime, I also managed to get admitted to a graduate program in marine ecology. I wanted to complement my legal background with more science grounding. As part of that program I did field work in the Caribbean on coral reef crustaceans.
That all happily led me to WWF, where I started as a consultant (following the birth of my third child) doing a book on Latin American wildlife laws. The consultancy turned into a job doing law and policy work and from there I got into management and took over as CEO when my predecessor, Bill Reilly, left to head the EPA.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
New York, N.Y. (but I’m a Red Sox fan). I grew up along the Hudson River. And now I live in Washington, D.C.
What’s on your desk right now?
We’re in the midst of a very exciting strategic assessment of WWF, taking a hard look at our priorities and practices. We want to take WWF to a whole new level of conservation effectiveness and produce enduring results at scale. So I’m going through the feedback from our staff, board, and others to know what they think.
Who is your environmental hero?
Russell Train, former EPA administrator, global conservation leader, and WWF’s former president and chair. He’s amazing!
How do you get around?
My Prius and on foot.
What are you reading these days?
I have several books about Islam and the Middle East. I want to understand more about cultures that are having a major influence in our world.
What’s your favorite meal?
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
Optimism. You have to be optimistic to stick with an environmental or conservation career.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
The Himalayas, especially Bhutan.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
Implement binding CO2 reductions.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing badly, and how could they do it better?
Reaching the hearts and minds of the broad public and inspiring action. We need to do even more to come together in our communications and to find ways for communities — real or virtual — to take ownership of environmental issues. We can’t do it by ourselves.
What important environmental issue is frequently overlooked?
The plight of our oceans.
What are you happy about right now?
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Get out into nature as a reminder of what it is that makes our lives beautiful — and makes our lives possible.
How do you stay optimistic? How have you managed to avoid the “long slog” attitude? — Jule Asterisk, Slave Lake, Alberta, Canada
Take each day as an opportunity. Take time for oneself to recharge. Take time in nature for renewed inspiration. Not that avoiding the “long slog” is easy, but these three things help me.
I’m having a hard time imagining how our movement is not all but lost with Bush and an even larger Republican majority in the Senate. Of course, I’m terribly saddened that the environment did not even make it onto the list of issues in this election. How do we proceed from here? As we all know, we are running out of time to stop the destruction of this planet; do we realistically have four more years? — Jennifer Podvin, Las Vegas, Nev.
It was deeply disappointing that the environment was relegated to a footnote in these elections. We have no choice now but to redouble our work to make our planet’s health a value on which individuals make their daily choices. That means better communication — including some success stories in the face of the crises we all know too well — and outreach, especially to the young people in whose hands the planet’s future will lie. Time is short, but it isn’t gone!
Now that the other shoe has fallen … what must we as advocates and activists do to bring the big picture to the forefront of the general public? What kind of internalizing do we need to do to reach ordinary people who seem to remember and act upon things familiar? — Patricia R. Hopkins, Biddeford, Maine
First, we cannot give up — the earth depends on us. We have to remind ourselves that some of the world’s biggest advances have come in times of adversity. We are all looking for a powerful symbol to bring home the immediacy and urgency of environmental degradation and motivate people to shape their day-to-day lives to minimize their environmental footprint. Environment must become a front-of-mind value, and we haven’t gotten there.
The unprecedented organization of young voters, mobilization of youth activists, and engagement of high-profile supporters targeting a new generation creates an opportunity for action in the environmental community. How can the environmental (or sustainability) movement harness the momentum of these diverse young people? What are the global issues on which youth can have the biggest impact? — Sara Standish, Washington, D.C.
We have to “bring it home” and make connections to their everyday life. For this generation, in which computers and the internet are so central, we need to link environmental action to their home computer, so they can take action as quickly as an instant message. WWF’s Conservation Action Network (CAN) lets young people 13 years and older express their opinion to environmental policymakers.
Consumption issues are probably the biggest [issues for youth]. WWF supports a program with the Center for the New American Dream called I Buy Different to help young people connect the dots between their concerns about the environment and the fact that by “buying different” they can make a difference. Despite the common myth that kids don’t care, surveys have resoundingly shown that teens are willing to do their part to help protect the environment. In fact, according to a recent Cone/Roper survey, nearly nine out of 10 kids say that they would switch brands to those associated with a good cause. With young people having spent a remarkable $170 billion in 2002, teens can make a huge difference for the environment by simply purchasing environmentally friendly products. For example, if only one out of 10 students bought notebooks made of post-consumer recycled paper, a mind-boggling 60,000 trees and 25.5 million gallons of water would be saved. And don’t forget how much influence young people have on their families.
You’ve been on the board of directors at Alcoa for a couple of years, and WWF has been the recipient of a large grant from the Alcoa Foundation. Do you see any conflicts in being on the board of an aluminum company — an industry known for being one of the most energy-intensive in the world, resistant to stronger recycling efforts, and currently interested or involved in destructive dam projects in Iceland, the Amazon, and elsewhere? — Lori Pottinger, Berkeley, Calif.
First, I strongly believe that engaging with the private sector is essential if we are serious about addressing environmental problems at scale. Serving on a board provides an opportunity to shape policies and practices that complements outside advocacy. My experience with Alcoa has convinced me that the company has a strong commitment to sustainability, including energy efficiency, recycling, and habitat protection. The company is making substantial progress toward its ambitious environmental targets.
As to the Alcoa Foundation, WWF received funds from many sources, including corporations, and was a grantee of the Alcoa Foundation before I joined the Alcoa board. Needless to say, the continuation of funding for our education and training work was thoroughly scrutinized by Alcoa and by WWF to ensure that the grant met the highest ethical standards. And, by the way, WWF actively and very strongly opposed the dam project in Iceland during my tenure as president of WWF.
Environmental group after environmental group refuses to take a stand on the overpopulation of our planet, the factors (such as religion) that are driving that overpopulation, and the effects of 6 billion (soon to be 9 billion) people on our dwindling resources and wildlife. You save one acre or one plant while in the same minute, 10 million people are born — it makes no sense! This environmentalist is pretty much tired of giving to organizations that don’t get to the root of the problem, or at least address it! — Claudia Bloom, Mesa, Ariz.
WWF’s mission is the conservation of nature. To succeed, we must influence the forces that drive the loss of natural systems, including human populations. Dropping human numbers alone won’t solve the problem, of course, unless we also reduce consumption. So WWF partners with population groups around the world where mounting numbers and migration patterns threaten nature. And we partner with groups focusing on lessening human intensity of resource use, especially in the developed world. We know that no one of us can solve the planet’s problems alone and that we need many partnerships on many issues at many scales to achieve lasting results at scale.
As a conservationist abroad, I am frustrated at your organization’s insistence to “put most or all of its eggs in one basket” and only work through affiliate organizations in the capital cities. If you don’t have a working relationship with the affiliate, you can’t get access to WWF and its support for conservation projects. I think this strategy is wrong; as a conservationist, you should understand that greater diversity is better, so why not really strengthen conservation capacity of the organizations that are trying to work outside of the very closed circle of “friends” that work from the capital cities and are probably a lot more effective at carrying out conservation projects on a local level? — Eric Von Horstman, Executive Director, Fundacion Pro-Bosque, Guayaquil, Ecuador
You raise an important point. In fact, WWF’s relationship with its associates, while pivotal in each country, is not exclusive. Conservation definitely needs multiple partnerships, from the grassroots, to the capital cities, to the global arena. WWF does focus on a set of ecoregional and global threat priorities wherever we work, knowing that we have to make hard choices. So, WWF’s main priority in Ecuador right now is the Galapagos. That said, we look to develop links with conservation friends and colleagues at all levels and to help build essential conservation capacity.
It has been said that too much of WWF-U.S. efforts have been focused at other countries instead of in the U.S. itself when there are already a lot of environmental problems to be solved in your country. Why is that? — Zulkifli Yusof, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
WWF-U.S. actually does work in globally outstanding habitats in the U.S. and in the U.S. policy arena, and we have a number of U.S. field offices. With many good environmental groups in the U.S., of course, we want to make sure we don’t duplicate efforts. We work internationally as well, in concert with other members of our global network, including, WWF-Malaysia. One of the distinctive advantages of the WWF Network is that our local offices around the world can leverage one another’s efforts.
The strong impression amongst those in the less developed countries is that their global counterparts in the developed countries are more environmentally conscious as they have undergone worse environmental problems. Do you agree with that? — Zulkifli Yusof, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (Yes, again.)
No. Is someone who has seen the forest that provides their livelihood cut down any less aware than someone who has experienced industrial pollution? Environmental problems cut across geography and societies and are not new, as our board member Jared Diamond explains eloquently in his new book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.
From your point of view, who is the most environmentally friendly U.S. president in your lifetime, and in the history of the U.S.? — Zulkifli Yusof, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (He’s an inquisitive guy, alright?)
In the history of the U.S., Teddy Roosevelt ranks high among environmentally conscious presidents. In my lifetime, a number of milestone pieces of environmental legislation were passed in the Nixon administration, but Bill Clinton had the greatest personal commitment to the environment.
I help maintain a tiny neighborhood park in Seattle, and belong to a group trying hard to create and maintain urban open space so that people have places within walking distance to take their children so they can run around and hide in the bushes. How do we encourage more of that, and less of going to the mall? And how do we teach the fundamental lessons of the natural systems that make life possible? My daughter used to ask me nearly every day, “Do we have to save the world today?” and I always said yes. — Andrea Faste, Seattle, Wash.
The little things do matter. And as we work locally, we need to explain how our efforts are tied to the larger planetary whole. Children seem to understand instantly, but we adults get pretty distracted from the big picture. And yes, education is key. Keep at it — and keep talking to your kids, as I do to mine. They always reinforce for me how essential it is to keep going, no matter how tough the apparent odds.
I was wondering how you decide which areas to conserve, or help to conserve. Can the public apply to have a certain area considered to be protected? — Amanda Hollingworth, Toronto, Canada
Good question. Setting priorities is critical. Check out the Global 200 on the Wild World website, a co-production of WWF and National Geographic. These are great starting points for learning what areas are most important. Get involved on our website and help WWF save our planet.
You did not fully answer the question [in your first set of responses] on what it would take for your job to be finished. For example, is your goal to get every animal on the endangered species list, or to get every animal off the list? — Thom Holland, San Diego, Calif.
We certainly do work to save key endangered species, including the giant panda, WWF’s logo, but most of our efforts are at a larger scale. Our mission is to protect nature, and that means focusing on the most important natural areas on the planet — in the seas, in freshwater, and on land. If we can save large “ecoregions,” we can protect as much as 80 percent of the planet’s biological diversity.
Are panda bears as cute and cuddly in real life as they appear to be in photos and on TV? — L. H., Seattle, Wash.
They absolutely are as cute. They’re pretty big, though, and surprisingly their fur isn’t soft at all!