Ed Wilson.

What’s your job title?

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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?

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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?

The Big Chill, The Blues Brothers, This Is Spinal Tap, The Third Man, and Ice Cold in Alex.

Which actor would play you in the story of your life?

The Geico Insurance gecko, or maybe Hugh Grant at a stretch.

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!

Ed Wilson, CEO of Earthwatch Institute.

Right Said Ed

I support your quest to create a groundswell of environmental champions around the world. However, how do you justify sending these 4,000 people to mainly overseas destinations via air travel? Surely the enormous CO2 footprint of these people outweighs the science data collection gain?    — Jennifer Morgan, London, United Kingdom

That is a good question, and one that we are addressing. We aim to be carbon-neutral by 2008, which will include offsetting the CO2 emissions incurred by volunteer air travel to research sites. It is probably impossible to numerically calculate the value of the contributions of these 4,000 people to science versus their carbon footprint, but I do believe that their contributions are extremely valuable, both in terms of the data they gather and the transformative experience.

What’s a tangible example of something that has happened or changed because of research supported by Earthwatch?    — Grist editors

So glad you asked! Earthwatch-supported scientists and volunteers have helped save thousands of sea turtle hatchlings in the Caribbean, identified more than 50 new species of plants in Cameroon, discovered that changing livestock watering times increases Grevy’s zebra survival rates in northern Kenya, gathered data to support the designation of two of Africa’s Great Rift Valley lakes — Naivasha and Elmenteita — as wetlands of international importance under the U.N. Convention of Wetlands … I could go on, but I hope you’ll visit the results section on our website to see just some of the many things we have accomplished.

I believe that the environmental community needs to do much broader-based communication, targeted not only at the developing world, but, perhaps more importantly, at the developed world that is consuming the world’s everything. What is Earthwatch doing to communicate not only the problems, but what each human can do to be part of the solution — and in a way that will be heard, understood, and acted upon?    — Michael Biddle, Richmond, Calif.

This is, in fact, exactly what we do — we don’t just talk about the issues, we give people real, concrete ways to be involved. Many of our volunteers report that their experiences in the field continue to inspire them at home, where they take action by starting local environmental projects and by giving talks or presentations that, in turn, inspire others to action as well.

Isn’t it just as important for people to get involved in their local communities as it is for them to assist with research in another country? How do you balance these needs?    — Grist editors

Yes, it is critical that people get involved in their local communities. We are working on increasing our support for projects that volunteers start when they come home. Volunteers tell us that the experience of working on expeditions in other places helps bring their local issues into focus, and acts as a catalyst for action and behavioral changes, which are the keys to a sustainable future.

Do you need any particular kind of experience to go on an Earthwatch expedition? How much does it cost? How do you determine which expeditions to support?    — Name not provided

You don’t need any special experience to go on an Earthwatch expedition. Volunteers come from all walks of life, and you might find yourself on a team with a bank manager, a concert pianist, a teacher, and an FAA crash-site inspector — you never know. Most people contribute from $800 to $1,800, though there are some expeditions with lower contributions and some with higher contributions. We choose projects to support based on many criteria, including high-quality science, community involvement and local partnership, and the volunteer experience in terms of health, safety, meaningful contribution, and, of course, fun.

What kinds of things do volunteers do on expeditions? Have your volunteers ever found themselves in dangerous jams?    — Name not provided

We have a superlative record in terms of keeping our volunteers healthy and safe, but even so, when you are in the business of tracking black rhinos, there is the odd occasion where you might have to run for a tree … and that keeps things exciting.

Volunteers do everything from recording fish species around coral reefs, to tagging and tracking jaguars in Brazil, to banding penguins in South Africa, to taking samples of snowpack thickness in Manitoba, and about 150 other things. All of this is real science that contributes to real scientific publications and informs real policy decisions.

Are local residents in the countries hosting expeditions typically involved in the work? If so, how?    — Grist editors

In almost all cases, the local communities at the project site get involved with the project, and in many cases, make the project the amazing experience that it is. For example, on Madagascar’s lemurs, the volunteers spend most of their time in the company of Malagasy scouts, students, and scientists, and it is that cultural exchange, as well as the shared scientific mission, that really makes the experience so special for the volunteers.

Local community members involved with the volunteers also tell us that seeing that people travel long distances to come to their community and work to protect what they have makes them value their resources all the more.

Would you be willing to comment on how humans can begin to turn away from materialism? How can we become more aware that each artificial thing we possess comes at the expense of the natural environment?    — Mark Bowman, Iowa City, Iowa

Sure. By traveling to developing countries and seeing how others live, you soon begin to understand the extravagance and excess that we take for granted — and what we lose by having all of these material possessions. If you can’t travel abroad, go camping for a weekend, and see how much you can really live without and not miss.

When are you going to start biking to work or having a carpool?    — Kim Fortin, Minneapolis, Minn.

Ouch. Now I feel guilty. But, since it is New England, I might be better off trying to ski to work. I’ll let you know how that goes.

Do people get you confused with Harvard professor Edward O. Wilson (Mr. Biophilia) — especially since you work in Cambridge, Mass.? Any relation?    — Linus C., Washington, D.C.

Yes, we sometimes get each other’s mail, especially when I was in Cambridge. In 2005, Earthwatch honored Dr. Wilson for his tremendous contributions to biodiversity awareness at our annual conference, so I had the rather odd experience of being Ed Wilson introducing Ed Wilson.