Conservation International

Peter Seligmann has never much cared what other environmentalists think of him. Sure, he cut his teeth doing grizzly bear conservation near Yellowstone National Park, but he’s made his name as a friend of the large corporations that greenies often paint as the devil incarnate.

Seligmann is co-founder and CEO of Conservation International, an organization that, thanks in no small part part to its corporate buddies, wields a $150 million annual budget. For most of its 25-year history, it threw the lion’s share of its money into efforts to draw lines around wild places as a way of protecting the ultimate of environmental buzzwords — biodiversity. (The group also spent a goodly amount of time trying to convince corporations that green practices were good for business — an effort that sometimes got it into hot water.)

But about five years ago, Conservation International took a notable turn. It dumped its focus on wild animals and instead began focusing on “human well-being.” Of course, its central argument is that our well-being rests heavily on the health of the planet, but Seligmann insists that it’s not just a crafty public relations ploy.

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“When I first started doing this, people said, ‘Well, this is just marketing,’” he told me last week at the posh Four Seasons hotel in downtown Seattle, where his board of directors was meeting. “Well, marketing doesn’t work. You need a DNA change.”

Seligmann and I talked about his conversion experience, the power of social media, and how Conservation International has been able to change the conversation when it comes to protecting the planet.

Q. Tell me about the transition Conservation International has gone through and the rationale behind it.

A. It was, I think, five years ago. Through our efforts with many partners and many sectors of society, we had been successful in protecting an area that was [equivalent to] a strip around the equator that was 30 miles wide. In a moment of reflection I started thinking, in that same 20-year time frame, a systemic threat called climate change had emerged in a big way. The population had reached 7 billion and was on its way to 9 billion in four decades. The demand for energy, food, and water was going to double in that next four-decade period. Extinction rates had accelerated. Fisheries were on a rapid decline. Sources of water and conflicts over resources were accelerating. And I thought, every single trend shows we’re headed toward failure. I thought, we’re gonna lose.

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Q. So why the switch to focusing on people, if nature is in so much trouble?

A. My thinking was, we have to flip our approach upside down. Our approach needed to really be focused on, why do people need nature? How do we get political leaders and the public to understand that nature doesn’t really need us; we need nature? We have thought that extinctions are at a certain pace — it’s about to become a downpour. And what happens to our sources of food? What happens to our pollinators? Where is our water gonna come from? When we lose our forests, we lose our water factories. When we lose our coral reefs, where are we gonna get our protein from?

Q. There you go talking about nature again. Have you just changed your message, but the mission is the same?

A. We changed the mission from protecting biodiversity to supporting human well-being by restoring and maintaining ecosystems that give essential services to people. When we went through this conversation, it had a very profound effect on the organization. Many of the people that worked at CI really were interested in biodiversity, and the human well-being side was not their priority. And so we had many people leave the organization. It took a lot of conversations to actually get the team at CI to understand that if we did not make this transformation, what they cared about was gonna be cooked.

We also had to rethink our strategies and how we measured our success. It was no longer species or biodiversity or extinctions. It had to be, are we successful at maintaining ecosystem health? Are we successful at maintaining the flows and services that those ecosystems provide? Are we successful in ensuring that those flows are given or received by communities and distributed in an equitable way? So we have gone through a learning process. It has really been much more difficult than I thought it would be.

Q. Were you trying to ally yourself with a new generation of conservation-minded individuals who are more worried about people than animals?

A. No. We have never focused on the environmental community because they’re well-served by many organizations. The reason we work with corporations — with Walmart, for example — is because it’s too easy to focus on the 15 percent of Americans who are progressive environmentalists. The challenge is, how do you get the other 85 percent into the tent?

I’ve gone with [Walmart chair] Rob Walton many places, and I will say to Rob, “OK, we’re about to go in to see this president [of a country]. I’m gonna talk about fisheries and I’m gonna talk about shark finning, etc., and he’s gonna look at me, and he’s gonna nod, and right across my forehead it’s gonna say ‘environmentalist.’ You do the same thing, talk about where’s a sustained source of resources, of fisheries, and he’ll look at you and he’ll think, ‘jobs.’”

Q. How has the makeup of your staff evolved through this change? Have you gone from biologists and ecologists to more sociologists?

A. No. Because when you get right down to it, you’re still looking at ecosystems as a source of a benefit. It’s a source for water, or food security, or climate stability, or livelihood, or health, or culture. You still need scientists that are familiar with biodiversity and with ecosystem flow and with natural systems. [The change] meant that we had to expand our capacity. And so we had to bring in people that really understood economics, and accounting systems, and how do you value nature, how do you put a metric on what nature gives? What’s the value of a pollinating insect? What’s the value of a forest, not as timber but as a water producer?

Q. Did you go to the Earth Summit?

A. I did.

Q. Did you come away with any sense that something worthwhile had come of all of that?

A. I went to this Earth Summit and I went to the [1992 Earth Summit in Rio] as well. The first one was actually in Stockholm [in 1972]. [Ed. note: For the full timeline, check out our pop culture history of the Earth Summit.] A guy named Maurice Strong organized it. There was an article written about the one in Stockholm in the New Yorker. I read that when I was a kid, and I was like, wow, if you want to take care of nature you have to take care of land. And that’s what got me going in this whole field.

The one in ’92 was the first one where governments really came together. It wasn’t all victory — the United States would not sign the biodiversity convention; it was unbelievably frustrating. In this latest one, what was most interesting was the engagement, participation, and commitments that the private sector made. Because corporations have realized, we’re dealing with supply-chain issues. We’re dealing with customer issues. We’re dealing with how-do-we-attract-employees issues. We’re dealing with bottom-line issues. We gotta get on the sustainability train. That didn’t take place in ’92. That was the big difference.

The other thing that came away with real joy for me was to see the power of social networking. Because I think that just is such a prod. Because everything you do, everybody sees, and if you don’t do it, you’re spanked.

Q. Were there particular commitments from corporations that grabbed you?

A. There is a group called the Consumer Goods Forum. And it’s got a lot of big companies in it. Walmart’s in it, Unilever’s in it, Coca Cola, Pepsi — and they have I think $4 trillion a year in sales, so it’s a big market force. They made some important commitments, really focusing on how they were going to redesign the way beef, paper, soy, and palm oil are produced to cause zero deforestation by 2020.

One of the most important things that came out was a commitment by 57 or 60 countries to change their accounting systems to include the value of natural capital.

Q. This is the movement away from GDP.

A. It’s actually including natural capital in your GDP. An individual’s wealth is a measure of their income and their assets, and what we’ve been saying is, part of a nation’s assets are its natural resources. Oil and coal reserves of course are part of it, but it’s your forests, it’s your watersheds, it’s your coral reefs, because they produce an annual income to you.

On May 24 and 25, a board member of Conservation International, his excellency Ian Khama, the president of Botswana, hosted a summit in sub-Saharan Africa. We had 10 nations come together to talk about natural capital. Out of that came a commitment, called the Gaborone declaration, from those 10 countries, to do an annual audit of the health of ecosystems and the value of those ecosystems and the services and benefits they give to the people.

The 10 countries took that declaration, the Gaborone declaration, to Rio in June. And together with the World Bank and CI, they created a broader coalition that ended up being 60 countries.

Q. People have been talking about this stuff for decades. What’s giving these arguments traction now?

A. That’s a really good question. I think that we’re learning how to communicate this. We’re able to demonstrate how this is working. Costa Rica is a great example. The government has said, forests can be seen as a park, or they can be seen as a water factory. If it’s a water factory, it’s producing a resource that benefits the downstream farmers. You protect your forest, you get paid.

Walmart, for another example — if they say to other suppliers, “We will no longer take any goods that are packaged in non-recyclable material,” that saves Walmart $300 million a year that they have to pay to garbage dumps to take their garbage. Businesses are really understanding that this is a bottom-line deal.

And they’re also worried about supply. McDonald’s thrives on selling fish sandwiches — white, firm, flaky fish. Where does it come from? And how do you get that supply if you’re just devouring the oceans? We deal with the oceans like they’re a freezer. You start out taking the stuff at the top and then you’re going down to the bottom — heck, we’re down at thousands of feet, scraping up everything.

So I think it’s coming home. I never understood why, in 1992, the United States would not sign a biodiversity treaty. I couldn’t understand why they didn’t see what we all saw. The reason was that the issue was far enough away that they said, “We can’t deal with that; we gotta deal with the immediate interests.” And it’s immediate now. It’s all over us.

Q. Is it too late?

A. I’m feeling positive. There’s a new opportunity. It’s like these leaders in Africa that I mentioned. Leaders are now beginning to think, our natural resources are extraordinarily important for our health and well-being.

The last week of August, I went to the Cook Islands for a meeting with 15 heads of state of small island nations that are scattered in the pacific — Kiribati, Tuvalu, Cook Islands, New Caledonia — countries that most people have never thought of or heard of. But these 15 nations own 8 percent of the earth’s surface. They own 60 percent of the tuna stock on the planet. And they have a common bond [with the ocean] that goes back centuries. And so we started working with them on what is important for their enlightened self-interest. How do they protect their fisheries from marauding fishing fleets? From ocean acidification? All those things — they’re on the front line out there.

And so we created a partnership with Kiribati, and created a really large marine protected area that secures their fishery. It’s bigger than the state of California. And we said to the president of Kiribati, Anote Tong, “Can you take this idea and share it with these other island nations?” and he said, “Sure, I’ll do that.” So last year, he presented to them an idea that we’d proposed to create a Pacific Oceanscape — a network of marine protected areas that covers the South Pacific. This year, New Caledonia and Cook Islands announced the creation of two new marine protection areas that together are larger than the state of Alaska. Fifteen heads of state were there from these island nations. The E.U., the prime minister of New Zealand, of Australia, senior leadership from China, Taiwan, Japan, the United States, Hillary Clinton, all came.

Q. Could you have done this 10 years ago?

A. Ten years ago I was talking about biodiversity and not food security. And 10 years ago the reaction would have been, “This is really important but it’s No. 20 on our list of priorities.” Now the conversation is: You’re interested in the sustainability of your society. Your security of food, water, health, jobs, are connected to nature. And if you don’t take care of those, you become a failed nation state dependent upon somebody else.

The opportunity is provided now. The question is, are we prepared to actually provide the support that nations need?