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Captain Planet: Ted Turner
An interview with the outspoken media mogul turned eco-capitalist.
No one has a passive or indifferent reaction when they hear Ted Turner’s name. His life is the stuff of legend. He skippered an America’s Cup win. He founded CNN, inventing 24-hour cable news and shaking up the major networks. He married Jane Fonda. He built the Atlanta Braves into World series champions. And as a conservative businessman and self-made billionaire, Ted Turner is, in many respects, the embodiment of the capitalist ideal.
And yet, there’s another side of the man that looms larger. Turner’s never comfortably fit the media mogul mold. He is also a social progressive and humanitarian who donated $1 billion to the United Nations. A passionate environmentalist, he has placed much of his 2 million acres of land under conservation easements to prevent future development. His Turner Endangered Species Fund has provided protection for a wide range of imperiled species, from bison and bighorn sheep to whooping cranes and wolves, supporting wildlife research around the globe.
Which raises the question, who really is Ted Turner? How did a former follower of Ayn Rand become the world’s most successful green-minded capitalist? Is he the model that businesses should be following in the 21st century? How did his traumatic relationship with his father and his 10-year marriage to Jane Fonda shape how he views the world?
In a new book, Last Stand: Ted Turner’s Quest to Save a Troubled Planet (Lyons Press, April 2013), journalist Todd Wilkinson answers these questions and more, exploring the remarkable story behind Turner’s still-evolving environmental consciousness and his impact. As a biographer with full access to his subject, Wilkinson examines the little-known details of Turner’s complex, and at times troubled, life. The result is a rich portrait of the man once known as the “Mouth of the South,” revealing how his struggles and ambitions, coupled with his passion for the outdoors and the solace of nature, continue to inspire his world-changing devotion to the environment.
Recently, we spoke with Turner about the new biography; his mentor, Jacques Cousteau; his love for money, nature, and bison; and what we can all do to make the Earth a better place.
You note in your foreword for the book that Todd Wilkinson questioned you about areas in your life you’d never shared before. What are some examples, and why in this book? Why now?
I don’t like to talk about the past; I’d rather focus on the future. While I covered a little of this in my last book, “Call Me Ted,” it’s never been easy for me to talk openly about my relationship with my dad and other relationships I’ve had. I’m kind of old-fashioned that way. But the book is the result of honest conversations I had with Todd. When he proposed this project, I told him: “You can ask me anything you want.” He felt it was important that I reflect on what motivated me to become an environmentalist and a humanitarian. Some of his questions were difficult, those involving my dad and marriage to Jane [Fonda], but I hope the end result is that people have a better understanding of who I am.
As a businessman, you’re known as a fierce competitor, a media mogul who has built an empire and doesn’t enjoy losing. And yet “Last Stand” reveals another side to you—someone who works to bring people together to find solutions to global problems. Do you feel you’ve changed over the years, or are you the same person you’ve always been?
I’ve mellowed, but hopefully with that mellowing I’ve become wiser. From the start I’ve understood the importance of surrounding myself with smart, driven people who are experts in their fields. This will always improve chances of success. Working together is critical as our global community faces serious challenges—climate change, rising global population, loss of species, poverty affecting a huge percentage of humanity and a widening gap between the haves and have-nots. I’m the same person I’ve always been, but with a greater sense of urgency and the knowledge that if you can give back to make the world better, you should.
“Last Stand” notes that you turned to fly-fishing on your 50th birthday, and that’s when you fell in love with Montana. What was it about fly-fishing that appealed to you, and was that also the beginning of your interests in the environment and land conservation?
I’ve always enjoyed being on and in the water. Fly-fishing is a peaceful way for me to spend time outdoors, and although I came to it kind of late, it has been very therapeutic and an important part of my evolution. Understanding ecosystems from the stream level has been extremely valuable in expanding my thinking as a conservationist. Without clean water, life as we know it on earth would not exist.
You count as a mentor, Jacques Cousteau, the noted sea explorer, conservationist, and filmmaker. How did you meet him, and how did he influence you?
As Todd explains in the book, Cousteau, his son, Jean-Michel, and the late singer and environmentalist John Denver came to visit me in Atlanta. They wanted me to underwrite the cost of new ocean-related wildlife films they were making and I agreed. It led to me joining the Captain aboard his research ship, Calypso, up the Amazon River. Cousteau represents for me not only the father of the modern environmental movement for the millions of people he positively influenced, but he was my personal mentor. I even viewed him as sort of a father figure who convinced me that I could be successful by making a lot of money and applying the money to address environmental problems.
There are some people who believe that economy and ecology must always be pitted against each other. That kind of attitude is ignorant, and it has led to a lot of environmental destruction and human misery. As I say often in the book, “Capitalism isn’t the problem, but how we’ve been practicing capitalism is.” We need to change that. I love nature and I enjoy making money. The two are not incompatible, but sometimes it does mean making hard choices. One way or another, society pays for destruction of the Earth. The first rule should be preventing messes from being made. The second rule should be that if you make a mess you have the responsibility and the means to clean it up. We let a lot of people off the hook for messes they create.
I love bison. A lot has been written about this in the press, some of it inaccurately. It’s something that Todd explores in the book. I have nothing against cattle ranchers. The ones I know are good hardworking people, but bison were native to the West. I like to look at them and they have competitive advantages over cattle. They evolved with the land and are better suited to it. They deserve to be here. Largely due to bison ranching, my ranches are in far better shape, ecologically and economically, than when I first took ownership. Raising bison has not been without its challenges, but I’m proud of what we’ve done—we’ve played a big part in bringing the population back to a healthy level.
What other things have you done to reduce your ecological footprint on your properties?
For starters, we had an informal energy audit done to get a handle on how much energy we were using to run our operations. Healthy forests, grasslands, wetlands and soils absorb an awful lot of carbon. On two million acres, if we are good stewards, we can absorb tons of CO2. We have a solar array on a ranch in New Mexico that has 500,000 panels and produces enough clean electricity to power 9,000 homes. I support the Energy Future Coalition, an offshoot of the United Nations Foundation that is promoting the slogan 25 X 25 that encourages states to generate 25 percent of their power needs using alternative energy by the year 2025. The vast majority of us live on the burning of fossil fuels, but I’m committed to helping promote alternatives, and at the end of the day, I try to capture more carbon than I expend by using technology and the environment. There are lots of things we’re doing. If I gave you a list, it would cover many pages.
Readers may consider your vast contribution to the environment and think, “Yeah, well, he is Ted Turner. What can I possibly do to make a difference?” How do you respond to that mindset?
If they’re saying that as an excuse for not getting involved and doing their part, then I’m disappointed. You know, it’s kind of funny. When we launched CNN, we were taking on the three major networks. Today, young people with their laptops and mobile devices have literally as much power and reach in their hands as the networks had 30 years ago. There are lots of things each of us can do: Get involved politically, show up to meetings and write letters to our elected officials. Volunteer for groups that are socially and environmentally conscious. As consumers, we can be more discriminating in how we shop and spend money. When in doubt, support the green option. You don’t have to have a lot of money to do that.
“Last Stand” is about your legacy. How do you hope future generations will view your contributions, and what do you hope readers will take away from the book?
People need to step forward and be counted. We’re doing it for ourselves and our families, but most importantly it’s for our kids and grandkids and great grandkids, and for generations yet unborn. It’s never effective to lecture. What has more impact is telling people they count and that what they do makes a difference. If people reading this book derive some inspiration, or if folks with money decide to apply it to good causes, I’ll be happy. All of us can change the world.