The TH Interview: David de Rothschild - Part 1

It could be said that David de Rothschild is the personification of the contemporary green movement. Named as an Emerging Explorer in the class of 2007 by National Geographic, he is spearheading a new generation of young leaders who are tackling environmental issues. His mission, with his organization Adventure Ecology, is to redefine sustainability issues in ways that are exciting, fun and inspiring. By combining the concepts of adventure and ecology through multimedia story telling he hopes to deliver the message that being eco-friendly is not just an abstract concept, it can be a tangible and interactive experience.

You'll find this interview in two parts on TH, today and tomorrow. In Part 1 David explains what inspired him to start Adventure Ecology and what he hopes to accomplish through it. In Part 2 he talks about the Toxico Mission experience in Ecuador. I managed to catch up with David last month, (that's no mean feat by the way!) here in Ecuador while he was here on the Toxico Mission with the Adventure Ecology creative field team. This was the first in the ARTiculate series that will take the team to different parts of the world to investigate and report on environmental issues. Along on the Toxico Mission, with David, were photographers Ollie Chanarin and Adam Broomberg of Chopped Liver, filmmaker Dustin Lynn, the world-renowned artist Gabriel Orozco and the ethno biologist Maria Fadiman.

I know you've been doing sports and adventure stuff most of your life, but how did the ecology part and the adventure part come together?
Well, I think it's always been there in the sense that I've always felt more comfortable outside than inside.

No, you're not the type for an office job.
No! Things out there have always captured my imagination more than sitting in a stuffy room. I was always more interested in what was going on outside, you know doing lots of crazy sports, triathlons and things, and then I found myself on an expedition to Antarctica with three other people. I didn't grow up with Scott on my wall or being obsessed about reaching the South Pole; I was just going on an adventure. I think it stems from dreams, you know every dream is a breeding ground for adventures. My dream was to really test myself, it started from a very selfish place, but I was struck by the lack of direction of what this expedition was about. What was the point?

So what do you think the point was?
I think it was pure challenge. It was about the records and it was about being bigger, faster and stronger. There's this amazing mystique that goes with the North and South Poles, because no one knows any different. You know I could come back and say my eyes would freeze everyday and as soon as you pee it freezes and your fingers can snap and your hair can fall out. And people are like, "Wow!" So there's a lot of story manipulation that goes on. The under thread for me was just his thing of how people are fascinated by stories. The group that we have now they are all storytellers, whether it's through the medium of photography or art or film, we're storytellers and we gravitate to stories. Society is based on myths and folklore, so the power of the story, especially an adventure story, has this amazing capacity to capture people's imaginations.

Prior to my departure I took an ad out in a teaching publication because I thought it'd be kind of cool to share this with people. I didn't know what it would do, but it turned out to be a $15000 ad that changed my life. In the sense that it was a double page spread in a teaching publication, "Turn your classroom into an Antarctic landscape". I got back and I had about 700 emails from students and teachers saying we followed your trip what's next and how do we follow up? Is there any more material? Can you send us any more photos?

That must have been great!
I was like, "Wow!" I had no idea that this would attract so much interest. I didn't want to just come back and talk about myself, but I wanted to share the experience.

So was that where Adventure Ecology started?
Yes, so it all started to gel. I began to think of how we could take adventures and take stories and use them to address issues, which are fundamentally quite dry, inherently hard to understand and abstract by nature. You know, out of sight out of mind. It dawned on me that we could take this amazing momentum and energy and event and story and adventure and just fit it together. So, Adventure Ecology was born and the whole ethos is making and learning an adventure.

What is your perception of the environmental movement right now?
We're in a time now where everyone is talking about climate change, but everything has just been refined to four words: carbon, energy, transport and offset. That's all I ever hear and then people believe that our planet will be healthy again. So we really need to make a concerted effort to try and make a multi-levelled learning experience, something that will engage, that is about investigative learning. It's not about prescribed pathways. We spent a lot of time developing a rich curriculum, it's stands up within many school systems, and it's modular. We used Howard Gardner's multiple intelligences approach and we built a 3d textbook online.

Are you trying to get something officially into the school curriculum?

Yes and No. I am in two minds about that, because I don't want it to become a Wednesday class at 10am, "Oh god we've got double adventure ecology, uhhhhh " I want it to be community where people are inspired to take action, to be engaged, and to communicate.

So you are hoping teachers will take it into their own classes?

Yeah, definitely. There's a teacher's toolkit, they can download class assignments, browse interactive maps, explore topics. The word ecology is divided into sections: Energy, Cultures, Our changing climate, Land and Water, Organisms, Green, You. So you can go in to Green and look at your ecological foot print and understand what that means. This gives you an overview and explains it and you can watch the cartoon.

Do you go into many classrooms yourself?
Oh yeah loads, that's what I do. I am in schools the whole time. I love going to schools, that's the fun thing. That's the pay back, sitting with a group of kids and seeing them get excited. They have an amazing perspective on things, they are so honest. We grow more cynical as we grow older and have preconceived ideas about what's possible and what's not. Kids are like, "Why are we cutting down trees? Why don't we stop cutting down trees?" Or "Why are we polluting our water if we only have a certain amount of water to drink?" I'll never forget I did an interview with something called Children's radio and the first question I was asked was, "Well this is great all these adventures, but you are flying there." That was from an 11 year old kid and I was like "Yeah, you are right" and she said, "Well isn't that just damaging the environment more?" And I was like, " Yeah you're right it is." although I can offset, but I am a big anti offset person.

Yes, I was going to ask the obvious offsetting question.

Well it's off putting. It's there to salve out consciousness, it's not there as a realistic solution. I mean certain investments work, here in Ecuador I've learned a new one: you can buy barrels of oil still in the ground. In other words they won't be drilled, which is really interesting. Those types of things work. Planting trees? No it doesn't work. I mean it's a nice concept, but you are better off buying solar ovens for people or making investments in clean technology.

But you can offset through clean technology.
You can do and I do, I offset with Climate Care, but I also try to minimise my impact. It's not easy being green, but do your bit, it's better than doing nothing.

It is interesting that there's this new pressure to seen to be offsetting, especially with a company like Adventure Ecology.
Well, actually, the first stage is to look at your lifestyle, and to cut back, no not cut back, that's the wrong word. Evaluate and become more efficient with your daily actions. It's about looking at things from a fresh perspective, don't do things just because that's what you've done, or that's what you thought. Do I have to drive the mile to the shop everyday in my car by myself? Do I have to? Actually you are right I don't, I could easily walk it.

Or bike it?
Yeah or bike it. So that's the first stage, to do a complete audit of your lifestyle and look at the easy wins. The cumulative effect of small change is amazing. Kids are very focused, they get it, and they don't feel intimidated by the challenge. Though, there's a fine line, we have to be careful of putting this enormous pressure on to our children, that it's their fault, their problem. We're sorry guys, but you are going to have a shit life to life in the next 10, 20, 40 year, because of our actions. That's where we as consumers and those who hold the purse strings have to make the right decisions. We have to and I don't think we are. I really don't. I think there's a lot of movement and there's been a lot of media attention just within the three or four years that Adventure Ecology has been going. Three years ago it was like, "What are you talking about?" and in the last eight months it's been a complete turn around. I think we have the capacity if we all act together, we can make a substantial change.

How do you think Adventure Ecology can make a substantial change?

The whole of Adventure Ecology is nothing new, people have been doing adventures, people have been doing ecology for a very long time, what I hope is kind of fresh is the way we tell the story. The Irish are really good at telling jokes for some reason, it must be the twang, but if you've got a really shit joke; try telling it in an Irish accent, it's hilarious! It's all about a new perspective and a fresh look. That's the challenge of what we're doing now. We can go in and do a very dry documentary and show everything as everyone's done it or we can go in and create amazing works of art.

So the challenge for me is how do we market the message? How do we market something that's going to resonate and compete? Because we are bombarded by messages 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Why I am I more connected to Fanta than to the rainforest? Well I can touch Fanta. The rainforest? I live in Brooklyn! I mean it's not going to resonate. So can we get Fanta to go Fanta rainforest? Ok maybe it's a shit product, but hey why don't we do a limited label? That's where is becomes exciting, getting these massive goliaths of organisations to change their perspective.

It's going to be challenge. I think it's a challenge that will be won or lost through consumers and I think there needs to be harmony in the triangle of change. There needs to be pressure from the consumer on to business, government onto business and business on to government, everyone working together.

For adventure ecology we really pride ourselves on creating exciting, engaging information that will stimulate at a similar capacity to what kids are used to. Trying to do something that's always fresh. You know we flooded Second Life recently; a virtual flood for 5 billion users. We worked out that an avatar in Second Life, uses two times more energy than the average Brazilian, because of the computer servers etc. So we created the slogan "Let's keep floods virtual" and this hit a whole demographic of people, millions of people who wouldn't normally even think of this and the response was amazing. So it's that kind of thing that's exciting, how do you keep engaging people? ::Adventure Ecology

Tags: Ecuador | London | TH Interview

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