The TH Interview: Rhett Butler of Mongabay.com

Rhett Butler began Mongabay.com as an educational resource about tropical rainforests, eventually expanding coverage to encompass topics such as biodiversity and green design. TreeHugger recently spoke with Rhett about his most recent conservation efforts, the influence of his economics and math background, and the current state of the rainforests.

TreeHugger: How did Mongabay.com get started, and what did you hope to achieve through it? How would you rate its success?

Rhett Butler: The seeds for Mongabay.com were sown by a personal experience on the island of Borneo, when a beautiful tract of lowland forest where I had watched an orangutan pass in the canopy overhead as I picked leeches off my clothes, was converted into wood chips for a paper pulp mill. This was not the first time I had lost such a special place, but the loss of that small section of forest in Borneo created the urgency to act upon a thought that had been nagging me. While environmental losses and degradation of the rain-forests had yet to reach the point of collapse, the continuing disappearance of wild-lands and loss of its species was -- and still is -- disheartening. I wanted to share the experience with those who hadn't yet witnessed the magnificence of these places. Thus the initial mission of Mongabay was to make people aware of the significance of rainforests and the biodiversity they contain. While they may be hot, bug-ridden, and remote, these forests have a lot to offer.As far as rating the success of the site, I would say Mongabay.com has far exceeded my expectations. I posted the site pretty casually after opting not to publish a book on rainforests -- I wanted the information freely available to a broad audience. I never thought that Mongabay would draw the number of visitors it gets today. Now I'm thinking about where it can go from here.

TH: You were involved in rainforest conservation, and then returned to the business world, and now it seems that through Mongabay.com you've been able to return to focusing on environmental conservation efforts. Was this an easy decision? What are your goals in returning to conservation? Are you still involved with the rainforests, or have your interests spread to other areas?

RB: Actually, I've always been more on the corporate side than the conservation side -- my background is economics with some math, although my passion has always been biology and the outdoors. Today I wouldn't necessarily say I've left the business world: more that I've transitioned from commuting to an office and wearing a suit to meeting with scientists and running from wild forest elephants. It's been quite a shift and has taken a lot of work, but I love what I do. I've reoriented my focus and skill set towards conservation and sustainability issues, rather than TPS reports and the market capitalization of European wireless companies.

In the early days, Mongabay.com was purely rainforest and tropical freshwater fish information but the site has since expanded to encompass a variety of topics ranging from biodiversity to green design. In the future I envision a further shift towards sustainable business practices and concepts rooted in biomimicry, while continuing to build up the site's emphasis on "nature appreciation." That said, my first love is rainforests, so I will commit time and resources to better understanding issues involving their conservation.

TH: Are there any lessons you've learned in the business world which have benefited your conservation work, or vice versa? Is there anything you've learned that would be of benefit to other conservation organizations?

RB: I'd say the most important thing I learned in the business world is that most people tend to take the easiest path. When they do put effort into something, they often expect an immediate return. From an environmental impact standpoint this suggests that people are not going to go out of their way to recycle, save energy, and buy green products simply because they are better for the world. No, people are going to buy products that offer qualities and performance superior to other products on the market. Likewise, people will take actions and support initiatives that make sense to them in the short term. Inconvenience, especially for small things like recycling packaging, painting their homes, or fueling their cars, is not something a lot of Americans are eager to tolerate. For example, it needs to be easier -- or at least cheaper -- to recycle or reuse plastic than to throw it away. Or, even better, give people incentives to be lazy by offering only biodegradable packaging materials that enrich the soil rather than taking 10,000 years to biodegrade in a landfill.

Another important lesson I learned in the business world is that taking a rational approach to problems can be more effective than being unreasonably ideological and shrill. Yelling is usually ineffective, and getting bitter and passive-aggressive about problems rarely leads to solutions. People need to sit down face to face and talk about the issues and work out solutions. Compromise is important. Some people, both in the business world and conservation world, seem to think that noise outweighs logic when it comes to solving problems.

TH: What kind of efforts have you made to engage the business community to adopt conservation measures?

RB: The original purpose of Mongabay.com was to raise awareness and spotlight some interesting places in the world, and initially most of my forays into the corporate community were through personal contacts here in the San Francisco Bay area. These focused mostly on somewhat superficial interest in unusual travel experiences. However, as the site's popularity has grown, I increasingly find myself engaging the business community on issues here and abroad. I generally take a different approach than traditional environmentalists, focusing more on the business and marketing benefits of adopting green energy or preserving habitat for orangutans in Indonesia. I've had individuals as well business leaders approach me asking the best way to protect lemurs in Madagascar or save the Amazon, and while I might not always have the answers, I can often point them in the direction of someone who can help.

TH: How has the situation in the rain-forests changed since you first began your work?

RB: Surprisingly, the situation has gotten much worse. It's easy to be complacent sitting here at home or visiting an eco-lodge somewhere, but if you look at the most recent numbers from the UN you'll see deforestation rates have actually accelerated since the close of the 1990s. Highly diverse forests are quietly giving way to small- and large-scale agriculture and scrub vegetation. The resident wildlife isn't faring well.

On a more positive note, I think people -- including corporations -- are generally more aware of the impact we are having on the environment and vice versa. It seems that a number of concepts embraced years ago by the green community are going mainstream and being discussed in everyday business decision-making. Green ideas are being recast as economic, efficient, and even patriotic -- being "green" is no longer a stigma. I believe that the rise of the internet and a community where everyone can be a watchdog has made corporations more accountable than they were even 10 years ago. In some cases the market appears to be taking initiative where the government has failed. This transition of leadership may well prove more effective in the long-run than government policies.

TH: How is public attention helpful or harmful to conservation efforts?

RB: In general I think public awareness is positive for conservation efforts. Public attention can serve as a rallying point to pressure governments to set aside protected areas and companies to reconsider destructive plans. However, in some cases, public attention can have negative effects. People can be too quick to judge whether a conservation project is successful or not. Attention can also attract throngs of people to an area that may not be capable of handling them.

TH: Can you describe the last environmental success you had (large or small) that triggered the thought: "You know, if we could do more of that, we might just pull this off"?

RB: Last month I wrote about a recent experience with a large west coast energy firm. Through a friend, I had the opportunity to make a pitch to a senior executive at the company. He wasn't particularly enamored with green energy and felt quite strongly that climate change, even if it is occurring, has little to do with humans. I tried to persuade him otherwise, not by focusing on the science of climate change but on economics and market opportunities. It's not that science isn't important; I just didn't want to get caught up in an argument about core beliefs, which is akin to arguing over religion. Less than a week after the pitch, the firm made a green-energy announcement. While I doubt this had much to do with my efforts, I was happy to see the press release come across the news wires.

As for current projects, I am in the early phases of working with a large financial firm to incorporate green concepts into their business strategy and practices as well as funding a conservation element. Outside the corporate realm, I'm in the planning stages of supporting a conservation effort in Indonesia that would engage local villagers as stewards of a forest that is home to a population of wild orangutans.

TH: If you had a magic wand, and could tap the planet and fix one problem, what would it be?

RB: I would change the mindset that humans are totally apart from nature, which makes it easy to ignore our impact on the environment and promotes wasteful, uneconomic behavior. There is little waste of resources in nature. It would be great to see businesses and individuals adopt this philosophy.

Since this is a bit pie-in-the-sky, I'll propose something more tangible: full-cost economic analysis. As I wrote back in July, many people believe that "economics" is the enemy of the environment. This is not necessarily true. The enemy of the environment is failing to account for all the true costs of producing something, using a resource, or converting a natural system for another purpose.

Too many decisions are made without looking at the total cost. We need to begin looking at the system as a whole and encouraging businesses, governments, and individuals to do the same.

Today a firm can profitably produce goods in a certain manner as long as it doesn't have to worry about externalities—costs that are not reflected in the price of a good or service but are passed on to society as a whole in the form of pollution, resource depletion, or other detrimental effects. It's time to start accounting for these externalities.

TH: What's the single most important thing each person in the country and the world can do to make it a more TreeHugger-friendly place?

RB: This is going to sound cheesy, but respect. Respect for the planet, its resources, other species, and other people. This would go a long way toward addressing a lot of the problems -- environmental, social, and political -- that we face today.

Rhett Butler created and maintains Mongabay.com, Wildmadagascar.org, Kids.mongabay.com, Fish.mongabay.com, Rainforests.mongabay.com, and News.mongabay.com.

[Interview conducted by Treehugger intern Dave Chiu]

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