David de Rothschild is an environmental campaigner, founder of global sustainability foundation Sculpt the Future, and most recently eco-minded lifestyle brand The Lost Explorer. In 2010 he led the Plastiki Expedition, sailing a yacht made entirely of waste plastic through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Josh Sims chats with him
Why do you focus your energies on environmental issues in particular?
For me they’re basically the foundation of everything. No other issues are more important. There are many other problems of course – acute ones like fires and refugees, the kind that happen somewhere everyday. But the degradation of nature is a chronic problem. It affects all of us. I think that also makes it harder to grasp.
Why is that?
We’re dealing with an outdated brain model – we’re more worried about being attacked by a shark than we are the destruction of our habitat. Nature is so expansive we struggle to connect with the idea of our part in it. The problems surrounding it feel too abstract. Of course, the fact is that around the world a lot of people have too many worries – access to clean water, for example, which is incredible when we use it to flush our toilets – to worry about climate change.
Does the way the issues are presented exacerbate the problem?
I think it does. Look at the words we use and how they define how we think. We’re not sure about ‘climate change’ but nobody wants ‘pollution’. There’s the problem that the dominant narrative about the environment is the economy too – it’s all ‘carbon off-setting’ and ‘energy security’–- with little mention of how actual nature and our impact on it. That doesn’t help us to see nature as something to be curious about. It becomes something to fear in some way. And then we trivialise the issues as entertainment: it’s all ‘mega-storms’ and ‘carmaggedon’. It’s no wonder we tend to switch off.
Many of your efforts – the likes of the Plastiki – have been very successful at getting attention. Is this deliberate?
I think you have to accept that to raise the profile of these issues it’s important to get the media’s attention. Part of the interest in the Plastiki expedition was people saying ‘it’ll never happen’. And the other part was because the story had an element of danger to it. There’s certainly a greater responsibility on the part of the media to present the facts [on environmental issues] fairly and squarely. In a funny way Trump has become a positive thing – he’s driven lawmakers and activists to pursue the issues more rigorously.
You’re a descendent of the famous Rothschild banking family. How useful has your family name been in opening doors?
Sure, people are probably more curious to meet me and hear what I have to say because of my name, but then there are also more people willing to knock you down. It’s hard to say if the name is a pro or a con though I’m certainly aware of the blessings and opportunities it’s afforded. Whatever you’re called it’s about having an impact, and what you do with the tools you’ve been given.
Your foundation takes on a great diversity of projects. Why take that approach?
Well they’re all in the realm of the environment. A lot of foundations are very focused – they just consider trees, for example. I think there’s a time and place too for organisations to foster a broader conversation, to help create a sense of awe and wonder in nature. I admire those heroes who sit in one corner of the jungle counting frogs. We need that. But we also need to see the big picture.
Do you feel attitudes have changed over your time working on environmental issues?
Generally I think people still feel the issues are too big for them too address. So they turn their trust to politicians who can’t do much because they can’t easily think in the long term. It salves the conscience but it doesn’t get it very far. We have to gear people more towards what they can do. People now are more aware that they have choices to do much the same as they did before, but do it better.
And not before time right?
Yes, it’s good because the impact of the attitude we’ve had towards the environment is catching up with us. Who knows? The very nature we’re destroying – killing sharks out of fear, using chemicals that destroy bee populations – could hold the key to saving us. The way bees travel to pollinate may have an answer to making cities more efficient. It’s just nuts.
One of your latest projects, The Lost Explorer, is a lifestyle range, which seems like an unexpected choice. Whats the thinking behind that?
I wanted to explore the systems that go into making stuff. The fact is that no matter how well it’s made, you can’t take anything in a way that’s entirely sustainable. There’s always some environmental cost. And people will always consume. Shopping has become an identity. It’s ‘game-ified’ now. Our brains have been hi-jacked. So it’s a matter of providing products that are made with the least possible impact. Our products are not going to save the planet. Actually [like any product] they’re likely to have a detrimental effect. But change inspires change.
Are you positive about the future?
I’m an optimistic pessimist. We’ve just taken off and we’re mid-air and know that we’re coming down, but we’ve remortgaged the landing strip so that’s getting smaller all the time – so we know we’re going to break something. The question is whether that will be our ankle or our neck. All those cliches about the darkness before the dawn are true. You hear all these ideas [to tackle environmental problems] and they’re very exciting and could effect change – but then that’s all still within what is a redundant mindset [towards the environment]. So I feel the situation is going to get worse before it gets better.