Rhett Butler – Hope is Sharing Knowledge to Empower (Jane Goodall Hopecast S2 EP3)


Full Transcript:

Jane Goodall (00:04):

I was on a Zoom call with a whole group of CEOs in Singapore, and the CEO of a big corporation, who’s honestly truly made massive changes in checking out the ethics of his supply chain and where it came from and the wages that people are paid. And he was saying, “Jane, there were three reasons for my company to change. First, seeing the writing on the wall, that we cannot go on exploiting the finite natural resources of the planet, because if we do that’s the end of our business.” And he said, “Secondly, people are getting more aware, and they are demanding a more ethical way of doing business.” And he said, “People aren’t buying our products because we are not producing them in an ethical way.” But he said, “The thing that really pushed me to make this major change was my daughter.” And he said, “She came back from school one day and she said, “Daddy, what you are doing? Is it harming the environment? Is it going to hurt me when I grow up?”” And he said, “That got straight to my heart.”

Jane Goodall (01:22):

You’ve got to feel it. You’ve got to get that teared up feeling. Yes, I’ve got to change. Then you have to work out how you change. That’s what our intellect is for. And there’s so many like that.

Speaker 2 (01:44):

I dream of seeing a greener and happier planet.

Speaker 3 (01:47):

I want people to care more about climate change, because it affects us all.

Speaker 4 (01:51):

There’s wisdom in the lessons we learn.

Speaker 5 (01:53):

I aspire to change the world too, because of the hope she gave me.

Speaker 6 (01:55):

The earth is beautiful.

Speaker 7 (01:57):

She devoted her life to this.

Speaker 8 (01:58):

Together we can save the world.

Speaker 9 (02:01):

Together we can, together we will.

Jane Goodall (02:02):

What is your greatest reason for hope? I’m Jane Goodall, and this is the Hopecast.

Jane Goodall (02:15):

Today, I get to speak to someone I deeply admire, Rhett Butler. Rhett is an award-winning journalist and the founder and CEO of Mongabay, a nonprofit environmental media organization. I’ve served on the advisory board for Mongabay for some years now. The Jane Goodall Institute often contributes to Mongabay for interviews and stories, and the two organizations work together to amplify stories that turn hope into action. Beyond Mongabay, Rhett has advised a range of organizations and institutions from news outlets, to philanthropic foundations, to development agencies. His writing and photography have appeared in hundreds of publications. As someone who is constantly considering the best way to communicate some of the most pressing and critical stories of our time, Rhett is no stranger to creating an effective marriage between truth and hope, something that’s incredibly important to me and I’m so excited to speak with him about. I hope you enjoy this hopeful conversation with Rhett Butler.

Jane Goodall (03:35):

Rhett, I feel very sad that we are not actually sitting together, that we are communicating in this strange new Zoom world that we live in today, but I’m really excited to welcome you to this Hopecast and excited to talk to you even from the distance of UK to the United States. Welcome to the show.

Rhett Butler (04:02):

Well, thank you so much for having me. I look forward to the day, hopefully sometimes soon, where we can be face to face again.

Jane Goodall (04:07):

So Rhett, I’ve actually been wanting to talk to you for quite a long time, because what seems to be going on in the world today is that so many people are losing hope. Yes, we need the media to talk about all the horrible things that are happening to the environment and socially and politically, but if it’s only doom and gloom that’s out there in the media, of course people are losing hope. I mean, what’s going on is terrible. And we do need to know about it, but don’t you think the media should spend more time sharing those stories of hope?

Rhett Butler (04:44):

Yeah, I do. I think one of the challenges that journalists have is there’s a bias toward focusing on problems rather than solutions, and I think that that has been one of the fundamental issues that we’re facing today. And so I think part of it is focusing on these tangible solutions and actions that people can take at home. So reminding people that, yeah, there are these big global problems, but solutions always start locally and here are a few things that you can do to actually start to make a difference locally. And collectively, that can bubble up into something much, much greater. And I think JGI’s work and Roots and Shoots are some of the examples of hopeful, positive things that can be inspiration for us all. I think that collectively the media could do a much better job, including Mongabay, highlighting those stories and giving us hope, because really, that’s critical.

Jane Goodall (05:39):

What gets me all the time is we know what to do, but if people don’t get together now and take action, this window of time we have to slow down climate change and biodiversity loss, it’s not a huge window of time, is it?

Rhett Butler (05:55):

No, it’s really not, and I feel like it’s getting shorter every day, as we see the compounding impacts of climate change and degradation and the other issues we’re facing. So part of this whole effective storytelling is giving people something real and meaningful that they can do in their lives to really make a difference about the issues they care about. That’s our role as storytellers, to provide that initial step and impetus and push for people to then take action. Facts can only go so far in persuading people. So you really need that combination of a strong factual basis and then a really good narrative that inspires people to care about the world around them, but also create a connection between the audience and the subject. Some of these communities have overcome such incredible odds to have this real impact.

Rhett Butler (06:45):

There’s a good example out of Malaysian Borneo in Sarawak. So there’s this effort to create a peace park, an indigenous led peace park, but the incredible thing is, is that now like the international tropical timber organization has officially endorsed it, the Sarawak government is talking about it. So this thing like which seemed like such a pipe dream, such a ridiculous idea, is now very close to becoming a reality. I think also part of the role of Mongabay is highlighting those stories, and sometimes the journalism can help create an enabling environment for supporting that change. And so that’s one reason why I love what I do is that we can see that, this journal can actually lead to or contribute to impact on the ground as well.

Jane Goodall (07:30):

Yeah, I am so, so impressed by the journalists who risk their lives to talk about what’s going on that is hidden by big corporations and all the corruption that goes on. And the whistleblowers too, for that matter. I think the hope part of it there is that there are people willing to risk their jobs and their lives in speaking out, and that’s hopeful for human race and the future of our planet. I quite often find myself thinking back to what was almost the beginning of the environmental movement, which was Rachel Carson with Silent Spring and what she tackled even up to the very end when she had cancer in exposing the effect of DDT on the environment and the weakening of the shells of the birds of prey, and she won. That’s a story which maybe a lot of people today don’t even know, but I remember it because I was living through it.

Rhett Butler (08:33):

Yeah. I mean, it is amazing. I just think about so much of the action is now done remotely. I mean, you have these critical environmental defenders on the front lines who are putting their lives at risk, but people can support in other ways. So even if you’re not on the front lines in the Congo basin or something like that, you can support those efforts at home by things like satellite imagery or using your voice to raise awareness or pestering your representatives in Congress about legal actions or regulations that can help protect and support these communities or help save the forest. So I think what it does is, that example just shows that you can help make a difference, even if you aren’t on the front lines, which I think is really important.

Jane Goodall (09:30):

What originally drove you to start Mongabay? What was it? Was there a particular moment, a particular incident?

Rhett Butler (09:40):

Yeah, so Mongabay was born out of my love for nature and wildlife. So I had the great fortune of having a mother who is a travel agent, and a father who traveled a lot for business. So I had opportunities to go to places that most people don’t. So say like instead of going to Disneyland, we would go to Venezuela. And I had a special affinity for reptiles and amphibians, and I felt that the most interesting reptiles and amphibians were in the rainforest. So I would always try to get my parents to take me to the rainforest, and I thankfully had a couple opportunities.

Rhett Butler (10:17):

And so the thing that really took me from just being someone who appreciated nature to understanding the fact that there were problems in the environment, was when I was 12, I went to Eastern Ecuador and we stayed with a fairly traditional indigenous community near Yasuni National Park. And I had an amazing time meeting the kids my age in the village and going out looking for frogs at night and things like that.

Rhett Butler (10:41):

I came back to California where I lived, and a few months after I was there, there was a story in the local newspaper about this huge oil spill that had happened on the Rio Napa upward from where I’d been, and so what that meant is the area that I just visited was now coated in oil. And so all I could think about is what had happened to my friends and the forest and the animals. The thing that really spurred me to like that next level was when I was 17, I went to Malaysian Borneo and I had an incredible experience in the rainforest there, including a moment where a wild male orangutan passed within 30 feet of me, kind of paused, watched me for a few minutes, and then kept going. It was like that magical experience.

Rhett Butler (11:25):

But I came back from that forest and I kept in correspondence with the scientists there, and several months later, the forest was pulp to make paper, and now it’s an oil pump plantation. And so once that happened, I decided I need to try to do something to raise awareness about this. And so I began writing a book about rainforests when I was starting at the university, I sent the book out to publishers. One came back to me and said they were interested in publishing it, but later in the process, they said, “Okay, well, we’d like to publish it, but we don’t have money to put pictures in it. We can run some gray scale images, but it’ll just be a textbook.” And to me that really defeated the purpose of what I was trying to do, which was convey the beauty of rainforest and why they should be saved.

Rhett Butler (12:05):

And so I thought, well, I didn’t write this book for money, I wrote it for impact. And so instead I decided to put on the internet so we read it for free, and I decided to name it Mongabay, which is derived from the name of an island off Madagascar, which is this beautiful island, which is covered with rainforest, had amazing reptiles, amphibians, had lemurs, was surrounded by coral reef. And so I put the book up on the internet and then a few years later I quit my job to pursue my passion, and that was Mongabay. Been quite a journey.

Jane Goodall (12:36):

What’s so important, Rhett, that you’re doing with Mongabay and what we’re doing to give these young people hope, because if our youth loses hope, that’s the end, we’re finished. Because if you don’t have hope, you fall into apathy and do nothing. And you’ve got two very small children in your life. So for you, this is really, really important.

Rhett Butler (13:02):

Yeah. I mean, I think it’s really important for really all of us, but I mean the younger generation, I think has a lot to be upset about. They’ve been put in this situation by my generation and older generations and being able to harness that, I think in some cases it’s rage, but disappointment, and turn it into productive action, I think is what a lot of young people are doing now. They’re going to determine the future that we want to have. And so, people need to be engaged.

Jane Goodall (13:34):

And obviously, young people today know far more about the environmental problems than I was taught when I was young. I mean, we just were trying to get through World War II. And it was World War II and the aftermath that created the beginning of the deforestation, because there wasn’t enough wood forests and woods in Europe to rebuild Europe after the devastation of World War II. And I went to a meeting of the Tropical Hardwood Association and I talked about the forest and everything, and some of these guys were actually in tears, but one of them decided that he would make change. He was so shocked and so saddened and so horrified, and so apparently when you are in a European logging company, they have a code of conduct as to the size of tree you can out and the distance apart of trees, and that you then leave this part of the forest to recover and you go somewhere else.

Jane Goodall (14:43):

But he added, after talking with me, a code of conduct for the animals, so that he said, “Okay, if we find chimpanzees or gorillas or something like that, we leave that part of the forest and go somewhere else.” And that was because I told stories about the chimpanzees and how they lived and all the rest of it. So again, I didn’t point fingers at them, I didn’t tell alum they were horrible. I just talked about the time I’d spent in the rainforest and how I had this sense of spiritual connection, and how I felt that all these different plant and species were woven together in like a beautiful living tapestry. A species becomes extinct in that tapestry, that ecosystem, and it’s like pulling a thread from the ecosystem. And because everything is interconnected, the more threads you pull out, eventually the ecosystem will hang in tatters and collapse.

Rhett Butler (15:52):

Yeah. And I think what you illustrate there is a critical point in storytelling, which is really creating that connection between an audience and the subject matter. Everyone has their voice and can make decisions about what they do in their lives, so maybe there are small things they can do to have an impact.

Jane Goodall (16:12):

Well, I guess we can all do small things, can’t we. And some of us couldn’t do bigger things. You and me, Rhett, we can go shopping and we can look at a product and we can actually ask, in the making, did it help the environment? Was it cruel to animals? Is it cheap because of unfair wages? And we can afford to buy something that might be costing a little bit more, but was made ethically. But if you’re living in poverty, you can’t make that decision. You’re going to cut down the last trees because you’ve got to find some new land to grow food for your family. So alleviating poverty is absolutely key.

Rhett Butler (16:56):

Yeah. I mean creating incentives to help local people protect and safeguard their lands is a very powerful tool for achieving conservation outcomes. So I mean, if we look at where most wildlife and wild lands are located in the world these days, it’s in places where there are indigenous and local communities and there’s a reason why those forests are still standing. Whereas, like in Europe and the United States, there are far fewer indigenous peoples, the forests and other wild areas have been converted. And I think that’s one of the really important trends conservation right now is the growing recognition of the contributions that local indigenous people are making towards climate and biodiversity objectives basically. And so I think stories like that are really important to get out there.

Jane Goodall (17:49):

And, I know in Tanzania, in Gombe, the local people did early burning and then a long time conservationist, not me by the way, not our group, but others, saying, “No, we, we mustn’t do this. We got to leave forest intact, we mustn’t touch anything. We mustn’t do early burning.” So what happens? Enormous fires. It’s very hard to put them out. And what I love right now are the rewilding programs that are going on.

Rhett Butler (18:20):

Yeah. I mean, certainly I think that the rewilding is a very exciting area in the conservation space and it’s really going all around the world now. It’s in Europe, it’s in Latin America. There’s been this big push lately for restoration and tree planting projects, and I think that there is so much attention being pay paid to the idea of, well, if we’re going to be restoring these landscapes, we actually need to be bringing native species and thinking about the biodiversity aspects and not just the carbon accounting aspect, but, what were the species that were here and how can we help turn around this ecosystem and all the ecosystems that are associated with it and create sustainable livelihoods?

Jane Goodall (19:04):

I get pretty frustrated with all this tree planting where people just stick a sapling the ground and that’s it. It needs to be indigenous, needs to be planted in the right place, the right soil, the right time of year, as you say, it needs to think about the biodiversity and it’s got to be looked after. You can’t just dump it and leave it. If you are a big company, and you are putting out masses of CO2 into the environment, and then you say, “Well, I’m going to plant so many trees and that will be a carbon credit, so I can go on producing emissions because I go on planting trees,” that’s not right. We’ve got stop relying on fossil fuels.

Rhett Butler (19:50):

Yeah. I mean, think one of the reasons that I’m optimistic and hopeful is that there is this energy transition that’s happening right now, that’s I think occurring much faster than most people expected. So shifting power production away from those legacy fuels, whether it’s coal or natural gas or gasoline, and moving towards wind and solar, which are just incredible renewable resources. I mean, there used to be the model of fortress conservation where you would create a park and then you’d put guards around it and kick people out of the land. And that was probably something that was very common, maybe even 20 years ago, but that’s changing now. And so you see this like major shift that’s also occurring with conservation that you see in energy production. And so I think it’s exciting to see that when there are solutions that are viable and work well, they can be taken up very quickly.

Jane Goodall (20:43):

Wouldn’t you agree, that certainly it’s true in the UK, it’s true in the US, that whole section of society has been deliberately kept undereducated, so now they’re angry and I think things aren’t fair and that anger turns into violent demonstrations, and terrorism too?

Rhett Butler (21:09):

I mean, I think one major problem is that a lot of people have been deliberately misled. And so if we look at like what the fossil fuel industry did for so long about denying climate change or saying it’s not as bad as people say it is, I think that messaging is very damaging long term. So I think another thing that’s happened is, while we’ve talked a lot about individual action and why that’s important, there is a lot of responsibility being put on the individual and in cases where people may not have access to good information or are stuck in these information bubbles, they may not have the ability to make informed decisions. And so that highlights the importance of the higher level action where governments have a role.

Rhett Butler (21:57):

So if products available on the shelves are all responsible or sustainable, then the decision making on an uninformed individual is isn’t around sustainability anymore, it’s what color do I like, or something like that. So if you can take that sustainability question out of decision making because everything is sustainable, it can help get at that root issue of some people being under informed. That’s the long term solution to this, but in the shorter term, individuals are informed can help drive that higher level policy action through their voices, their wallets, and how they vote.

Jane Goodall (22:42):

Rhett, I’ve been so impressed by Mongabay for so long. And I know that you have a team of people investigating news stories. I don’t know in how many countries now, but an awful lot of the world. And I suppose there’s always a balance between telling all the horrors that are going on and balancing it so that people don’t get so depressed that they give up, because if we give up, now we are doomed. How do you weave that in to the stories you tell?

Rhett Butler (23:18):

We do it story by story, but we also have overarching themes that we report on. So for example, we have what we call a special reporting project that looks at indigenous led conservation. That’s how happening right now. And so what that is, is we’re committing to do a set of stories that looks at this issue area. And by having this set of stories that’s pre-announced, we can build like a story arc, like we’re going to focus on certain geographies, but also understanding examples of some success stories. So like, here are 5 or 10 projects around the world and here are some common elements to each one of these successful projects. And so that builds an understanding of what works with these projects and maybe what doesn’t, or what we can learn from it.

Rhett Butler (24:04):

And so we do try to encourage our editors to probe these stories, like is there some upside here, or is there an example of an organization that’s doing really good work to try to address this challenge? And one of the things of Mongabay that’s been able to do this is we’ve built out a network of journalists all around the world. So we have currently, it’s probably around 600-700 contributing journalists in about 80 countries, and there’s a lot of value in this because we can do very local stories, but then by the nature of the network being global, it can bubble up into these very high level stories as well by taking information from all these different countries.

Jane Goodall (24:47):

Rhett, has there been a change? Is what you do helping to make more of the media share the good stories as well as the bad stories?

Rhett Butler (24:57):

Well, so I think that sometimes you can have a bad story that results in a good outcome, so there’s something that’s being done that’s destructive, but then covering it can then lead to the activity stopping or people being empowered. And so back in 2014, there was a company that had a initial public offering in London it’s called United Cacao, and it portrayed itself as a pure-play cacao company at a time when cacao prices were going up. And so cacao is used for making chocolate, just to clarify. So they had this story where they were working with local people and they were sustainable and producing this commodity that everyone loves. Mongabay was monitoring global forest watch, and we were looking specifically for evidence of deforestation that was occurring, and we saw these, they show up as pink polygons, appearing in Peru, which is the Western Amazon, which is the most biodiverse part of Amazon rainforest.

Rhett Butler (25:59):

And so we started to dig into it. We had an investigative reporter that went there and it turned out that it was this company that had just had the IPO that had been clearing a highly biodiverse rainforest in the Amazon. And the way that we knew that is we could see the change happening over time from the satellite data. There were also scientists doing really great work documenting before the forest clearance happened and after. So a friend of mine had flown the area in his airplane and mapped it with very high resolution satellite imagery, which showed the biodiversity, like the number of trees, the specific tree species that were in the area, the carbon density, things of that nature. And then there’s a group called the Amazon Conservation Association, which was actually monitoring the change that was going on.

Rhett Butler (26:44):

And so there’s all this great evidence. And so we started produce a story about what was happening here and, the company tried to shut down the story, but our response was, “Well, this is all based off the best science and there’s plenty of evidence here showing what’s happening and we’re just covering that.” And so, we came out with a story, a bunch of other media outlets then covered the story. Activists started doing campaigns around it, started going after the London Stock Exchange, [inaudible 00:27:11]company, and we continued to do this reporting. And so over the next two plus years, a bunch of stories came out, the proving government decided that the plantation was breaking local regulations, it was illegal, and so fast forward to 2017, the company was delisted from London Stock Exchange.

Rhett Butler (27:31):

And so the reason that was important was it was part of a holding company that had a bunch of other companies that were planning to clear nearly a hundred thousand hectares of forests for oil pump plantations and cacao. And that’s all in this very biodiverse area. And so by not being listed, it deprived them of the capital that they would’ve had to do that expansion. And so I think the reason why that story ended up being impactful was there was good data that was based on the best science that was presented in a way that was well visualized, there was a compelling storyline. You had biodiversity, you had local communities, you had diverse voices and stakeholders. So again, that’s a situation where there it started as a bad story that ended up having a positive impact when it comes to the environment.

Jane Goodall (28:22):

Rhett, this has been an absolutely wonderful conversation, and it’s highlighted the power of the intersection between science and storytelling and the incredible effect that this can have on creating a better world. Thank you so much for being here with us today.

Rhett Butler (28:42):

Thank you so much again for inviting me on your show, and also just all the inspiration you’ve provided.

Jane Goodall (28:59):

But there is still hope, where a different future awaits us. Where faith unites us to make rainforest a shared spiritual priority, where we teach our communities that rainforests are a sacred trust, where we feed a growing planet without converting rainforests. Where we work with companies to ensure their products are deforestation free, and where we make sure that governments protect forests and the rights of indigenous peoples. This is the future where we do what is right.

Jane Goodall (29:51):

Feel hopeful and inspired to act with the Jane Goodall Hopecast by subscribing on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Podcasts, and anywhere podcasts are found. I’m your host Jane Goodall. The Jane Goodall Hopecast is produced by the Jane Goodall Institute. Our production partner is FRQNCY Media. Michelle Khouri is our executive producer, Enna Garkusha is our producer, and Matthew Ernest Filler is our editor and sound designer. Our music is composed and performed by Ruth Mendelson with additional violin tracks from Angie Sheila. Sound design and music composition for the Conservation Chorus is by Matthew Ernest Filler.

1 2

About Author

Scientist. Activist. Storyteller. Icon. Jane Goodall blazed the trail and changed the world. Now, she's studying new subjects – humans! This brand-new podcast will take listeners on a one-of-a-kind journey as they learn from Dr. Goodall's extraordinary life, hear from changemaking guests from every arena, and become awed by a growing movement sparked by Jane and fueled by hope. Join us as we get curious, grow compassion, and take action to build a better world for all. As we face some of the greatest challenges to humankind and the natural world, we have a unique opportunity: the power of technology to connect and share ideas. Now is the time to galvanize people around Jane’s message of hope in action and bring big thinkers together to change hearts and minds alike. The Jane Goodall Hopecast is produced by the Jane Goodall Institute by Dan DuPont, Shawn Sweeney, and Ashley Sullivan. Our production partner is FRQNCY Media. Michelle Khouri is our executive producer, Enna Garkusha is our producer, and Matthew Ernest Filler is our editor and sound designer. Our music is composed and performed by Ruth Mendelson with additional violin tracks from Angie Shyr. Sound design and music composition for the Conservation Chorus is by Matthew Ernest Filler.