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David vs Goliath: How David Mayer de Rothschild plans on saving the world

How do we save the Earth from certain destruction? If you ask David Mayer de Rothschild, the answer lies in exploration…
Ben Winstanley meets an unlikely environmental hero

David Mayer de Rothschild explorer and environmentalist interview

There is a sickness ravaging our planet at present – a global pandemic, profoundly changing the world as we know it, with no end point or resolution in sight. But it’s not Covid-19. No, it’s something even more deadly and in urgent need of correction: humanity itself.

As usual, it is left to David Attenborough – the disappointed father of modern civilisation – to pull us out of the rat race and remind us of the damage we are doing to the wilderness on a daily basis. In his latest and most affecting documentary to date, David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet, the broadcaster details his ‘witness statement for the natural world’, and humanity’s indelible footprint upon it. It makes for bleak viewing: warming oceans, heedless deforestation, and a booming population hungrily consuming natural resources. There’s little reprieve.

The challenge is simple: how do we change our way of thinking before it’s too late?

Another David has picked up the mantle in the hope of making a difference. David Mayer de Rothschild may be an unlikely poster child for reversing the effects of climate change – ‘activist’ and ‘scion of the world’s wealthiest banking dynasty’ rarely exist in the same sentence – but over the last two decades, his reputation as one of the foremost modern explorers has grown as projects like Plastiki (a catamaran made out of reclaimed plastic bottles and sailed across the Pacific by Rothschild and his team) have broadened the conversation about waste, consumerism, and renewable energy.

His next adventure may be his most crucial to date: convincing large corporations to give up the old models of capitalism and embrace a better, cleaner future. If this Ted Talk-worthy discussion is anything to go by, Rothschild is one man who might just be able to get the job done.

Here he unpacks the tangle of thorns that encircles each debate about the environment with knowledge, wit, and enthusiasm. Enjoy…

You’ve achieved an awful lot in your career so far – some incredible physical and mental feats. What’s your inspiration?

I think, for me, being an explorer is holding on to what we all have as children, which is just being curious. I’ve just watched my daughter figure out how to pick things up and put them on to the side of the table. It’s the best game ever. And yet as we get older we are so often taught not to be curious, not to ask questions, not to touch things and, “Don’t do that.” There is so much fear put into us. But that curiosity is the essence of any exploration.

Explorers are on an intellectual pursuit of understanding a part of the world

I’m not sure the typical modern explorer would share that sentiment. It seems every day there’s somebody attempting yet another death-defying PR stunt…

So for me, I think the way that explorers have been presented is one of daring feats of do, superhuman and super extreme. That’s why I think, there are those questions like, “What was the maddest, the craziest thing that happened to you? Was there a near-death experience?” There is almost like a morbid curiosity, a fascination with the physicality of these things.

I think I have always felt that that is probably where you draw the line in the sand for me between an adventurer and explorer (by the way, neither are better or worse!) The subtlety in the two is that an adventurer is pushing human endurance to its limits. They’re often trying to do something the fastest, the quickest, the highest, the strongest, whatever that feat is, but they’re doing something phenomenal usually.

Then, on the other side, you have the explorer, who probably wants to go slower, look at things, and collect things. Explorers are on an intellectual pursuit of understanding a certain part of the world, a system or a thing that is happening in a certain way and then using that experience to tell the story to get people, an institution or whoever it is to sit up and listen.

You do get a blend of the two worlds, right? But it always struck me as funny when I’d meet other adventurers or explorers and they’d say, “I’m doing a scientific expedition to the North Pole. I’m trying to get there as quickly as possible and break a world speed record,” or something.

I understand why this happens. Whenever we’re trying to go and raise funds to get an expedition funded, most of the time, you need to try and present a story to a potential partner or sponsor that is going to make them want to be part of it. So you’re often forced into digging up a, “This is a world first,”or “This is going to be the fastest,” narrative.

Explorer and environmentalist David Mayer de Rothschild
Explorer and environmentalist David Mayer de Rothschild

Sacrifice for the cause, I imagine…

I think what it does is forces a lot of the expeditions to follow the same path. If you go back years ago, the early explorers were actually exploring… We were nomadic hunter-gatherers who travelled to the next pasture to provide.

Original exploration was one of curiosity, but it was really for the sole purpose of amassing more, so we go and come back with rubber, spices, fabrics and stories of this new world.

If there were enough shiny things, then the old world would take it. That was the birth of modern capitalism, I guess, and the birth of trade and the birth of the world that we live in.

It’s a long way removed from the Bear Grylls drink-your-own-piss survivalist mentality…

This world: in some way, I think it built its own myth. The world of exploring became this thing where you had to be superhuman somehow to be an explorer. Right? There was a very beautiful period, I think, a golden age of exploration, where it was like, “We’ve never been in that jungle. We’ve never been on that mountain. We’ve never been into that ocean bed. What is there?”

But if you think about someone like Richard Francis Burton, he would come back from his travels and would sell out auditoriums telling these stories. I think that became the foundation of what I would call ‘entertainment exploring’, the derring-do explorer who captivated the minds of people. It was entertainment – it was much more about man versus nature, man versus the elements and man versus the wild.

I guess, for me, there is a fundamental shift, an excitement that comes from the idea that, actually, exploring today is more about exploring our understanding.

That’s an interesting stance to take from someone who, to my knowledge, is still the youngest person to have reached both geographical poles. You were part of the team that broke the record for the fastest crossing of the Greenland ice cap. You’ve sailed a 60ft plastic catamaran across the Pacific Ocean…

The world is changing. Nature has been around for four-and-a-half billion years, but we, fundamentally, have shifted the ecological balance into a precarious state. Our survival, as we know, is balancing on our understanding of these systems as quickly as possible, recognising and documenting these places and showing stories that go, “Well, wait a second. Why are we doing this? This doesn’t feel right. This doesn’t look right.” That might lead to legislation or that might lead to some shift in culture that stops people from doing things that damage the Earth.

I’ve never been one to say, “Look, I did this because I was physically able to do this.” What you’ve got to do is show stories that connect people, show different pathways and say, “There is an opportunity here to make a difference.”

Why is this happening? We’ve turned climate science into a political football

A lot of people talk about Greta Thunberg because she is bucking the typical hyper-masculine explorer trope. Here you have a young teenage girl who is sacrificing her childhood, in a sense, in order to demonstrate the path of ruin the Earth is currently on.

Yes, with Greta, I think you bring up an interesting point. There is a generation of school kids who are taking time out of their childhoods to explain to adults that there is a problem. I mean, there is just something wrong with that.

If you look at where we are today and you look around the world on any given day in the last year, you will see huge swings in weather systems. You will see California is on fire – unprecedented fires. You’re going to see the fastest creation of a hurricane that has ever been created in the Atlantic during hurricane season, which is baffling scientists. It went from a mild storm to a Category 5 in 24 hours, which shows you how much potential energy there is in the ocean because of the warming waters.

We’ve seen algae blooms completely sucking all the oxygen and life out of rivers. We’ve seen flooding where there is very little rain. We see snow where it should be sunny. We see the equilibrium that afforded us this very short period of time on this planet rocked massively.

When you break it down, it’s all about consumption and disposability, so there is this idea of just the more we consume, the ‘nowness’: we just consume and throw, consume and throw. That is all underpinned by an energy source and that energy source is full of toxins that, actually, in the end, are going to, one way or another, make it very hard to live on this planet as we know it.

There is a zeitgeist, I think, among Greta’s generation and younger. They’ve grown up with a narrative of climate change, and the psychology of that is causing a lot of anxiety and a lot of fear. It’s causing a lot of helplessness. I mean, there are a lot of young kids now… I have a 13-year-old niece and an 11-year-old nephew and they’re really aware of it. They’ve learnt about it in school.

They can’t understand. It’s very frustrating, like, “Why is this happening? We love our planet. We love nature.” I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t like nature. What we’ve done is we’ve turned climate science into a political football and we’ve turned it into these COP meetings where it’s like, “Well, how much can I pollute?”

Explorer David Mayer de Rothschild

They’re bartering with the Earth’s health.

With Greta, I think what happens is she comes out and the media pick up on her because she is very articulate, but as you said, she is a young girl. What that does is it annoys a lot of men, especially white, older men of power, who are annoyed by women and anyone of diversity in the first place, right?

It was amazing to me to see how many people came out and got really angry about a young woman who was just telling the truth. I think it’s interesting that it elicited a response that also helped propel her even further. Then, she has to sail across the ocean to prove her point because, obviously, if she flew, which is what 99.9 other people do, myself included, she’d be a hypocrite.

Instead of looking at everything else, they go, “Ah, she’s only young, she doesn’t understand.” You know what it is? Dealing with the climate problem is almost like dealing with your own personal problems. You can only sweep it under the carpet for so long. Then, at some point, it comes out and bites you.

We just don’t like being told what to do – it makes us feel stupid and small.

Exactly. I hate to be told what to do, so you have to tell a story in a way that isn’t telling you what to do because a lot of the time, this stuff feels (a) too far out of reach, (b) takes a lot of time, and (c) costs money. Environmentalists have told people, “Go and put solar panels on your roof,” and people are like, “Well, what the fuck are you talking about? I don’t even own a house. I’m renting a house and I’ve got to move out at some point. I get the bus to work and you’re telling me to buy an expensive electric vehicle?”

There does seem to be a clear disconnect between environmentalist ideology and whatis possible for the average person to achieve…

What’s crazy is we sit here today and we could have a revolution. You look at Brexit. It’s the greatest opportunity. I mean, it happened – disaster or whichever way you look at it. We should be at a time in society when we’re actually trying to figure out what makes us all work together rather than what divides us.

Let’s just put it that way: we’ve made our bed and we’re in a situation where all we’ve done is we’ve bickered for two years. It’s the same in America. Republicans, for the last four years, have been bickering with the Democrats. No one is actually achieving anything.

We could be transitioning our economy by investing in people and the potential of people, and saying, ‘If we’re going to have a green revolution and put solar panels on everyone’s roof, we need to build the foundation first.’

When you actually look at it, you realise: our gas, water and electricity is controlled by state-owned companies headquartered in France, Germany, the Netherlands, and beyond. It’s all been sent overseas, all the things that we could be doing right here in the UK.

We could be building a new green economy with real trickle-down economics but instead, we’ve created this bubble of the stock market that is completely separate from society. We prop up companies that aren’t paying their taxes. They aren’t giving back to society. We reward them and we say they’re too big to fail.

Wait a second. We’re saying the company is too big to fail? What about society? Isn’t that too big to fail? Why should we let individuals fail?

We’re saying A company is too big to fail? What about society? Isn’t that too big to fail?

So is this the point where you’re able to use some of your influence, your privilege, and sit down in front of some of these big companies and start a conversation?

Exactly. I think the good news is that there is momentum now… Listen, companies only shift when they see there is a commercial opportunity. Right? That’s generally been the rule of thumb up until this point. What has started to happen, though – and I think it’s interesting – is that, ultimately, a lot of these companies are reliant on natural resources for their income.

If you require a lot of water and you’re, say, Levi’s, then water becomes a very big pricing point for you. If water is scarce, then you’ve got to worry about that because it’s going to add a huge amount of cost to your product creation.

What we’re starting to see is companies realising, “Wait a second. It’s actually in our interest to closed-loop recycle that water instead of just washing it down the drain and polluting a river. Actually, if we can save that water, clean it and use it again, I’m going to save money.”

Secondly, sentiment inside the consumer space is saying, “I don’t want products that kill me and are bad for the planet.”

The next generation, Greta Thunberg’s generation, are a targeted generation. They’re the next big customers. That’s a generation that is actually conscious about animal cruelty or preservatives or staff welfare.

Being environmentally conscious goes from being a trend in fashion to a necessary marker in order to retain your fanbase…

We’re seeing a lot of statements from companies now, like going carbon neutral. In some way, my job is, as you say, sitting down with brands and saying, “Alright. Look, how do we make what you’re doing more impactful?”

What’s happened is society is lost trust. We’ve lost trust in our neighbours, lost trust in our communities – and it’s only made worse now that everyone is wearing a mask.

One of the places that people still gather is brands. They trust brands, but their attachment to them is transient. Brands used to take consumers for granted. Now, there are countless companies making the same product. Now, all of a sudden, there are hundreds of choices, so brands now start to go, “OK, we have to be responsive to retain the audience who cares,” so there are meaningful things starting to happen.

Explorer and environmentalist David Mayer de Rothschild
Explorer and environmentalist David Mayer de Rothschild

Consumer is king, after all.

I think we’re seeing a sentiment shift, but until we tackle the economics – until you tackle the notion of success and progress, which is attached to gross domestic product… GDP is a grossly deceptive gauge because, really, what we’re doing is we’re saying output is good. Even if wealth is going down, even if happiness is going down, poverty is increasing and pollution is increasing, GDP goes up. That doesn’t make sense, so that’s not a marker of success.

We look at companies and go, “They’re successful if they have more profit each quarter.” So we’re taking one thing and saying, “If they don’t have profit, they’re not successful.” If a company were to have no profit, but was to give all its profits back to society and invest in education and healthcare, while still paying its staff well, are you telling me that isn’t success?

Apple is sitting on $285bn. Probably more now – they’re a $2tn market-cap company. They’re sitting on $300bn in cash, which shows you the profit they’re making off these phones. Shouldn’t they be reinvesting that money into society and giving computers and education to the 20 million kids in America who can’t even afford to eat well?

So you start to think, “Well, what is the role of a company? What is their responsibility?”

I was going to ask you where your role with Breitling ties into all of this, but it’s beginning to make sense: you’re starting a revolution from within.

People don’t trust politicians. People don’t trust their community. They look to brands and influences for their voice of reason.

I mean, I just did something for Gucci and it is the last place that I would probably go and do something. I say, ‘the last place’, as in I never thought I would do something there, but then I look at what they’re doing, I understand their platform and I go, “There are 14 million people that you suddenly get to put your message into and talk about nature. Why wouldn’t I do that?”

It’s the same with Breitling. Someone is going to wear our watch that we’ve promoted in our Explorer Squad campaign and they’re going to dig into that and hopefully find something that triggers them. Probably, most likely, if they can afford a $5,000-plus watch, then they’re probably a C-type person or someone who is active inside of a company or someone who is active in society who cares about these things and will probably go and do something or at least think about it and have an influence.

So you have to look at the relationship with brands and say, “You can sit on the outside, throw eggs and say, ‘Well, you’re doing this wrong,’ or you can say, ‘Look, why don’t we just do things a little better? Why don’t we shift the narrative?’” Sorry, I know I’m rambling…

People don’t trust politicians. People don’t trust their community. They look to brands 

Well, it illustrates how incredibly knotty this all is, everything is connected.

The thing that I’ve always lived by is this: it’s just as important to unlearn as it is to learn. We have to unlearn certain habits. We just can’t continue on this trajectory. There is so much at stake because it’s the collapse of nature and the collapse of society. Both are happening at the same time and they’re both interconnected.

What do you want your legacy to be? You’re talking about nothing short of revolution…

I think you just want to try and leave the world a little bit better. It’s such a cliché, but as I get older, I think it’s so true. It’s to be the change that you want to see in the world. Just try and be a little better yourself.

Always be aware and conscious of the fact that everybody is different, everyone has their own story and everyone has their own version of events. The true element of a good community is where you can have open discourse and all have viewpoints that everyone should be empathetic towards and validate. That’s a society, right?

There is nothing better than getting a response from somebody who, at some point, is going, “You’re full of shit,” and then they suddenly go, “Oh, actually, I really appreciate your point of view and I can now understand it.
I now want to be part of that.”

I think that, to me, is where it becomes interesting – if you can get out of your bubble and have conversations in someone else’s world and do it in a way that they can appreciate it.

So I guess that’s my parting thought in some way. It’s just too easy to sit in your own group, have the same conversations and get the same people saying, “Oh, well done. That was cool.”

Explorer David Mayer de Rothschild

Do you fear that people, in response to this, will go, “Well, put your money where your mouth is, then,” as the heir to at least part of the de Rothschild fortune…

That is the myth that keeps on getting perpetuated. Apparently, I’m already worth $10bn.

Oh, that sounds nice…

It does, doesn’t it? Look, I’m not claiming in any way shape or form any hardship, but I’ve gone out of my way to never ask my parents for anything.

The thing my dad once said to me was, “You’re very fortunate to carry a name. That should open doors for you.” As I’ve got older, I’ve realised it opens the door, but it closes others. The main thing is if you spend your whole time looking at the door rather than stepping through it or stepping out of it, then you’re missing the point.

So yes, I put my money where my mouth is by funding my own foundation. My sponsor money goes into projects that, hopefully, are giving back to society. I’m doing the best I can with the means that I have.

If I was worth the $10bn or whatever it says online I’m worth, believe me, I would be doing ten billion more things than I am today.

David de Rothschild is a member of the Breitling Explorer Squad; see breitling.com

For more on David’s projects and adventures visit: voicefornature.com

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