When you hear these provocative topics -- female genital mutilation; rewilding the American West with bison, wolves and grizzly bears; dramatically transforming capitalism as we know it; eradicating nuclear weapons; the actress-activist Jane Fonda; and mixing environmentalist with humanitarian instincts to achieve more peace in the world -- what one businessperson connects them all?
Award-winning writer Todd Wilkinson, author of Last Stand: Ted Turner's Quest to Save a Troubled Planet, has written a critically acclaimed book that delves deep into the green psyche of the controversial legendary American, Ted Turner (the Kindle edition can be found here). Mr. Turner is involved with bringing back species, Noah-style, joining the global fight to rescue humanity, and, against huge odds, trying to transform capitalism-as-usual. His efforts are inspiring others -- progressives and conservatives -- to change course. I really enjoyed Mr. Wilkinson's book and not long ago, I had an expansive interview with him for Psychology Today about his most fascinating and enigmatic subject.
Marc Bekoff: YOU SEE TURNER AS A POTENTIAL CATALYST FOR THE KIND OF CHANGE THAT'S BEING ESPOUSED BY PEOPLE LIKE NAOMI KLEIN IN HER NEW BOOK, "THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING"?
Todd Wilkinson: Although I've never met Naomi Klein, she and Ted are on the same wavelength. The very kind of dramatic shift that she says is needed to avert disaster is being practiced by Ted Turner who understands business yet embraces the shift.
Look at the problems that are starting to converge: climate change, rising human population, the spiraling biodiversity crisis, widening gap between "haves" and have nots, poverty exacerbated by environmental destruction, and the looming threat of nuclear terrorism.
It's rare to have influential people who become engaged tangibly and effectively in confronting any one those issues; it is almost unheard of to have an individual who understands the connections between all of them and is involved as a connector in the search--some would say, desperate search-- for solutions.
MB: LAST STAND DOESN'T READ LIKE A TYPICAL BIOGRAPHY. IT HAS AN ACTIVE VOICE AND IT'S ENGAGING.
TW: When I wrote Last Stand I didn't want to have it come across as another wonky exploration of environmental/humanitarian problems, laden with doom and gloom. I wanted it to be accessible and inspiring. To maintain the interest of readers, it needed to be an adventure story.
MB: CAN YOU PLEASE SPEAK MORE TO THAT?
TW: Well, here is a guy who paradoxically is known and surprisingly beloved, especially outside the US, for being a different kind of American--an internationalist, not a John Wayne cowboy trying to ride herd over the rest of the world. He's respected for what CNN did when it was under his command.
MB: HOW LONG HAVE YOU KNOWN TED?
TW: I first interviewed him in 1992 shortly after he arrived in Montana and started buying up ranches in the West to support a rapidly expanding population of bison. Even today, Americans, especially young people, have only a vague understanding of him--perceived to be just another rich guy, a boisterous Don Quixote who was once a "media mogul" and morphed into a "bison baron." The book spans the considerable arc of Turner's life that has not received much media attention and yet is far more consequential for humanity.
MB: SOME PEOPLE I KNOW HAVE A NEGATIVE IMPRESSION OF TURNER
TW: Ted isn't a saint and the book never seeks to portray him as such. He's been married three times, has five children by two different wives. I've encountered his mercurial moods firsthand. Yes, he can be difficult, rude and tempestuous, and he's legendary for, as his close friends say, shooting from the lip and not bothering to edit what comes out of his mouth.
But as we know from knowing and reading about historic figures, including the late Steve Jobs, people involved with game-changing advancements in the world aren't always completely likable. I'd note that the Founding Fathers of this country were prickly. But that's what makes them interesting and in some ways, more compelling. We don't judge them on their personality flaws; we remember them for what they accomplished.
MB: AND WHERE DOES TED STACK UP?
I had an interesting conversation about that with Mikhail Gorbachev and he noted that apart from what Turner did in media--being a pioneering technology disruptor with 24 international news and satellite TV -- it's what he's doing as an environmentalist and humanitarian that really sets him apart. Gorbachev described Turner's as one of the most diverse portfolios of significant accomplishment by a single individual citizen in history. Gorbachev isn't one who is prone to exaggeration.
Two things that I wanted to get at with Ted were his motivations and those aspects inherent in his closely-guarded psyche that caused him to be an overachiever.
TW: As it turns out, Turner operates fundamentally from the mindset of an underdog--of trying to prove wrong those who sell him short. And a driving emotion for him is empathy to those--humans and animals--that suffer. As Jane Fonda told me, "Ted is the survivor of a very traumatic and brutal childhood laid down at the hands of his father who committed suicide. Ted's bond with nature, his desire to save wildlife and help other human beings is really an attempt to save himself."
MB: HOW DID YOU GET HIM TO OPEN UP AND DELVE INTO THAT VULNERABLE SPACE? HE TRUSTED YOU.
TW: That and slowly, steadily, going deeper in a non-rushed way. We established some ground rules before the book started: I would have unlimited access, be able to ask him anything I wanted and I would write things as I saw them. At the same time, I had no interest in generating tabloid fodder, though a few publishers said they'd be interested in a tell-all full of salacious secrets. I told them I wasn't interested in writing that book.
MB: BUT THE MATERIAL YOU DO EXPLORE AND THE STORY YOU TELL IS PRETTY PERSONAL. WAS THERE A SINGLE REVELATION?
TW: There wasn't one moment in which an epiphany or breakthrough occurred but it was an accumulation of pieces, little insights, that were assembled over time. In the end, he told me, "There's a lot in the book that isn't easy for me to read, relive or talk about publicly, but I'm glad it is in there."
MB: SO LET ME PUSH YOU A BIT: WHAT DO YOU THINK MOTIVATES TED TURNER?
TW: Building upon what Jane Fonda says, Ted is a profound example of something you've written about and which has been gaining a lot of momentum in the scientific literature: the idea that immersing oneself with humility in nature and being generous can lead to inner healing and actually increase self esteem.
MB: AND WHOSE MONEY ALLOWED HIM TO BE INFLUENTIAL?
TW: Turner's influential because of his ideas and the way he does things, not because he's made money doing them. Money is a byproduct of being smart and being able to look around corners into the future.
You know, there are a lot of big givers out there but not all have pure selfless motivations. Some billionaires support causes simply because that's the popular thing to do in the moment, or they give to charity to get their name on a building or as a mercenary means to cut another business deal. Some, quite frankly, command standing in philanthropic circles but they're actually scoundrels with bad character.
Ted isn't a scoundrel. He has a big heart behind the public persona and he acts for the right reasons. Where his ego is involved is he often insists that goals skeptics deem impossible can actually be achieved. He didn't give $1 billion in support of the UN because it was popular; he did it because the UN helps hold the world together, despite what neo-cons say. He's proving naysayers wrong now by showing how humans can be better partners with the natural world, addressing climate change with alternative energy, trying to curb global population by delivering people out of poverty, and seeking the eradication of nuclear weapons. These are all matters of human survival.
MB: THOSE OF US WHO HAVE BEEN TRACKING ENVIRONMENTAL AND HUMANITARIAN CHALLENGES IN THE WORLD -- WHICH ARE ALL INTER-RELATED -- CONCLUDE THAT CAPITALISM AS USUAL IS A FLOWED MODEL. IS THAT WHAT TED BELIEVES?
TW: Absolutely. Turner made a fortune by being a shrewd fiscally conservative businessman. He worshipped Ayn Rand when he was a young man. Running a major global company gives him undeniable standing when he says that things need to change. But more than that, he is putting his money behind his words and it's having an impact.
Last Stand is a modern counterpoint to the self-serving writings of Gilded Age tycoons. Many of them accrued their wealth by being robber barons of natural resources. To put it in perspective: who better is advancing the best long-term interests of society, our country and the world -- Ted Turner or the Koch Brothers?
To read the long-form version of this stimulating interview, please click here: