07/23/2013 03:09 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

For Summer Read, Meet Ted Turner, the Pathfinding 'Eco-Capitalist-Humanitarian'

Courtesy of Todd Wilkinson

How much do you honestly know about Ted Turner beyond the common media stereotype? Chances are that you either like the man or loathe him; that you agree with the sense of urgency he possesses about environmental and humanitarian problems, or you dismiss him as a blowhard and crackpot. It's probably predictable too that most opinions about Turner tend to fall along tribal, party lines but are they accurate?

Here's what Mikhail Gorbachev told me when I interviewed the Nobel Prize winner for my new book, Last Stand: Ted Turner's Quest to Save a Troubled Planet: No private citizen in the history of the world, Gorbachev said, can match Turner's combined resume as a wildlife conservationist, private property owner, eco-warrior focused on addressing environmental pollution, defender of the United Nations, and outspoken crusader against nuclear proliferation who is also trying to prevent weapons of mass destruction from getting into the hands of terrorists.

That's separate from the things that Turner is best known for: sailing Courageous to victory in the America's Cup, launching TBS -- the "Superstation" -- by ingeniously tethering a backwater cable channel in Atlanta to an orbiting satellite, and of course, changing media forever by launching the first 24 hour news channel, CNN, that represents the proto-innovator for even the Huffington Post.

Based on what you know, is Turner a liberal or a conservative? Last Stand chronicles Turner's evolution from "media mogul" to American West "bison baron". It explores the defiant character that his friend, Tom Brokaw, describes as a pathfinding eco-capitalist-humanitarian for the 21st century. Yes, that Ted Turner.

When people ask me why I wrote Last Stand and spent seven years trailing the man asking him hard questions, my answer is that we live in desperate times when the world needs to identify human leaders presenting us with an alternative to the status quo of business as usual. But HuffPost readers already get that; that's, in part, why you come here every day.

Otherwise, in an age of pessimism and partisan division, there can be no hope of seriously confronting climate change, the biodiversity crisis, widening gap between wealthy haves and poor have nots, the growing nuclear threat, and rising global population unless we have tangible examples of influential people making a positive difference. God knows systemic action isn't coming from Capitol Hill and the White House.

Most experts, if they're realistic, say that it means the private sector has to step up, and who better than the tycoon who built his career on the mantra of "lead, follow or get out of the way"?

Lots of books tout how, theoretically, sustainability and green business is supposed to work, but Turner's someone who has put it into practice at scale.

As he says, "Capitalism itself isn't the problem. What's defective is how we've been approaching capitalism and accepting the premise that in order to have economic prosperity, we have to necessarily plunder nature, kill off other species and take advantage of vulnerable fellow humans."

While the talking heads on Fox News would have you believe that Turner is a died-in-the-wool Lefty (owed in part to his 10-year marriage to Jane Fonda), the fact is that as a young man Turner was a disciple of Ayn Rand, the darling of neo cons. Although he still manages his business enterprises as a fiscal conservative, he long ago rejected Rand as heartless and Godless and became a social progressive because he found her blatant promotion of personal greed to be detestable.

As a man entering middle age, he was handed a mantle of environmental duty by the late, legendary ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau when the two met aboard Calypso up the Amazon River. What's poignant is that at the end of Cousteau's life, when he himself had given up hope and turned despair, it was Turner who encouraged Cousteau to never give up the fight. Do you still believe that you know Ted Turner?

If Turner is anything, he's a Bull Moose, whose values track closely with Theodore Roosevelt who was as equally suspicious of unregulated big companies as he was of unscrutinized big government.

Turner today is the second largest private property owner in the U.S. with two million acres of land. Not only has he amassed a bison herd 55,00 animals strong across 15 ranches in six western states where he uses the native bovines as ecological tools to heal damaged grasslands, he is stewarding his holdings as "arks" for imperiled species, including grizzly bears, wolves, sea turtles, and bolson tortoises once written off as extinct in the American West.

Make no mistake, Turner the human character is deeply flawed, the same as most of us are. He doesn't see himself as the next St. Francis. Indeed, saints make for boring biographies and no one is petitioning him for beatification.

The Turner I've come to know wrestles with demons. He still grapples with the psychological trauma of his father's suicide 50 years after the fact; still, as an agnostic, embraces spirituality while being skeptical of organized religion; and he works with a therapist to try and overcome his personal foibles.

I interviewed Jane Fonda about their attraction. Both Turner and Fonda fondly refer to each other as their favorite former spouses and theirs was a complicated relationship. It was Fonda, most of all, who inspired Turner to become an outspoken global activist supporting women's rights

Internationally, Turner was the first to publicly challenge fellow billionaires to stop hoarding their wealth and he demanded that they give back to the very societies in which they have prospered. His record-setting $1 billion gift in support of the United Nations came at a time, just like today, when neo-conservatives were on the attack, encouraging the US to withdraw from the UN into isolation.

As he points out, we know what happened to the world in absence of the League of Nations. World War II erupted and more than 70 million people died, 70 percent of them innocent civilians. As Turner says, were it not for the UN, we as a civilization would have probably already fought World War III, and lost.

This leads to another chapter of my book that involves a red-button subject: nuclear weapons. At one point, Turner describes, hypothetically, a 10-kiloton nuclear bomb going off in Times Square. After he and former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn founded the Nuclear Threat Initiative, they have been major supporters of nuclear disarmament.

"Some have described me as a lefty," Turner told me. "But I'm pro-business and I'll flaunt my credentials before anybody: I've lectured at some of the nation's top business schools, regularly attended the World Economic Forum in Davos, I've testified before Congress about the need for sensible not overbearing regulation, and I'm a member of Rotary Club, the National Restaurant Association, the National Bison Association, the Montana Stockgrowers Association and several different chambers of commerce. But I also value, equally as much, clean air and water, habitat necessary to sustain wildife, and open space. I'm a hunter, angler, hiker, horseback rider, mountain biker, military veteran, and sailor. As a bumper sticker on my hybrid car says, 'I Brake for Butterflies."

He adds, "Those who claim that one can't hug a sheltering tree and simultaneously aspire to have economic prosperity and strive to give all people a decent quality of life are being disingenuous. On my lands, I have set out to prove that the polemic of environment versus ecology is a false dichotomy that you can be a tree hugger and still have your name appear in Forbes."

As an example, Turner is putting into practice the concepts of the triple bottom line, a balance sheet that seeks to deliver a profit while protecting the environment and building stronger local communities that includes treating your employees right.

But as Last Stand hopefully makes clear, one certainly doesn't have to be a plutocrat to have an impact; that's where Turner's belief in the power of participatory Democracy comes in.

The Rev. Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., told me that if her father were still alive, he would be marching as an environmentalist, certain that how we care for the earth represents the next great civil rights battle of our time.

Turner laments that he didn't march as a civil rights advocate in the 1960s, but this time around he's using his money, power and influence to try and do the right thing.

"As a septuagenarian, I believe that responsible grandparents care about what kind of world they are leaving their grandkids. There's no retirement age that lets you off the hook from that. The duty of citizenship never goes away, especially when one becomes an elder. We need to lead by example and young people need to step up to the plate. The search is on for new heroes."

Who are the people we need and worth emulating?

"Last Stand: Ted Turner's Quest to Save a Troubled Planet."

Lyons Press, hardback, $26.95, 371 pages, written and printed in the USA. Also available as an e-book.

Todd Wilkinson has been writing about the environment for more than a quarter century. In addition to occasionally blogging for the Huffington Post, he work has appeared widely in national magazines and newspapers. He also is a western, Montana-based correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor and author of the acclaimed book,"Science Under Siege: The Politicians' War on Nature and Truth."

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