Transcript: Harrison Ford at Fortune Brainstorm Green
Harrison Ford, actor and vice chair, Conservation International, joined Peter Seligmann, Chairman and CEO, Conservation International, in a conversation with Fortune’s Andy Serwer at the Fortune Brainstorm Green conference in Laguna Niguel, Calif.
Below is an unedited transcript of the talk — the audio recording started after the conversation began:
PETER SELIGMANN: (In progress) ‑‑ conservation pantry. And what we began to reflect on was the fact that while we could applaud ourselves, during that 20 years prior, when we were talking about all the great successes of protection of biodiversity, extinction rates had accelerated, global fisheries had collapsed, and climate was even weirder. And we thought actually what we’ve done is we’ve continued this concept of there’s conservation here, and there’s development there.
And the real solution has got to make conservation part of development, which is why everybody is here. We’ve got to transform the way development takes place so that we actually are looking long-term at what is our society going to look like? How will it last? How do you deal with going from seven billion to nine billion people, doubling water, food, energy needs, at the same time that you turn things upside down. And so what we decided was, let’s rethink how development takes place.
ANDY SERWER: And you guys are making a connection, a direct connection, between international conservation and economic and national security. That may be lost on a lot of people. What is that connection?
PETER SELIGMANN: Well, actually, we did something a couple of years ago which most ‑‑ which was unusual for the conservation movement. We hired a Republican to be the head of our U.S. Government policy work. And what we learned quickly was that when you went on the Hill to a Congress that was really dominated by the Republican Party that when you talked about climate change and were shrill about kind of the dangers, we were dismissed.
ANDY SERWER: Marginalized?
PETER SELIGMANN: Marginalized. And so we thought, okay, this is actually ‑‑ we’ve got to begin to use arguments that people will hear. And the argument that is really powerful, and is very, very real, is that when you turn environmental issues upside down and you destroy fisheries, and forests, and water sources, all the impact of misuse of ecosystems and climate shifts, you create national security problems.
And so what we did was, we put together a short film called direct connection. And Harrison; Rob Walton, Chairman of Walmart; and Wes Bush, the CEO of Northrop Grumman; all three on our board, and it was not about CI. It was not a promotional film. It was an issues concept that there’s a direct connection between the ecosystem, between the economic health and national security and investments in international conservation.
ANDY SERWER: And, Harrison, you went up to the Hill, right?
HARRISON FORD: Well, I went with Rob and Peter. And we used this as an icebreaker, a door opener. And it was very successful in engaging those people on the Hill who might not have welcomed us so warmly. But it’s a powerful argument.
For instance, what’s happening with the Somali pirates, you can look at that and recognize that it’s the collapse of the fisheries, the sustainable fishing, that men equipped with boats had no other options but to be involved in piracy, and that’s cost us and the rest of our NATO partners $2 billion to try and redress. That’s the national security connection to an environment issue, conservation issue.
ANDY SERWER: That’s a great example.
PETER SELIGMANN: We had a meeting that we did jointly with the Council on Foreign Relations about four weeks ago. And Richard Haass, who is the president of the Council sits on our Board of Directors. And so we did a collaboration of the Council and CI just talking about this issue. And with leadership from the CIA, National Intelligence Council, corporations all there, actually really showing that this is no longer a secret. The National Intelligence Council, retired Major General Elgin, was saying we actually are now being able to document shifts in the jet stream and the impact that has on currents, the impact that has on precipitation. And so as things get turned upside down, you have displaced peoples that can’t get water, that can’t get fish. And they’re not going to sit where they are. They’re going to go where they have to go to take care of their families. And that’s really stirring things up.
HARRISON FORD: And it’s an opportunity when these populations are dislocated, there’s the opportunity for them to be radicalized for the pressure on the countries that receive them to be an issue amongst them. And so these pockets of regional conflict are a significant issue all over the world. And many of them are the result of failures of conservation practices.
ANDY SERWER: I mean, is this kind of the primary focus of what you’re doing? Is this opportunistic or is this the best-case argument? Is this the best way to accomplish your goals or is this the biggest impact of what you guys ‑‑
HARRISON FORD: It’s adaptive. What we’re needing to do is to convince our government ‑‑
PETER SELIGMANN: Our governments.
HARRISON FORD: But the main source for international conservation has been both international organizations and the United States Government who have recognized that it is in their self-interest. When funding was about to be cut off completely for the global environmental facility, which is 182 nations including the United States, and international organizations, which supports conservation efforts throughout the world, this connection between national security and conservation failures resulted in Congresswoman Kay Granger from Texas, who is the head of the House Appropriations Subcommittee to get on the bandwagon, and to increase the funding of the GEF from $89 to $122 million.
PETER SELIGMANN: So, in this period of sequestration, the investment in the development assistance account of USAID has gone from $2.5 to $2.7 billion, and GEF from $90 to $120.
ANDY SERWER: That was last year.
PETER SELIGMANN: This year. This year.
ANDY SERWER: Then you got chopped a little bit from the sequestration?
HARRISON FORD: Well, 5 percent.
PETER SELIGMANN: It went up about 25 percent, and then 5 percent off, so the net is up, which is really kind of surprising.
HARRISON FORD: But the threat was there.
PETER SELIGMANN: But I was going to just add, you asked if this is ‑‑ it is adaptive. But the main thing that we are trying to do as an institution is really demonstrate to nations that they need to put a value on their natural capital. They need to understand what they have. They understand their dependency upon that natural capital for the stability of their nation, for the treasury of the people that are poor, and to account for that.
ANDY SERWER: And, Harrison, we were talking on the phone the other day, and you were asking and this is a good question whether companies have facilities to actually be able to account for this capital on their balance sheets and income statements. And, Peter, you were addressing that a little bit.
PETER SELIGMANN: Well, it’s dealing with both companies. And I think we’re going to hear from Puma a little later. They’re kind of the pioneers in this. But it’s not just companies, it’s countries.
ANDY SERWER: Right.
PETER SELIGMANN: So, a year ago, actually May 24-25th, one of our board members who is the president of the Country of Botswana, Ian Khama, hosted along with Rob Walton and Laureen Powell Jobs, two other board members, so all three are on the board, a summit of heads of state of Sub-Saharan African Nations. The simple purpose of that summit was to explain, discuss and conclude with these heads of state that their accounting of their national income accounting assets needed to include natural assets, and there needed to be an accounting on the books of the value they get from their forest, their coral reefs, their savannahs, their wildlife, et cetera, so that as with all individuals you’re trying to figure out is your balance sheet in getting better or worse, and they can measure the increase.
So that conclusion, what’s called the Gaborone Declaration on May 25th last year with ten nations’ heads of state not only signing this, but agreeing to an annual transparent audit of what’s the value. And that was taken to Rio where 50 other countries signed up. So, right now, there’s a big movement for nations to say, we now understand we’d better include in our accounting what we’ve gotten from nature.
ANDY SERWER: I mean, this is such big think stuff. And in a way you’re violating the old bumper sticker, though, which is to think globally, act locally. You’re thinking globally and acting globally, right? Does that work?
PETER SELIGMANN: Well, our motto is head in the sky, feet in the mud. And we really think that you’ve got to do both. If you just look at the detail, you don’t see the big picture. And if you just look at the big picture, you don’t connect it to what really impacts people on the ground, and you’re not going to have impact or success. So you’ve really got to bring those together.
HARRISON FORD: One of the distinguishing things about CI for me from the very beginning was our decision to work with business, to work with ‑‑ those partners which at the beginning of our history were thought by many conservation organizations to be the enemy. And we have worked with them consistently over the years to develop best practices, to involve them in mitigation of their impacts. And as partners, and we’ve had some wonderful partners, Walmart, and Starbucks, and ‑‑
ANDY SERWER: Disney, McDonald’s.
HARRISON FORD: Disney, McDonald’s, Marriott, Northrop Grumman, and part of the issue of conservation failures and national security is also the question of economic security of the United States. And businesses have understood this much more quickly than governmental authorities have. And business has adapted their practices to understand that if they don’t have ‑‑ if they’re not protecting their supply side of their business, if they don’t have a sustainable supply side their business is going to change and not for the better. But, I mean, trying to get this done with countries you have hundreds of countries come together at these big global conferences, and treaties are very hard to negotiate, and then if you do get a treaty you bring it back here and it doesn’t get ratified. So, it’s businesses that recognize their self-interest is in acting quickly and getting the job done.
PETER SELIGMANN: I would say that if there is another kind of term that is going to really drive our conversations it’s enlightened self-interest. And if you can make a powerful argument that this is actually, in a business, enlightened self-interest, a community self-interest, a nation’s self-interest, they take note. And for is it was really making certain that political leaders and business leaders began to understand that their very survival depends upon really including the health of nature as an essential part of their strategy.
One of the most encouraging things that we have seen has been an alignment of 15 nations right now in the South Pacific. So, these 15 nations, countries like Kiribati, Tuvalu, Tokelau, Cook Island, nations no one has ever heard of. There are 15 of them. They don’t have a navy, they don’t have an army, they don’t have a coast guard, they don’t have an air force. Yet, they control 8 percent of the earth’s surface and 60 percent of the global tuna population. And they’ve come together and said we need help in securing this area that’s 23 States of Alaska. They’re doing it not because they want to be generous, but because the whole world is taking what they’ve got, and they want to make certain that they can have it sustained, so they can continue to be the beneficiaries of the management of those fisheries. So, we have something called the Pacific Oceanscape where we work with them, just to get to scale.
ANDY SERWER: So, I want to throw the floor open to questions, if any of you all have anything you’d like to ask these two gentlemen. I can see someone here.
Have we got some microphones coming around?
QUESTION: Hi, Jo Confino from The Guardian. The other side of the coin is obviously that there are a lot of people in the environmental movement that say nature is the commons, and as soon as you start putting a dollar sign on a forest and a dollar sign on a reef that actually you’re bringing nature into the economic system, and at that point it can ‑‑ business or governments they can actually pervert the course of that action and actually can become a problem rather than a solution. How are you going to avoid bringing what is the commons, what actually has a spiritual value well just beyond just an economic value. How do you protect that, as well?
PETER SELIGMANN: I don’t think you should limit the value of nature to just an economic value to start. I mean there is clearly many values for nature. And spiritual value is essential. And in many nations that really is a dominating value. But, if something is not valued, and not recognized to contribute something that’s constructive and proactive and essential, and undervalued, it can be discarded very, very easily. So, I don’t think you really have an either or. You actually have to promote all these different values.
ANDY SERWER: We’re running short on time. I want to ask you guys two last questions.
Harrison, have you ever considered putting your two worlds together, which is making a film that would be sort of a cause movie, or does that not work? Are there always two separate worlds that you’re going to be in, in a way?
HARRISON FORD: Yes, I do think that’s right. It doesn’t really work very well. I’m in show business. We’re an entertainment activity. And what happens, it’s co-opting an issue and then presenting a solution to it in two hours with a nice, tight bow on it at the end. It doesn’t really work. So, I’m very ‑‑ I have yet to read anything that really was a great movie.
ANDY SERWER: Yes, I think that’s probably pretty realistic.
And then finally, Peter, what would you say would be the most important thing to business people in terms of how they should maybe think about things, or doing some things differently?
PETER SELIGMANN: I think that all businesses need to understand that the stress on environment will affect their customers, their shareholders, their employees, their bottom line. So, every business has got to look at this in a different way, but looking at supply chain, looking at efficiency, looking at long-term solutions to ensure that revenue exceeds expenses is directly connected to putting a value on their dependence on natural capital and really anticipating this.
Businesses have a real handicap, which is they’ve got to do quarterly earnings. I wish they didn’t. I’d love to see them stop doing that. So that you can actually have a long-term horizon and really build your brand based upon the contribution that you can make in the quality of your business, as opposed to trying to make certain that the analysts love what you’re saying every quarter. I think that really is disruptive. And that really is my advice.
I think the good news is that this conference wouldn’t have taken place 10 years ago. And every year it’s generating more and more interest. And I think that for a while there it was flat lined. I mean, I think that we started sustainability conversations. Many companies got involved. It was kind of how do you really make sure that it pays. I think now there is a spirit of innovativeness that is very different. It’s pervasive. And it’s every university, every business, every country, every school system. And that’s the breakthrough. We need breakthroughs. And I’m seeing those in the work that I’m in all over the world. It’s not just happening here. It happens all over the world.
And I would just kind of end with kind of my thoughts, just with one. I just came back from Tanzania and I went to Tanzania to launch something with The Gates Foundation called the Vital Signs Network, right. And it’s a global monitoring, looking at ecosystem contributions to agricultural production. We went out into a community to visit with some farmers and what we found there is the reality that the rest of the world is dealing with. We found a farmer named ‑‑ her name is Mama Laura, two or three acres, growing corn to eat. She is doing four plantings of corn each year now, because precipitation cycles are so turned upside down that she doesn’t know ‑‑ they no longer know when it’s going to rain.
So, they don’t have enough corn to eat and so what they’re doing is they’re looking for a cash crop. Their cash crop is the forest. It’s converting it to charcoal, selling it in town. And so what we’re seeing are really turned ‑‑ we’re seeing cycles turned upside down. And we need some innovations in food production, water production, and really in addressing these issues so that we don’t end up with some short-term solution that doesn’t anticipate the unintended consequences.
HARRISON FORD: And it’s coming from business. It’s coming from the developing technologies that all of you are investing in.
ANDY SERWER: Great. Well, let’s hope we’re going to be getting to a lot of those discussions and solutions, I hope, over the next couple of days. Please join me in thanking Harrison Ford and Peter Seligmann.
Thank you, guys. (Applause.)