When the Rockefellers call and request your presence, you feel like you have to show up. And so I walked a few blocks over to Rockefeller Center, past Radio City Music Hall, to the 70-floor GE Building, 30 Rockefeller Plaza ("30 Rock"). I entered the gilded Art Deco lobby and told security I had an appointment with David Rockefeller, Jr.
An elevator whisked me up to the 56th floor, to the famous Room 5600, the Rockefeller's long-standing family office. From here, multi-million dollar deals have been struck, on behalf of the family's many charities and through its many business ventures. It is also here where conspiracy theorists imagine backroom deals by a global elite.
Although the main corridor of Room 5600 is lined with impressive artwork (the family has supported many museums), the whole place was more understated than I expected. I met David Rockefeller, Jr. in a back office with a sprawling view of Manhattan. He was dressed in business casual, with a beard like a sea captain, and asked me if I'd like a cup of coffee. Rockefeller seemed laid back and gracious, and we spoke for about forty-five minutes, at a small table with two of his group's press representatives.
David Rockefeller, Jr. (born 1941) is the eldest son of the legendary David Rockefeller, the nephew of former Vice President and New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, and the great-grandson of Standard Oil founder John D. Rockefeller. David Rockefeller, Jr. is reported to be next in line to take over as family patriarch when his father--now 95--passes away. David Rockefeller, Sr. had been a longtime CEO and chair of Chase Bank, was head of the Council on Foreign Relations, founded the Trilateral Commission, and has served on dozens of influential boards and charities. His lifetime giving to charitable causes is estimated at $900 million. David Rockefeller, Sr. is also perhaps best known to New York area greens for his founding of the nonprofit Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Westchester, which honors his late wife's long commitment to local farming and healthy food. (Rockefeller, Sr.'s father, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., built the barns in the 1930s.)
David Rockefeller, Jr. serves as chair of Rockefeller Financial Services, the $3 billion holding company for the family's assets. He has worked on numerous educational and arts campaigns, and served on the boards of the National Endowment for the Arts, National Public Radio and the Museum of Modern Art. Like his father, he is a member of the Bohemian Grove. Rockefeller also has a long history of support for environmental causes. An avid sailor, he founded the nonprofit Sailors for the Sea to bring awareness of marine conservation issues to the boating community. Rockefeller has also served as an executive of the National Park Foundation, the Alaska Conservation Foundation and Alaska Fund for the Future. He was a member of the Pew Oceans Commission and is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
I met with David Rockefeller, Jr. to discuss his support for Sailors for the Sea's Around the Americas project, an expedition to study and raise awareness about ocean issues affecting the Western Hemisphere.
Brian Clark Howard: So how did Around the Americas come about?
David Rockefeller, Jr.: Well I'm a lifelong sailor. And I sat on the Pew Oceans Commission, where I became motivated to do something on behalf of the oceans. I discovered there were huge clusters of users of natural resources, including surfers, birders, hunters and recreational boaters, who weren't really engaged in ocean conservation. So I founded Sailors for the Sea, which isn't just for sail boaters, it's for all recreational boaters. Our biggest project yet is Around the Americas. The expedition [in the 64-foot steel cutter S/V Ocean Watch] has passed 21,000 miles, escaped ice in the Northwest Passage, and left Chile three or four days before the big earthquake. It's about raising awareness and educating people.
I know you got a chance to join the Ocean Watch for two weeks for part of the journey. Can you tell us what that was like?
To join the crew, I flew to the southernmost town in the world, Puerto Williams, which is a staging area for small boats. We waited out a huge storm, which blew 60 miles per hour where we were, and 100 mph out at the Cape [Horn]. The next day it was down to 15 mph.
Going around the tip of South America was a mixture of wild nature and commercial travel. It was a little like climbing Everest and finding that a tram had brought tourists up the other side. Still, there were frequent gales of 30 to 40 miles per hour, so we came to appreciate what historical sailors had to deal with.
Our crew is on the Internet constantly, posting updates, Twittering (follow at @AroundAmericas) and so on. It was great from many points of view.
I know one of the goals of the expedition is to collect scientific data on the health of the oceans. So what has the crew found so far?
We don't have the results processed and ready to present yet, but I can speak to a few observations. In the Gulf of Alaska, the team discovered that the acid levels were surprisingly high, and since then other boats have been measuring that. When you're one of 100 boats that gets through the Northwest Passage in 100 years, you know something is changing. The Arctic is more sensitive so far to climate change, and the five degrees of temperature change the Arctic has been experiencing is a huge shift, completely changing the ecosystem. We also saw the melting of ice in Chile, and a glacier that has receded enormously, stunning glaciologists.
How is the expedition specifically speaking about climate change, in response to the recent flare up in skepticism?
Well, I think of that old saying: "Climate is what's happening but weather is what you feel." And no one can argue that, regardless of the facts of climate change, the oceans are in trouble. They are overfished, polluted, filling up with plastics, suffering coral bleaching, and have had enormous amounts of carbon dioxide deposited into them, poisoning them. I don't think our concerns hang just from the tree of climate change.
You mentioned overfishing, and with all the concerns about mercury contamination, what do you say to consumers who ask: "Ok, well can I still eat fish? Which ones can I eat now?"
You should know what you're eating. A friend of mine got serious mercury poisoning from sushi. You should know if the fish on your plate has been sustainably raised and caught. I recommend the safe seafood eating guides from the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Blue Ocean Institute, which are also available as iPhone apps. I keep the cards with me, and look at them when I'm out. Diners can put pressure on markets, by asking if something is wild salmon, for example.
Since the world is already so dependant on farmed seafood, the point is to make it sustainable. Fifty percent of all we consume is farmed. Yet raising mussels and oysters is not polluting, it filters the water. But in Chile, I saw pens for farmed salmon in every bay in many places along the coast. They have great conditions for salmon farming, but unfortunately they went at it without sufficient environmental safeguards. Then a virus wiped out their crops, and they're still trying to recover. It has to be done in a sustainable way, and a way that is economically sustainable. In some of those towns half the people are out of work.
So would you eat farmed salmon from Chile?
I wouldn't eat it yet from what I know. It needs to be managed for their own good. These people are dependent on the seas, as they are in coastal Alaska, an area I know well.
How much plastic pollution has the expedition come across?
The team has seen a lot of plastic pollution. When I was on the boat we were 500 miles between stops, so we didn't see much out there. But in other parts of the trip, such as off places like Miami, they have seen a lot.
April is Earth Month, a time when The Daily Green, among others, is taking stock of environmental efforts and honoring heroes who fight for the Earth. With your long experience in conservation, who do you see are leading heroes of the ocean?
My wife [author of Green At Work and documentary filmmaker Susan Cohn Rockefeller] is chair of Oceana's advisory council, and Oceana has done a very good job on the issue. Ted Danson has done a lot there, as well as with the group he had started before, which merged into Oceana.
Does it help to have celebs attached to causes?
Sure. It helps to have politicians, activists, sailors, everyone. Ninety-five percent of environmental conservation efforts go to the land, with only five percent left for oceans. Yet 71% of the globe is covered by oceans. That ratio needs to change.
There's also Jane Lubechenco, the great new head of NOAA, and Sylvia Earle, who has such a great story. Unlike sailors, who spend their time over the surface, she goes down in it. There's our CEO [of Sailors for the Sea] Dan Pingaro, The Cove filmmakers, and Sven Huseby and Barbara Ettinger, who produced A Sea Change with my wife. [A Sea Change tells the story of retired history teacher Huseby's quest to discover what is happening to the world's oceans.] There's also the very important Keeper movement, which gets people involved locally. Our group is international, urging people from Miami, Barrow and Puerto Williams to get involved.
If you had one tip for people to protect the oceans, what would it be?
Don't throw anything in the ocean that doesn't belong there, and be careful what you take out. Don't rip coral up, dump wastes or eat fish with too much mercury. In a word, respect your health and the oceans.
That's why we've worked to develop a curriculum for teachers, to educate kids about the oceans. We have a teacher guide on our site. People protect what they love, and act upon what they understand. People love to be near the ocean, but very few understand that it's in trouble. When you sit on the beach and look out it probably is looking pretty good, unless you see a red tide, a jellyfish bloom or bundles of trash. But you may not see the problems.
If you have a lawn or golf course near the ocean, chemicals you use on it are going to go in it. And coastal areas are the incubators for so much ocean life. If you have kids take them to the shore to show them the little fish. Education is absolutely the key. You can't just wave the flag and say, "come help." An example of a great program is the New York Harbor School, which is taking kids to Governor's Island and involving them in an oyster farming project that is cleaning up the harbor. How engaged will those kids be?
It has always seemed to me that there is a natural synergy between sailing and the environment, since it is wind powered, like wind turbines, and it is on the water. Would you agree?
Sailing is about quiet, and yes it does use a natural energy source. It's about getting to beautiful, remote places in an increasingly crowded world. And the aesthetics of it are really beautiful. The more you see whales and seabirds, the more you see that boats imitate nature.
What do you think about offshore wind farms, which have seen a lot of resistance recently?
Sailors for the Sea doesn't take a position on it, but my personal position is that we all need to support renewable energy and use less petrochemicals. Ten years from now, if I see a wind farm in Nantucket Sound I'm all for it. I've seen beautiful wind farms. They're among the nicer spikes on the horizon. They ought to go ahead and build it.
This is one of the areas I disagreed with Ted Kennedy about. We need to be for some energy if we're against others.
What are your feelings on nuclear power?
Again, this is just my personal opinion, but I'm persuaded that it ought to be part of our energy package. I think we got confused in the 70s on nuclear arms limitations and the potential for nuclear power to do good.
What do you hope people take away from Around the Americas?
We've had an amazing sail, we've looked at a lot of issues, and shone a spotlight on the fact that we're all connected, and connected to ocean health. We won't return this summer with all the answers, but we've asked a lot of questions. We made stops in St. John, Halifax, Boston, New York and many other cities, in a trip that left from Seattle and will return there, having circumnavigated the Americas. Along the way we have made contact with scientists, learned about the issues they study, and have shared what we have learned in education tents we set up at each port of call [31 are scheduled]. We bring schoolchildren on the boat to teach them about the oceans.
One of the PR reps in the room, Megan Esteves, pointed out that "You don't have to be on the coasts to affect oceans. Rivers also bring everything to the oceans, and CO2 comes from everywhere."
It is perhaps surprising from someone who's family made their fortune in oil to argue that we need to "use less petrochemicals," although it also shows what may change in four generations. It's also true that the Around the Americans expedition shares some similarities with David de Rothschild's voyage of the Plastiki, which is now underway. Both are helmed by scions from legendary families, and both are focused on ocean conservation.
Follow along with Around the Americas. Check out this video of news coverage of the trip:
All photos: David Thoreson/Around the Americas
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