An interview with Peter Seligmann, CEO of Conservation International.
Draw in a deep breath. Take a long drink of clean water. Go on a hike. Breathe some more.
And, at some point, give a nod to Peter Seligmann.
As the founder and CEO of Conservation International (CI), Seligmann has helped to ensure that those things remain available to people around the world.
And as the nonprofit prepares to celebrate its 25th anniversary next month, Seligmann is looking back on what CI has done to keep the world’s resources protected so they will support generations to come.
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“We’re all connected,” Seligmann said the other day. “Whether you’re living in the Pacific Northwest or the South Pacific. All humanity depends on nature, and nature has to thrive to give us our food security, our supply of water.”
Seligmann, 61, is the guy that no one knows about, but who is seemingly everywhere, drawing an environmental conscience out of the world’s corporate and governmental giants with the help of scientists, scholars and his own experience.
There he was on Charlie Rose, talking about the benefits of corporations going green. In Chicago, with the heads of McDonald’s and DreamWorks, using “Bee Movie”-themed Happy Meals to get kids to pledge to “Bee Good to the Planet.” Fancy fundraisers. Remote villages.
Home in Seattle.
Seligmann just got back from the Cook Islands, where he met with 15 heads of state at something called the Pacific Island Leadership Forum.
Those leaders were, in a word, overwhelmed. Despite controlling 8 percent of the earth’s surface, the water that surrounded these ocean-cultured people seemed no longer theirs.
In one nation, Kiribati, coral reefs have been dying, sea walls have been knocked down and overfishing was destroying residents’ livelihood and resources.
Seligmann helped hammer out the Phoenix Island Protected Area Conservation Trust, an endowment that will compensate Kiribati for the revenue it lost by imposing fishing restrictions. Doing so will help protect and sustain the natural gifts it holds.
“I left really happy,” Seligmann said the other day. “I was so blown away by the fact that we have leaders of nations who are truly leading. At the same time we were having the polarizing political conventions, there are leaders thinking about ensuring that future generations will be able to live happy, comfortable lives.”
Seligmann’s passion for conservation was ignited at 13, when he left his home in New Jersey for a summer vacation in Wyoming with his cousins and German-born grandmother, who wanted them all to bond.
“It was as if I found my place,” he said. “The forest, the mountains, the fish, the bugs, the water flowing.”
Then in 1972, when he was 21, Seligmann read a New Yorker piece about a man who held a sustainability summit at the United Nations. Seligmann wrote a note to his father — he found it recently — in which he declared “I want to spend my life working on the conservation of land.” He changed his major from sociology to wildlife ecology, studied at Rutgers University, then Yale, and never looked back.
He worked with the international division of The Nature Conservancy in Washington, D.C., but left in 1987 with colleague Spencer Beebe in a falling-out over the organization’s goals. As the story goes, they walked across the street to the Tavern Inn, where they puzzled out CI’s mission of biodiversity conservation.
The organization now has 900 staffers and 1,000 field programs in 30 countries.
Like other large conservation groups, CI has its critics. Fortune magazine reported that the organization took money from companies with poor environmental records; that its blessing could be bought. The Nation reported that it spent profligately. Fancy offices. First-class travel.
In a piece for The Huffington Post, Seligmann countered all that:
“Corporate financial support — communicated transparently, directed toward vital conservation programs, and linked to our expectation that our partners will pursue best environmental business practices — does not compromise our integrity, independence or effectiveness.”
Seligmann is steadfast in helping individuals, governments and corporations understand that if they don’t preserve the natural resources from which they draw their products — their very livelihoods — they will eventually perish. Forests. Minerals. Fish. Even clouds.
“We have to not lose sight of the fact that extinction rates continue to rise, climate continues to change, fishing stock continues to fall,” he said. “It is important that we figure out how we change the way development takes place.”
Seligmann’s work takes him around the world, but he is an admitted homebody. He lives on Lake Washington with his wife, Lee Rhodes, the founder of glassybaby, a Madrona-based glass studio whose namesake votives are sold nationwide (a portion of each sale goes to charity).
They have six children between them.
“I love to be with Lee and our children,” he said. “Children bring lots of excitement and stimulation and ideas into your life.”
He also loves to scuba dive, fly-fish, walk through the salt flats and rivers.
He struggled to sift one certain accomplishment from more than two decades of work.
“This has been quite a long journey,” Seligmann said. But he is excited that “every university, every company, every country and every school,” is thinking about conservation and sustainability.
“We have gotten to a place from where companies looked at me like I was crazy, to where the responsible companies are embracing the ideas and understanding that this is in their self-interest,” he said. “We are in a moment of great change.”
Nicole & Co. appears Sundays in NW Arts & Life. Reach Nicole at 206-464-2334 or firstname.lastname@example.org.