In an era when there’s nowhere left on earth to plant a flag, exploration is changing. A new generation of modern explorers, less concerned with feats of athleticism than they are with saving what remains of nature, has the floor.
Among them is David de Rothschild. “It’s not man versus nature,” he says, “it’s man with nature.”
A man of many maxims, de Rothschild, a descendent of the English banking dynasty, has dedicated his life to journeying from one wilderness to another as an all-action canary in nature’s coalmine. And the explorer’s chirp has grown into quite the clarion call.
De Rothschild, 41, ticked off both North and South poles in his twenties, traversing Antarctica and crossing the Arctic from Russia to Canada. In 2010 he was part of the first crew to cross the Pacific Ocean on a catamaran made from plastic – 12,500 reclaimed bottles, to be precise. There have been more interrogative expeditions too: traveling to Ecuador to explore the impact the oil industry was having on the rainforest and to the Brazilian Amazon on a fact finding mission related to the Belo Monte damn project. Accolades have poured in from National Geographic, the UN Environment Programme and the World Economic Forum.
But that’s all in the past, and if de Rothschild insists on anything, it’s being in the present. CNN followed the Briton to Sumba, Indonesia where he was engaged in a manta ray tagging study, and on to the Great Barrier Reef, where an ambitious citizen-led initiative could open up new perspectives on one of nature’s grandest – and most threatened – treasures.
In Indonesia, GPS tagging showed information that can be fed back to the government to help inform environmental policies and develop the tourism industry.
With technology at their heart, both projects are examples of what he calls a new “golden age of exploration.”
“We have tools available today that allow us to see stars growing or allow us to look at tiny microscopic algae in the ocean, and understand everything else in between,” he says. “To me, we’re at the golden age of exploration when it comes to understanding how to live on this planet – and that’s the area that I’m most passionate about.”
De Rothschild’s brand of restless exploration and conservationism sees him crisscrossing the globe, preaching cautious optimism against a tide of negative headlines. Earth – or “Spaceship Earth” as he calls it, borrowing the words of American polymath R. Buckminster Fuller – is not beyond redemption.
“As an environmentalist, you often are told or you often tell the bad news stories,” he explains. “In some ways, I always felt that you become an undertaker for the wilderness, and you talk about the demise of nature, how much is lost, what’s going wrong. And I think that, to me, has always been probably one of the fundamental mistakes.”
“The other side of the spectrum for me is how we create a sense of awe and wonder. How do we inspire action, not scare people into it? Because the idea of creating a narrative of fear is what drives people away.”
“We’re overwhelmed by stories, and so we have to find the right way to collaborate and to kind of home in on the right messages for the right audience,” he adds.
If that sounds calculated, that’s because it is. De Rothchild has put his hand up for the role of environmental envoy to the corporate world, meeting with companies to explore greener policies. He also provides endowments for grassroots organizations through his Sculpt the Future Foundation and is an ambassador for the UK government’s Year of Green Action.
“We sit here at this point now where it’s all about growth and extraction versus sustainability and support for living on planet,” he says. “We have to find a way to connect the dots between survival on this planet as we know it and this slightly – or massively – ignorant ‘business-as-usual’ mentality that we seem to take on a daily basis, and somehow find this compromise.”
Searching for that compromise led de Rothschild to California, where he founded his lifestyle brand The Lost Explorer in 2015.
The company sells sustainable clothing, cosmetics and artisanal mezcal. But de Rothschild’s admits that he’s “still very much confused by the concept of what it means to be a sustainable brand,” questioning whether such a thing is possible.
“Our economy is probably one of the main forces in destroying our environment,” he adds. “We need to consume to keep the machine going, but the machine is only profiting a few. And what we want to try and do is figure out how it can actually embrace (the) many, and really reintegrate back into nature.”
As a member of one of the world’s wealthiest families, it’s perhaps an unexpected critique. “I’m very proud of where I come from and I’m very proud of my heritage, but I also think in life you have one chance to create your own legacy,” he says.
“I guess I quickly learned that a last name can be a blessing and a curse,” he adds, saying the de Rothschild name has opened as well as closed doors. “But if you spend your whole time just thinking about what you’re called and not what you do, then you’re really missing what life is all about. I think, predominantly, I’m just David.”
And David, despite his optimism, is not short of home truths. “We are at war with nature, which means ultimately we are war with ourselves,” he says.
“There is no way that we can continue to do what we are doing on this planet and think that we will survive,” he says. “A lot of people might say that is super-extreme and we will find some technology that will solve it.
“It has taken four and a half billion years of brilliance to basically create this incredible spaceship that we live on called planet Earth. Without it, we are nothing.”