Ted Turner

Billionaire, Media Mogul…and Environmentalist
Photo: Ted Turner

Cable News Network CEO Ted Turner definitely isn’t afraid to speak his mind. Starting from humble beginnings with a small Atlanta UHF television station and modest resources back in 1970, Turner’s determination and outspoken style (he recently said, “Christianity is an eco-unfriendly religion”) changed the face of television. That same dynamism is now directed toward environmental ventures: Turner actively crusades for cleaner transportation, sustainable population growth, wilderness conservation and greener business.

Turner, who is president of his own foundation, the flamboyant owner of the Atlanta Braves, a major western landowner, creator of the Goodwill Games a famous yachtsman, and maybe even a presidential candidate, gave some $25 million to grassroots environmental groups last year. The Turner Foundation also started the Turner Endangered Species Fund to involve private landowners in conserving imperiled species, including desert bighorn sheep, Mexican wolves, California condors, and black-tailed prairie dogs. According to the Foundation’s executive director, Peter Bahouth, “There are 450 groups being funded by the foundation now.” Turner really made news a year ago when he announced plans to start a foundation dedicated to helping the United Nations, with an initial donation of $1 billion, paid over 10 years. The funds are reserved for population and women’s projects, and for programs directly helping the environment and children.

E: You and your wife, Jane Fonda, have devoted a lot of time and energy to family planning and overpopulation issues. What can we do to make family planning programs more successful?

Turner: You could write a hundred books on that subject. There’s no real simple answer, but we have to do everything that we can to reduce the growth in human numbers. The simplest answer is that the world population should be about two billion, and we’ve got about six billion right now. I haven’t done the actuarial tables, but if every woman in the world voluntarily stepped up and said, ‘I’ll only have one child,’ and if we did that for the next 80 to 100 years, that would reduce the kind of suffering we’re having.

Right now, one out of every four people doesn’t have enough to eat each day and doesn’t have access to clean drinking water. Already, the human misery index is huge if you consider the entire planet. We could have 10 billion people living below the poverty line, or we could have two billion people living well and having color TVs and an automobile. The planet can support that number of people, and that’s what we had in 1930. You didn’t have global warming then, or all these problems that have occurred since the population has built up. And how you get there is very complicated. It’s going to take a lot of education, and it’s going to take improvements in health care.

Personally, I think the population should be closer to when we had indigenous populations, back before the advent of farming. Fifteen thousand years ago, there was somewhere between 40 and 100 million people. But [population researchers] Paul and Anne Ehrlich have convinced me that if we’re going to have a modern infrastructure, with commercial airlines and interstate highways around the world, we’re going to need about two billion people to support it. The environment can handle two billion at current consumption levels, so everybody in the world would be living at a decent standard.

Most of the world has much lower consumption levels than America, but higher birth rates. Which should we be more concerned about, overpopulation or overconsumption?

Well, we’ve got both, so why not be concerned about both? Why is it an either/or question? I think that’s like saying, ‘Which would you rather have, tuberculosis or breast cancer?’ What we should do is use energy-efficiency and efficiency of all types to reduce consumption levels, and certainly reduce waste. A perfect example of wasteful practices in the United States is that we use twice as much energy per person as the average European or Japanese, who have the same per capita income, and the same standard of living that we do. One of the reasons is big homes and big cars. We should be driving smaller cars and living in smaller homes. I’m a billionaire and my main residence in Atlanta is 700 square feet, and I love it. Bigger is not necessarily better, particularly if it’s wasteful.

What have you done personally to lower your consumption levels?

I drive a medium-sized car, a Ford Taurus. That’s my main car in Atlanta. And when I’m out on my ranches, I drive a very low horsepower Land Rover. I don’t drive a Cadillac or a Mercedes that burns a lot of gasoline. I deliberately do that, and I walk whenever I can. I walk to work here in New York—it’s only about five blocks, but a lot of people would have a car drive them.

Do you recycle at home?

Absolutely. Do I go around turning out the lights? Absolutely. I mean, who the hell do you think I am? You’ve got to walk the walk and talk the talk. If I’m giving away hundreds of millions of dollars to protect the environment, I’m certainly going to set good examples. I lead that kind of life as best as I can.

As America’s population continues to climb, how do you feel about limiting immigration into the U.S.?

Well, we are a nation of immigrants. Except for the three or four million Native Americans that were already here, the other 250 million of us all came from somewhere else. So I don’t think that limiting the number of legal immigrants is going to solve the global problem. The U.S. can’t build a dike around itself like a fortress and pull up the bridges and have a prosperous, happy nation, while the rest of the world is in poverty and misery. And besides, if you stop legal immigration, that’s not going to stop illegal immigration. We’ve got an indefensible border with Mexico, but it’s not just Mexicans that come across that border—it’s everybody from Central and South America. That’s why I made this major donation to the United Nations Foundation. That money is going to the developing world to help improve things there. People only leave their countries when they’re desperate—when they think they can do better somewhere else. Most people want to stay near home.

Are you hoping that your $1 billion donation will spur other billionaires to increase their environmental philanthropy?

I’d love for everyone who has a surplus to get more involved in trying to alleviate the human condition, and the global condition. Because with the environment, be it population, atmosphere or oceans—we have to deal with the whole set of problems that we have. Every year in its State of the World report, the Worldwatch Institute lists the problems: overfishing, heating of the atmosphere, rising sea level, soil erosion, dams, pollution. More money should be spent on research like that—on correcting the mistakes that we’ve been making the last couple hundred years, mainly since the industrial revolution.

Dr. James Hansen of NASA’s Goddard Institute thinks that global warming will be the biggest threat to human

health on our planet. Do you think it’s bigger than the threat of overpopulation?

The two are absolutely related. The reason that global warming is such a problem is that there are so many people burning so much fuel for electricity and power and transportation. If we only had two billion people, we would only need a third as much energy and we’d be reducing emissions by two-thirds. But even then there ought to be more solar energy, we ought to develop more clean energy sources, and move away from fossil fuels as fast as we possibly can.

A lot of people think that Americans are short-sighted in the way wealth is distributed in our country. Environmental economists want to establish the idea of “green taxes”—penalizing people that do environmentally-destructive things, and creating economic incentives for people and businesses that are eco-friendly. Do you think green taxes will work?

I think it’s a great idea. We have to change our economic system. Right now, when you chop down a forest, it just goes into the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). There’s no debit to show what the forest was worth to the planet and to humanity. So we need to have a new economic system like a Genuine Progress Indicator, rather than a GDP. We need to move in that direction. The economic incentives right now, particularly in the U.S., are favoring the extractive industries. They get subsidies, while the environmentally-friendly practices are not subsidized. What we should do is change our economic incentives, taxes and investment tax credits, to favor cleaner, more environmentally-friendly practices.

Environmentalists have been trying to do that, but they’ve been ineffective so far.

We can’t even get this country to pay the back dues that we legally owe the United Nations. We’re doing a lot of things wrong. The United States is withdrawing from international involvement at a time when we’re the only superpower. We can’t do that. If we do, it’s at our own peril. Basically, if we keep doing dumb, short-sighted, nationalistic things, rather than be thinking what’s best for the whole planet and thinking long-term, then we’re going to become just as extinct as the dodo. We’re headed for catastrophe.

Photo: Kofi Annan, Barbara Pyle, Ted Turner and Jane Fonda

Kofi Annan, Barbara Pyle, Ted Turner and Jane Fonda

If we were doing everything well, then there would be no need for your magazine, right? If this was a baseball game, it’s the seventh inning and we’re down by three runs.

But that doesn’t mean the situation’s hopeless. We still have a chance to turn it around. There’s still enough of the environment left. Everyday, though, the rainforests are being chopped down and more carbon dioxide is pumped into the atmosphere. Population is still growing by 90 million people a year. But on the other hand, the birth rate is down. So we’re doing some things right and some things wrong. But we have the technology, the global communications, which didn’t exist 10 years ago. There are a lot of people working on it, and you’ve got to be hopeful because I think that we’re smarter than the opposition, because we are thinking long-term. We’re better educated and I put my money on the smart minority rather than the dumb majority. Wouldn’t you? Basically, it’s an exciting time to be alive because we’re now facing the greatest crisis in the history of humanity.

Do you think the media gives justice to environmental issues?

Of course not!

Why is that?

Because it doesn’t get the high ratings that Monica Lewinsky does. It’s a Jerry Springer world.

So how do we change the “Jerry Springer world,” to get people thinking long-term about serious issues?

Get environmentalists on the Jerry Springer show.

Do you envision big money advertisers having increasing control over media coverage? Do you feel you have any influence over this?

Once again, there are reasons for pessimism and reasons for optimism. Look at British Petroleum—they’ve broken rank on global warming with the rest of the petrochemical industry—that was pretty strong. They’re calling for reductions in the use of fossil fuels and they’re a fossil fuel company.

Do you think most Americans are environmentally ignorant?

No. Everybody knows something about the environment.

But are people getting the right information?

Well, the information is there if people will avail themselves of it. But look at the circulation of your magazine compared to that of People—they have a circulation of about three million. So that tells you something, doesn’t it? I work hard to get Time to cover the environment on a regular basis, and we have an environmental program on weekends on CNN. I try to do my best to get environmental information and population information prominently featured. But it’s a constant battle.

But don’t readers get confused? Time’s recent “Earth Angels” segment was sponsored by Ford. They read environmental articles that say sport-utility vehicles and global warming gases are destructive, but the companies responsible are sponsoring the coverage.

I think it’s great that they’re doing that. At least they’re trying to create an image of being environmentally-friendly, even though they may not be. In order to win environmental battles, we’re going to need a critical mass of industry on our side, because business is very important. At least it keeps the awareness up and in the mainstream media. The people that read E Magazine, you can already count on them. What we need to do is reach out to people that aren’t reading E.

You have the largest private bison herd in the country on your Montana property, and recently made news for reintroducing wolves onto your land. Do you see a trend towards solving conservation issues on private property?

Of course. Basically, my philosophy of environmental management is just to leave the environment alone and try to get the introduced species out of there. Cattle came from Europe, while bison evolved on the Great Plains, and they’re the right animals to be there. Not that they can’t be environmentally-damaging, but it’s a question of how intensively you stock. If you put too many bison or too many cattle [on a range], then there’s very little grass or environment left for anything else. But I’m in favor of the environment being maintained and preserved in as much of its intact state as possible.