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The Green Life: Oil Heir David Rockefeller Jr. Wants to Save the Seas

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April 23, 2012

Oil Heir David Rockefeller Jr. Wants to Save the Seas

David Rockefeller Jr.The great-grandson of oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller has been passionate about the ocean since he learned to sail at age 10. For more than 40 years now, David Rockefeller Jr. has raced and cruised the globe. In 2006, he started Sailors for the Sea, a nonprofit that educates sailors about conservation. He's also served as a member of the Pew Oceans Commission, which has produced reports about the health of U.S. marine waters. We asked him a few questions about his family and his work.

Q: Do you see irony in having become an environmentalist, given that your great-grandfather founded Standard Oil?

A: Not really. Today is so different from the late 1800s, when Standard Oil was started. We've added 5 billion people to the planet in the past century, and that has been the biggest factor in environmental degradation. And ironically, the discovery of oil in the ground probably saved a lot of whales.

Q: What do you think John D. would say about your environmental efforts?

A: Given that he started the Rockefeller Foundation and the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research — now Rockefeller University — I think my great-grandfather would have looked at the environment as a challenge to science and to strategic philanthropy. As a matter of fact, the Rockefeller Foundation, which I chair, has an interest in what they call “climate-change resilience” — an effort to help cities prepare for severe weather events and rising sea levels.

Q: When did you first become concerned about the environment?

A: Probably in the '60s. My mother gave us Rachel Carson's books when we were young. And fish began to disappear from our harbors in Maine. Trash was thrown along the highways until Lady Bird Johnson took action.

Q: What action did you take? 

A: My first important role was as a member of the National Park Foundation. Later, I became its citizen chair and served under President Clinton and President George W. Bush. We raised millions of dollars each year for education and science in the parks.

Q: You started Sailors for the Sea. What gave you the idea for that?

A: I did some research on sailors’ role in ocean conservation and I could find very little. It was a niche opportunity for building a broader base of ocean stewards and funders. All of this came as a result of my service on the Pew Oceans Commission.

Q: Sailors for the Sea co-sponsored a voyage on a 64-foot steel sailboat named Ocean Watch, right? 

A: Captain Mark Schrader and his crew took Ocean Watch from Seattle on a 28,000-mile trip through the Northwest Passage and around Cape Horn before returning to Seattle. The trip took them in a clockwise direction around the American continent, which is really a remarkable achievement. I was onboard for a leg of the trip.

Q: How did Ocean Watch help promote conservation? 

A: There were scientists and educators onboard — the scientists did experiments and analyzed the quality of the water and the air throughout the trip, and the educators, along with the crew and scientists, gave lectures to children during the 53 times the boat docked in different ports. They also met with fishermen and other scientists to tell stories from the preceding leg of the voyage and to learn what ocean-related issues the local citizens were having. 

Q: What’s the most important thing the kids took away from that?

A: That the oceans are in trouble but that we can do something to alleviate it. We can stop throwing plastic in the water, we can fish sensibly, we can consume only sustainably caught fish, and we can be respectful to the corals and not exploit them for the temporary bounty of reef fish. 

Q: Was the trip documented in any way?

A: Yes, in a book called One Island, One Ocean. It was written by Herb McCormick with photographs by David Thoreson and forewords by Captain Mark Schrader and me.

Q: What does “One Island, One Ocean” mean?

A: The idea is that the entire Western Hemisphere is a single island and that the Atlantic and Pacific are a single ocean. If you drop a pail of water on your beach, you could pick up some of those same molecules on the other side of the world.

—interview by Margie Goldsmith / photo by David Thoreson

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