Primatologist and conservation icon Jane Goodall recently interviewed Mongabay founder and CEO Rhett Ayers Butler for her Hopecast podcast. The episode was released October 26, 2021.
Goodall and Butler talked about the importance of good storytelling in conveying information about the environment. Goodall lamented that much of the news around the environment is sad and depressing, and said there was a need to showcase more hopeful stories, including conservation successes.
Butler said that while the media does tend to dwell on the negative, good environmental outcomes can result from “bad stories”: “Sometimes you can have a bad story that results in a good outcome,” he said. “Covering it can then lead to the activity stopping or people being empowered.”
Last week, primatologist and conservation icon Jane Goodall interviewed Mongabay founder and CEO Rhett Ayers Butler for her Hopecast podcast.
Goodall and Butler talked about the importance of good storytelling in conveying information about the environment.
“Facts can only go so far in persuading people,” Butler said. “You really need that combination of a strong factual basis and then a really good narrative that inspires people to care about the world around them, but also create a connection between the audience and the subject.”
Goodall lamented that much of the news around the environment is sad and depressing, and said there was a need to showcase more hopeful stories, including conservation successes.
“Yes, we need the media to talk about all the horrible things that are happening to the environment,” she said. “But if it’s only doom and gloom that’s out there in the media, of course people are losing hope.”
Butler said that while the media does tend to dwell on the negative, there are sometimes good environmental outcomes that come out of bad stories.
“Sometimes you can have a bad story that results in a good outcome,” he said. “Covering it can then lead to the activity stopping or people being empowered.”
An edited transcript of the conversation appears below. To listen to the whole episode released on October 26, 2021, use the player embedded below.
JANE GOODALL HOPECAST EPISODE #19: Hope is sharing knowledge to empower
Jane Goodall: I was on a Zoom call with a whole group of CEOs in Singapore, and the CEO of a big corporation, who’s honestly truly made massive changes in checking out the ethics of his supply chain and where it came from and the wages that people are paid. And he was saying, “Jane, there were three reasons for my company to change.
First, seeing the writing on the wall that we cannot go on exploiting the finite natural resources of the planet because if we do that’s the end of our business.” And he said, “Secondly, people are getting more aware, and they are demanding a more ethical way of doing business.” And he said, “People aren’t buying our products because we are not producing them in an ethical way.”
But he said, “The thing that really pushed me to make this major change was my daughter.” And he said, “She came back from school one day and she said, “Daddy, what you are doing, is it harming the environment? Is it going to hurt me when I grow up?”” And he said, “That got straight to my heart.” You’ve got to feel it. You’ve got to get that teared up feeling. Yes, I’ve got to change. Then you have to work out how you change. That’s what our intellect is for and there’s so many like that.
What is your greatest reason for hope? I’m Jane Goodall, and this is the Hopecast.
Today, I get to speak to someone I deeply admire, Rhett Butler. Rhett is an award-winning journalist and the founder and CEO of Mongabay, a nonprofit environmental media organization. I’ve served on the advisory board for Mongabay for some years now. The Jane Goodall Institute often contributes to Mongabay for interviews and stories, and the two organizations work together to amplify stories that turn hope into action.
Beyond Mongabay, Rhett has advised a range of organizations and institutions from news outlets to philanthropic foundations, to development agencies. His writing and photography have appeared in hundreds of publications. As someone who is constantly considering the best way to communicate some of the most pressing and critical stories of our time, Rhett is no stranger to creating an effective marriage between truth and hope, something that’s incredibly important to me and I’m so excited to speak with him about. I hope you enjoy this hopeful conversation with Rhett Butler.
Rhett, I feel very sad that we are not actually sitting together, that we are communicating in this strange new Zoom world that we live in today, but I’m really excited to welcome you to this Hopecast and excited to talk to you even from the distance of the UK to the United States. Welcome to the show.
Rhett Butler: Well, thank you so much for having me. I look forward to the day, hopefully sometime soon, where we can be face to face again.
Jane Goodall: So, Rhett, I’ve been wanting to talk to you for quite a long time, because what seems to be going on in the world today is that so many people are losing hope. Yes, we need the media to talk about all the horrible things that are happening to the environment and socially and politically, but if it’s only doom and gloom that’s out there in the media, of course people are losing hope. I mean, what’s going on is terrible. And we do need to know about it, but don’t you think the media should spend more time sharing those stories of hope?
Rhett Butler: Yeah, I do. I think one of the challenges that journalists have is there’s a bias towards focusing on problems rather than solutions, and I think that that has been one of the fundamental issues that we’re facing today. And so, I think part of it is focusing on these tangible solutions and actions that people can take at home. So, reminding people that, yeah, there are these big global problems, but solutions always start locally and here are a few things that you can do to start to make a difference locally. And collectively, that can bubble up into something much, much greater.
JGI’s work and Roots and Shoots are some of the examples of hopeful, positive things that can be an inspiration for us all. I think that collectively the media could do a much better job, including Mongabay, highlighting those stories and giving us hope.
Jane Goodall: What gets me all the time is we know what to do, but if people don’t get together now and take action, this window of time we have to slow down climate change and biodiversity loss, it’s not a huge window of time, is it?
Rhett Butler: No, it’s not, and it’s getting shorter every day as we see the compounding impacts of climate change, degradation, and the other issues we’re facing. Part of effective storytelling is giving people something real and meaningful that they can do in their lives to really make a difference about the issues they care about. That’s our role as storytellers: To provide that initial step and impetus and push for people to then take action.
Facts can only go so far in persuading people. So, you really need that combination of a strong factual basis and then a really good narrative that inspires people to care about the world around them, but also create a connection between the audience and the subject.
Some of these communities have overcome such incredible odds to have this real impact. There’s a good example out of Malaysian Borneo in Sarawak where an Indigenous community is working to create a peace park – an Indigenous-led peace park. The incredible thing is that now the international tropical timber organization [ITTO] has officially endorsed it and the Sarawak government is talking about it. So, this thing which seemed like such a pipe dream, such a ridiculous idea, is now very close to becoming a reality.
Part of the role of Mongabay is highlighting those stories, and sometimes the journalism can help create an enabling environment for supporting that change. And so one reason why I love what I do is that we can see that journalism can lead to, or contribute to, impact on the ground.
Jane Goodall: Yeah, I am so, so impressed by the journalists who risk their lives to talk about what’s going on that is hidden by big corporations and all the corruption that goes on. And the whistleblowers too, for that matter. I think the hope part of it is that there are people willing to risk their jobs and their lives in speaking out, and that’s hopeful for humans and the future of our planet. I quite often find myself thinking back to what was almost the beginning of the environmental movement, which was Rachel Carson with Silent Spring and what she tackled even up to the very end when she had cancer in exposing the effect of DDT on the environment and the weakening of the shells of the birds of prey, and she won. That’s a story which maybe a lot of people today don’t even know, but I remember it because I was living through it.
Rhett Butler: Yeah, it is amazing. I just think about how much of the action is now done remotely. I mean, there are these critical environmental defenders on the front lines who are putting their lives at risk, but people can support in other ways. So even if you’re not on the front lines in the Congo Basin or something like that, you can support those efforts at home through tools like satellite imagery, using your voice to raise awareness, or pestering your representatives in Congress about legal actions or regulations that can help protect and support these communities or help save the forest. So, this example shows that you can help make a difference, even if you aren’t on the front lines, which I think is really important.
Jane Goodall: What originally drove you to start Mongabay? What was it? Was there a particular moment, a particular incident?
The thing that really took me from being someone who appreciated nature to understanding the fact that there were problems in the environment happened when I was 12. I went to Eastern Ecuador with my family and we stayed with a fairly traditional indigenous community near Yasuni National Park. I had an amazing time meeting the kids my age in the village and going out looking for frogs at night and things like that.
I came back to California where I lived, and a few months after I was there, there was a story in the local newspaper about this huge oil spill that had happened on the Rio Napo upward from where I’d been. What that meant was the area that I just visited was now coated in oil. And so, all I could think about was what had happened to my friends in the forest and the animals.
The thing that really spurred me to take my interest to the next level happened when I was 17: I went to Malaysian Borneo and had an incredible experience in the rainforest. That included a moment where a wild male orangutan passed within 30 feet of me, paused, watched me for a few minutes, and then moved on. It was a magical experience.
Jane Goodall was interviewed on Mongabay’s own podcast about being proven right that animals have personalities, why she’s hopeful that we can reverse the troubling environmental trends we see around the world, and more, listen here:
After I returned home, I kept in correspondence with a scientist there and several months later, I learned that the forest was pulped to make paper. And now that area is an oil palm plantation. Once that happened, I decided I needed to try to do something to raise awareness.
And so I began writing a book about rainforests when I was starting at the university. After working on the book for three years, I sent the book out to publishers. One came back to me and said they were interested in publishing it, but later in the process, they said, “We’d like to publish it, but we don’t have money to put pictures in it. We can run some gray scale images, but it’ll just be a textbook.” For me that really defeated the purpose of what I was trying to do, which was to convey the beauty of rainforest and why they should be saved.
And so, I thought, “Well, I didn’t write this book for money, I wrote it for impact.” Instead, I decided to put the text on the internet so people could read it for free. I decided to name the web site Mongabay, which is derived from the name of an island off Madagascar, called Nosy Mangabe.
Nosy Mangabe is a beautiful island that’s covered with rainforest, has amazing reptiles and amphibians, houses lemurs, and is surrounded by coral reefs. So I put the book up on the Internet and then a few years later, I quit my job to pursue my passion. That was Mongabay. It’s been quite a journey.
Jane Goodall: What’s so important, Rhett, that you’re doing with Mongabay and what we’re doing to give these young people hope, because if our youth lose hope, that’s the end, we’re finished. Because if you don’t have hope, you fall into apathy and do nothing. And you’ve got two very small children in your life. So, for you, this is really, really important.
Rhett Butler: Yeah, it’s important for all of us, but the younger generation, I think, has a lot to be upset about. They’ve been put in this situation by my generation and older generations. Being able to harness that—I think in some cases it’s rage, but also disappointment—and turn it into productive action, is what a lot of young people are doing now. They’re going to determine the future that we want to have. And so, people need to be engaged.
Jane Goodall: And obviously, young people today know far more about the environmental problems than I was taught when I was young. I mean, we just were trying to get through World War II. And it was World War II and the aftermath that created the beginning of the deforestation, because there weren’t enough wood forests and woods in Europe to rebuild Europe after the devastation of World War II.
And I went to a meeting of the Tropical Hardwood Association, and I talked about the forest and everything, and some of these guys were in tears, but one of them decided that he would make change. He was so shocked, so saddened and so horrified. He worked for a European logging company, which had a code of conduct as to the size of trees that can be cut, the distance between trees, and the need to leave parts of the forest to recover.
But he added, after talking with me, a code of conduct for the animals, so that he said, “Okay, if we find chimpanzees or gorillas or something like that, we leave that part of the forest and go somewhere else.” And that was because I told stories about the chimpanzees and how they lived and all the rest of it.
So again, I didn’t point fingers at them, I didn’t tell them they were horrible. I just talked about the time I’d spent in the rainforest and how I had this sense of spiritual connection, and how I felt that all these different plants and species were woven together like a beautiful living tapestry. A species becomes extinct in that tapestry, that ecosystem, and it’s like pulling a thread from the ecosystem. And because everything is interconnected, the more threads you pull out, eventually the ecosystem will hang in tatters and collapse.
Rhett Butler: What you illustrate here is a critical point in storytelling, which is creating that connection between an audience and the subject matter. Everyone has their voice and many—at least in the rich world—can make decisions about what they do in their lives, so maybe there are small things they can do to have an impact.
Jane Goodall: Well, I guess we can all do small things, can’t we? And some of us couldn’t do bigger things. You and me, Rhett, we can go shopping and we can look at a product and we can ask, in the making, did it help the environment? Was it cruel to animals? Is it cheap because of unfair wages? And we can afford to buy something that might be costing a little bit more but was made ethically. But if you’re living in poverty, you can’t make that decision. You’re going to cut down the last trees because you’ve got to find some new land to grow food for your family. So alleviating poverty is absolutely key.
Rhett Butler: Creating incentives to help local people protect and safeguard their lands is a very powerful tool for achieving conservation outcomes. If we look at where most wildlife and wild lands are in the world these days, it’s in places where there are Indigenous and local communities and they are a reason why those forests are still standing. Whereas in Europe and the United States, there are far fewer Indigenous peoples now, the forests and other wild areas have been converted.
I think that one of the important trends of conservation right now is the growing recognition of the contributions that local and Indigenous people are making towards climate and biodiversity objectives. And so stories like that are really important to get out there.
Jane Goodall: And, I know in Tanzania, in Gombe, the local people did early burning and then a long time conservationist—not me by the way, not our group—but others, saying, “No, we mustn’t do this. We have to leave the forest intact; we mustn’t touch anything. We mustn’t do early burning.” So, what happens? Enormous fires. It’s very hard to put them out. And what I love right now are the rewilding programs that are going on.
Rhett Butler: Rewilding is a very exciting area in the conservation space and it’s really going on all around the world now. It’s in Europe, it’s in Latin America.
There’s been this big push lately for restoration and tree planting projects, and I think that there is so much attention being paid to the idea of, “Well, if we’re going to be restoring these landscapes, we actually need to be using native species and thinking about the biodiversity aspects and not just the carbon accounting, but, what were the species that were here and how can we help turn around this ecosystem and all the ecosystems that are associated with it and create sustainable livelihoods?”
Jane Goodall: I get frustrated with all this tree planting where people just stick a sapling to the ground and that’s it. It needs to be Indigenous, needs to be planted in the right place, the right soil, the right time of year, as you say, it needs to think about the biodiversity, and it’s got to be looked after. You can’t just dump it and leave it. If you are a big company, and you are putting out masses of CO2 into the environment, and then you say, “Well, I’m going to plant so many trees and that will be a carbon credit, so I can go on producing emissions because I go on planting trees,” that’s not right. We’ve got to stop relying on fossil fuels.
Rhett Butler: One of the reasons that I’m optimistic and hopeful is that there’s an energy transition happening right now, which is occurring much faster than most people expected. That means shifting power production away from those legacy fuels, whether it’s coal, natural gas, or gasoline, and moving towards wind and solar, which are renewable resources.
There’s a parallel in conservation. There used to be the model of fortress conservation where conservationists would create a park, put guards around it, and kick people off the land. And that was very common up until maybe even 20 years ago, but that’s changing now. Now there’s a major shift within conservation like that which we see in energy production. I think it’s exciting to see that when there are solutions that are viable and work well, they can be taken up very quickly.
Jane Goodall: Wouldn’t you agree that certainly it’s true in the UK, it’s true in the US, that whole section of society has been deliberately kept undereducated, so now they’re angry and I think things aren’t fair and that anger turns into violent demonstrations, and terrorism too?
Rhett Butler: I think one major problem is that a lot of people have been deliberately misled. For example, look at what the fossil fuel industry did for so long in terms of denying climate change or saying it’s not as bad as people say it is. I think that messaging is very damaging in the long term.
Another thing that’s happened is that while we’ve talked a lot about individual action and why that’s important, there is a lot of responsibility being put on the individual and in cases where people may not have access to good information or are stuck in information bubbles, they may not have the ability to make informed decisions. And so that highlights the importance of the higher-level action where governments have a role.
If products available on the shelves are all responsible or sustainable, then the decision making by an uninformed individual isn’t around sustainability anymore, it’s “What color do I like?”, or something like that. So, if you can take that sustainability question out of decision making because everything is sustainable, it can help get at that root issue of some people being under informed. That’s the long-term solution to this, but in the shorter term, individuals who are informed can help drive that higher level policy action through their voices, their wallets, and how they vote.
Jane Goodall: Rhett, I’ve been so impressed by Mongabay for so long. And I know that you have a team of people investigating news stories. I don’t know how many countries now, but an awful lot of the world. And I suppose there’s always a balance between telling all the horrors that are going on and balancing it so that people don’t get so depressed that they give up, because if we give up, now we are doomed. How do you weave that into the stories you tell?
Rhett Butler: We do it story by story, but we also have overarching themes that we report on. For example, we have what we call a special reporting project right now that looks at Indigenous-led conservation. With that, we’re committing to do a set of stories that looks at this issue area. And by having this set of stories that’s pre-announced, we can build a story arc, like we’re going to focus on certain geographies, but also understanding examples of some success stories. So we can look at five or ten projects around the world and identify some common elements to each one of these successful projects. That approach builds an understanding of what works with these projects and maybe what doesn’t, or what we can learn from them.
And so, we do try to encourage our editors to probe these stories, like “Is there some upside here, or is there an example of an organization that’s doing really good work to try to address this challenge?”
One of the things Mongabay has done is build out a network of journalists all around the world. We currently have around 600-700 contributing journalists in about 80 countries. There’s a lot of value in this because we can do very local stories, but then by the nature of the network being global, it can bubble up into these high-level stories as well by taking information from all these different countries.
Jane Goodall: Rhett, has there been a change? Is what you do helping to make more of the media share the good stories as well as the bad stories?
Rhett Butler: Well, I think that sometimes you can have a bad story that results in a good outcome, so there’s something that’s being done that’s destructive, but then covering it can then lead to the activity stopping or people being empowered.
One of my favorite examples of this was back in 2014. There was a company that had an initial public offering in London. It was called United Cacao and it portrayed itself as a pure-play cacao company at a time when cacao prices were going up. Cacao is used for making chocolate, just to clarify. So, they had this story where they were working with local people, they were sustainable, and they were producing this commodity that everyone loves.
At the time, Mongabay was monitoring Global Forest Watch specifically for evidence of deforestation and we saw pink polygons appearing in Peru, in the Western Amazon, which is the most biodiverse part of Amazon rainforest.
We started to dig into it: We had an investigative reporter that went there. It turned out that this company, which had just had the IPO, had been clearing a highly biodiverse rainforest in the Amazon. And the way that we knew that is we could see the change happening over time from the satellite data.
There were also scientists doing really great work documenting before the forest clearance happened and after. For example, a friend of mine had flown the area in his airplane and mapped it with [advanced sensors], which showed the biodiversity, like the number of trees, the specific tree species that were in the area, the carbon density, and things of that nature. There was also a group called the Amazon Conservation Association, which was monitoring the change that was going on.
With all this great evidence, we started to produce a story about what was happening here. When the company tried to shut down the story, our response [to their lawyers] was, “Well, this is all based on the best science and there’s plenty of evidence here showing what’s happening and we’re just covering that.” And so, we came out with a story, a bunch of other media outlets then covered the story.
Activists started doing campaigns around it, including going after the London Stock Exchange. We continued to do this reporting. And so, over the next two-plus years, a number of stories came out and the Peruvian government ruled that the plantation was breaking local regulations–it was illegal. Fast forward to 2017, the company was delisted from London Stock Exchange.
The reason this was important was it was part of a holding company that had other companies that were planning to clear nearly a hundred thousand hectares of forests for oil palm plantations and cacao–all in this very biodiverse area. So delisting deprived [the company] of the capital that they would have needed to do that expansion.
I think the reason why that story ended up being impactful was because there was good data that was based on the best science that was presented in a way that was well visualized. There was a compelling storyline: You had biodiversity, you had local communities, you had diverse voices and stakeholders. So that’s a situation where it started as a “bad story” that ended up having a positive impact when it comes to the environment.
Jane Goodall: Rhett, this has been an absolutely wonderful conversation, and it’s highlighted the power of the intersection between science and storytelling and the incredible effect that this can have on creating a better world. Thank you so much for being here with us today.
Rhett Butler: Thank you so much again for inviting me on your show, and just all the inspiration you’ve provided.
Jane Goodall: But there is still hope, where a different future awaits us. Where faith unites us to make rainforest a shared spiritual priority, where we teach our communities that rainforests are a sacred trust, where we feed a growing planet without converting rainforests. Where we work with companies to ensure their products are deforestation free, and where we make sure that governments protect forests and the rights of Indigenous peoples. This is the future where we do what is right.