It doesn’t have to be downhill,” Greg Carr says about Earth’s future. “Humans could be okay on this planet for thousands of years if we understand what it means to live sustainably.”
In this age of worry about climate change and biodiversity loss, Carr is a rare beacon of optimism. In 1999, he cashed in on his success as a serial entrepreneur in the telecom industry and became a philanthropist. Inspired by the writings of biologist E.O. Wilson, he went on to found the Gorongosa Restoration Project—a 20-year partnership with the Mozambique government to revive Gorongosa National Park through ecotourism. Once home to some of the most diverse wildlife in Africa, the park was decimated by almost three decades of war.
Now, after 11 years of rebuilding infrastructure, reintroducing animals, including hippos and wildebeests, and working with local communities, Gorongosa is thriving again. The park now serves as a model for future conservation.
Nautilus caught up with Carr in his lush Idaho backyard to hear him describe his journey in his own words. When we asked him what makes the park worth protecting, he reminded us that Gorongosa lies in the Great Rift Valley, where the human species evolved about 200,000 years ago. “This was our cradle,” he said, “It’s in our DNA.” When we visit, we feel like we’ve come back home.
To learn more about Gorongosa National Park, check out our video.
PBS is premiering a six-part series on Gorongosa called Gorongosa Park: Rebirth of Paradise on September 22nd.
How did you decide to make Gorongosa National Park your next philanthropic project?
I really wanted to roll up my sleeves, get out into the world, and direct my humanitarian activities to a project I could touch and feel. It was about that time—early 2000s—that everyone was talking about the health crisis in Africa, and the poverty crisis in Africa; I thought, I want to go there and do something. Surely I can be helpful. It was that simple.
At that time Mozambique was dead last in the entire world. It was considered the single poorest nation in the world, and that’s because it had 30 years of war and had been left in its post-colonial era with virtually nobody who’d even been to high school. Where do you begin? You hear that expression, “Well, these people live on $1 a day.” I mean, Mozambicans did not have $1 a day—not rural Mozambicans. So I was saying to myself, what’s this country going to do?
Then it popped into my head: Why doesn’t Mozambique have a multi-billion-dollar safari tourism industry? That’s the competitive advantage of an African country—southern or east African country; they’ve got the charismatic megafauna. I knew roughly in my head that Kenya and Tanzania and South Africa and Botswana all had these multi-multi-billion-dollar safari tourism businesses, creating a lot of jobs, bringing foreign currency into the country. So I just wondered to myself, why doesn’t Mozambique have that?
I started doing research. Google existed at that time and I was Googling Mozambique in different terms and I stumbled upon something called Gorongosa National Park. In the documents that I found it said that Gorongosa was at one time considered one of the best national parks in Africa. At that time, my mind was mostly oriented toward economic development and the other thing that I found interesting about Gorongosa Park in the 1960s was [that] it was the economic engine for the center of the country, bringing people from Europe, from America, into Mozambique. So then I said, what happened to Gorongosa Park, and why doesn’t anybody hear about it today?
I did a little more homework and learned about these two terrible wars that Mozambique had—first, the War of Independence, and then a civil war. I mean really from the 1960s to the 1990s, this country spent 30 years at war and lost 1 million people. That’s more than have died in all of America’s wars since 1776 [up] until now. A lot of [that war] took place in Gorongosa Park. Gorongosa is in the center of the country; it was right at the collision point between the two opposition groups in this civil war. One of the armies hid themselves in the national park among the trees in a place called Mt. Gorongosa and launched their attacks from there. During this war, and even after the civil war and a few years after that when there wasn’t really any stability in the country, poachers killed all the animals. During the war, they would kill the animals for meat and they would shoot elephants for the ivory and then they would sneak the ivory out of Mozambique to South Africa and trade the ivory for weapons.
So at the end of the civil war—and then another couple of years of just chaos and poaching—by the mid-1990s, 95 percent of the large species in Gorongosa Park had been extirpated, were gone. For some species, it was 100 percent; they were completely gone. But elephants, for example, went from 4,000 in the 1960s to 100; buffalo went from 14,000 individuals to a tiny relic herd of about 50; zebra and wildebeest, completely gone!
What effect did your first visit to the park have on you?
The first time I ever saw Gorongosa I was in a helicopter. Flying over it from the air, it was magnificently beautiful because the trees were still there, several rivers were still flowing from Mt. Gorongosa into a big lake in the center of Gorongosa called Lake Urema—and Lake Urema trickles out kind of slowly to the Indian Ocean. There’s a rainy season in Gorongosa, starts in about November, goes to about March, and during that rainy season 30, 40, 50 percent of the park is underwater and this lake expands, [and] then in the dry season, ever so slowly contracts. This expansion and contraction of this lake creates a fertile grassland, which supports tremendous biomass of herbivores, which in turn supports tremendous biomass of carnivores. So from the air, Gorongosa looked great. It’s when you got on the ground and every building was smashed, and drove around and didn’t see any animals that you realized something’s wrong.
I started thinking, you know, stumbled on this place Gorongosa, there was a war, there was massive poaching; but then I realized, oh no, this is part of a much bigger story because ecosystems, national parks, delicate ecological areas all over the world for one reason or another are getting trashed. It could be war; it could just be the expansion of monoculture, agriculture; it could be mining; it could be logging; it could be [the] expansion of cities; it could be what we’re putting into our air; it could be what we’re putting into our water; and I realized I’d just seen the tip of a little finger when I saw Gorongosa. This is an example, a rather dramatic example, but it’s just one example of what human beings can do to the rest of life on Earth.
Then I realized Gorongosa’s problems aren’t in the past. It’s not as if oh, what, we had 30 years of war, we lost our animals, everything is going to be fine now, let’s get some animals. Not at all! Because all of these threats to biodiversity that we see around the world still existed for Gorongosa, and the big question going forward was, will there be mining inside Gorongosa Park? Will it be converted to farmland? What about all these beautiful hardwood trees, aren’t they worth a lot? And you have the poorest human beings in the world living right around Gorongosa Park—200,000 of the poorest people in the world—and what do you say to them? “Oh sorry, this 1 million acres? We’re not going to touch that, and good luck with your life.” You’re not going to say that.
Then the problem got more and more complicated in my mind because I thought, okay, I came for economic development [and] I was hoping this national park could be the engine of economic development. Now I realize that, many times, economic development can destroy ecosystems. So is it always the case that human development and protection of biodiversity clash? Does it have to be the case [that] you’ve got to choose, Greg, between saving a whole bunch of species or alleviating poverty? I kept studying and talking to people and I realized, no, that’s actually a false choice; that’s a bogus question because if we destroy life on Earth, our human economies will collapse. Because human economies depend upon the natural world. We get what they like to call ecosystem services of every kind from the natural world: food, fuel, medicine; ecosystems clean our water, clean our air, recycle our soil. They’re necessary intact. Natural ecosystems are necessary for adjacent farmland. What about bees that pollinate crops? You can go on and on. So then I realized, no, we’ve got to have economic development this century on this planet, but do it in a way that we preserve large, expansive habitats in a pristine state, in a wilderness state, and in some cases, like Gorongosa—and there are certainly many others—we need to learn how to restore a broken ecosystem.
You’ve suggested that Gorongosa represents a new approach to conservation. How?
The idea of a national park—and let’s make that term more broad than just the specific designation national park; let’s say protected area which includes national forests or marine reserves and all these different categories—that idea has gone through a lot of modification in the past 30 or 40 years. I would say from the late 19th century, when the idea was first conceived, through most of the 20th century it was just a conservation mindset: This area is really important and we’re going to protect it from exploitation that we don’t want. In the past generation, there has been a big mind shift, and one that I really agree with, that says you have to simultaneously look at sustainable human development with conservation of natural resources and do it together. We came to Gorongosa with that foremost in our minds. It’s in my contract with the government: We will do sustainable human development and we’ll protect the biodiversity of Gorongosa Park. So we’re what you might call the second generation of thinking about national parks. It’s the right evolution for that idea.
I think now it’s got [a] consensus. I mean, almost everyone who engages in conservation agrees that you need to pay a tremendous amount of attention to any local humans—they need to be part of the solution, they need to be part of the ecosystem. So I feel good about that. Now, I’m going to add something though and I’m going to say that it doesn’t mean that the basic concept of a national park should go away, not by any means, because we need large, intact ecosystems if we’re going to protect biodiversity on Earth. Elephants need large areas and if we want a planet where elephants, hippos, crocodiles, [and] lions live, we have to set aside land for them. And when we do that, we have to at the same time then say, okay, fine, we set aside this land for those other species that aren’t humans, but what about the fact [that] there are humans that live nearby? Let’s make a plan for both. And that’s our approach.
How can environmental conservation and economic development be mutually beneficial?
An example of that is trying to save the rainforest on Mt. Gorongosa. When I arrived, local farmers, some of whom by the way had been chased up this mountain during the war—so they hadn’t been living there [for] centuries, they were newcomers … Mt. Gorongosa rises to 6,000 feet from nearly sea level in the center of Gorongosa Park. It’s cooler and wetter up there. It has the only true rainforest in Mozambique, two meters of rainfall per year, endemic species, magnificent rainforest. The local people are living there, and cutting down the trees to make their potato farms and their maize farms. Now, that’s just fine on a small level. The rainforest will recover and this could go on for centuries and millennia. But when you have a huge influx of people, which was partially caused by the war, people escaping the war and moving up the mountain—now you have too many people cutting down these rainforest trees and you can follow by a satellite and do the math and realize [that] at some point all those rainforest trees are going to be gone. When they’re gone the rains will come, the soil will wash away, and the people won’t have their farmland anyway, so everybody loses. And we don’t just lose this magnificent forest full of endemic species; it’s also a large part of the water catchment for the core of Gorongosa Park.
So the first thing we did is lobbied the government and said we need to add Mt. Gorongosa to the park; it wasn’t in the park. In 2010 the government said yes, but the government adding to the park didn’t mean that the local people weren’t still cutting down rainforest trees to make farms. So then we thought and we thought and we said, what can these people do to earn a living and stay where they are? We were not going to ask them to move from the rainforest of Mt. Gorongosa, but what can they do sustainably to improve their income, but [also] improve the environment? Big question.
Now, the answer to that question could be different on any mountain anywhere on planet Earth—any national park or delicate ecosystem is going to have to answer that question in its own way. For us, after studying and thinking, we had our local answer, which was grow coffee. Coffee is native to Africa. It’s a large plant family actually, and even on Mt. Gorongosa we had wild relatives of coffee, even including little coffee cherries; they’re just smaller than the kind that humans have expanded and cultivated for centuries. So we weren’t introducing an exotic or invasive species by bringing coffee trees to Mt. Gorongosa, but by inviting the locals to join us and to grow coffee, now the locals are growing trees instead of cutting trees, their farm income can be five or 10 times more from a commercial crop like this, and the best coffee grows slowly in shade, which means you intersperse coffee trees with other rainforest trees.
So now, the locals are regrowing a rainforest, and they can even interplant in the first few years. While they’re waiting for the coffee trees to get big enough for a commercial harvest, they can still interplant their food crops, so they have food for a few years. So at the end of the day—and it’s working—bringing coffee crops to Gorongosa is going to create jobs for 1,000 families, it’s going to regrow a rainforest, and whatever profit comes out of it will stay right there.
How do you see Gorongosa as a model for other parks?
We can’t be afraid to try something that doesn’t work. Planting coffee trees on Mt. Gorongosa wasn’t our very first idea for saving that rainforest. We tried things until we bumped into that. In fact, for a while there I was going to do fruit, because fruit grows really well in the area, and I was going to do dried fruit; I even bought a small dried fruit factory! For a lot of reasons it didn’t work. Some people laughed at us. We came back with coffee; it’s going to work.
The point is that ecology is not an exact science. Conservation biology is not an exact science. You have to have big, broad goals; you have to go in that direction; you have to be not afraid to try things. There might be mistakes we make in Gorongosa that are useful lessons for other national parks—that’s okay! We’re transparent; everybody can write about us and everybody can publish.
But if there’s a couple of broad things we’re doing that I hope catches on, one of them is the very concept of governance of a public-private partnership, because Africa has hundreds of national parks and one-third of the Earth’s terrestrial biodiversity is in Africa. But Africa is going to have a very challenging century as it tries to lift itself out of poverty in all 52 nations of Africa. There’s the magnificent national park spread across the continent. Well, this is going to be a real challenge for those governments to justify a big conservation bill at the same time they’re doing healthcare, doing education, doing everything else the government needs to do. The notion that there could be other public-private partnerships for national parks in Africa is appealing to me—and there are some, we aren’t the only one—and the idea that others might look at us and say let’s try that, I’m excited about that. It’s a great way to bring in some money, to bring in some management to a national park, keep the sovereignty with the nation; and then there comes a day when that public-private partnership dissolves, we’re gone, and now you have a healthy national park that has found its way to a sustainable budget.
So governance is an example, our public-private governance is an example that I hope catches on. The other thing we’re doing a lot of in Gorongosa that I do think other national parks will do more and more of, is this basic ecological research. National parks have historically been very good at conservation. What national parks have not done a lot of is basic ecological research; some, but we’re taking that as far as we can go. So we created the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Laboratory in Gorongosa, we’re inviting scientists from all over the world to come, and we want to spend decades understanding this ecosystem. Some of the papers that our scientists publish will be useful to ecologists everywhere, for sure, but one step above that, at the conceptual level, just the idea of having a well-funded, robust biodiversity laboratory in any national park I hope catches on.
Do you see modernity and tradition as being in conflict?
First of all, I do think there’s a difference between modernity and western civilization, and I think that a country that’s developing can choose a path to modernity and keep their local culture by and large—at least I see the Mozambicans doing that.
So what does modernity mean? To me, what it means is a family living next to Gorongosa Park doesn’t want their child to die at age 2 to malaria; they don’t want that any more than we want that. If we open a health clinic and we have Mozambican nurses in our health clinic, and if they save lives from malaria and a whole lot of other things, the people want that. The United Nations defines human dignity as the opportunity to make choices. So if a local family for some reason says “we refused to go into that clinic,” okay, at least they had a choice; and if the family next door says “I’m feeling lousy, I feel like I’m going to die,” and they go to the clinic, and they get treated, and they live, that’s wonderful. So I see modernity as offering choice to people. If a local farmer says “I’ve been farming the same way my whole life and so has my father and our grandmother and everybody; this is how we farm and I don’t want to change the way I farm,” well, they don’t have to. But if the family next door says, “wow, these guys showed us how to get three times the yield on our same farm with 10 percent less work,” that’s wonderful; they can make that choice.
I think if you aren’t in a big rush and you always let people make a choice, it does not have to be conflict oriented, and I think one of the benefits of our project is that it’s 20 years long. The truth is, it’s not really just 20 years long because I think we’ll renew even beyond that. So that allows us to make decisions very slowly and to let our neighbors make decisions slowly; nobody is rushed, nobody is pushed. It turns out that at the end of the day most humans want very similar things. No one wants to have a leaky roof and be wet and cold through an entire rainy season.
What threats does Gorongosa still face?
I think we probably have four big threats to the ecosystem. One is poaching; two is illegal cutting of hardwood trees right inside the national park; three is other kinds of damage to the habitat, such as [when] farmers move into the park and just start farming, which happens; and four—this one is tricky because it extends outside the park—and that’s protecting the water catchment. We have three or four rivers that flow into Gorongosa Park; they originate outside the park, so have to keep an eye on the water catchment. We don’t have complete influence over something that happens outside the park so we have to engage in a dialogue with farmers or farming methods—don’t cut all the trees right on stream banks and so forth.
It’s hard to say which of those threats to our ecosystem is the worst, because they’re all scary. We’re losing a lot of our most charismatic animals on this planet to illegal hunting. Elephants, lions, [and] rhinos are at risk of going extinct in the wild due to hunting. But also it’s just habitat loss, just losing a forest. Now you’ve lost everything that lived in that forest, from tiny things to big things. We will have all of those threats for decades, so it becomes a challenge of managing the threat.
We work really closely with farmers outside Gorongosa Park to help them increase the yield on their farm so they won’t need more farmland. If the acre you have grows three times as much you don’t need to go look for more acreage inside the national park. So we have a big farming program all around the park. We help them get better yield on their maize, on their vegetables; we also help them introduce some cash crops. We also, for those communities outside the park, help them with schools and health clinics, once again rewarding them for living outside the park, and if you move into the park you’re getting farther and farther away from these schools and health clinics that we’ve built. It’s pragmatic on our side; it’s also the right thing to do [and] it’s also humane.
The population of sub-Saharan Africa is expected to double by 2050. How will the park deal with that increase?
Outside the formal boundaries of Gorongosa Park, there is another designated area that’s called the buffer zone. The idea of a buffer zone is that it’s a transitional area between a national park and let’s just say, civilization. In other words, you don’t want a city right on the border of a national park, because there’s noises in the city, there’s going to be a lot of interruption from the city. So you have in many national parks an area they call the buffer zone, and it’s typically agriculture, so it’s much, much lower human density than a city would be; and you want certain kinds of agriculture that are compatible with the wilderness of a national park.
Right now in our buffer zone of Gorongosa Park, which is 600,000 hectares, or one and a half million acres, we have 200,000 human beings. I think it’s reasonable to assume that by the year 2050, or pick a year, it will be 400,000 or 500,000 human beings. So we have to manage the park knowing that, and I think the overall threat 30 years from now, 40 years from now, from 500,000 human beings could be lower than the threat we get now from 200,000 human beings if those 500,000 have middle-class lifestyles, don’t need to poach animals in the park in order to eat, recognize the benefits of the park, recognize the park is an economic engine for the center of their country, and have all had an opportunity for education that allows them to recognize these benefits.
I’m less concerned about the number of human beings as I am the behavior of those human beings. So we engage in a lot of conservation education. Last year, we brought 4,000 local children into the park as our guests; it’s like going to camp for three or four days. We let them be tourists, we take them on safari, they get classes, they have a lot of fun, and then they go, “wow, this is beautiful, this is our heritage!” And we keep reminding them, this is your national park. I think we’ve done a good job of getting all of Mozambique to love Gorongosa.
There never will be a perfect relationship between Gorongosa Park and the human beings who live right next to it. Humans are very complicated, aren’t we? So some people who live in the buffer zone of Gorongosa Park are going to say, “hey, the park helped me with my farm, my farm has never been better, I’m happy”; and someone else is going to say “my cousin’s a ranger and he makes a great salary”; and someone else is going to say “our daughter got a job in the Wilson Laboratory”; and somebody else is going to say “I love the park because they built a health clinic and they saved my life.” So there’s going to be a lot of people like us, but there will always be somebody who says “I don’t think I got anything out of that park and I’m going to sneak in there in the middle of the night, and if I can snare an animal I’m going to to take it home.” We have to be realistic about the fact that we’re creating a relationship. We’ll never stop nurturing that relationship. There will always be somebody who’s not on the side of the park. So you think of it as a process as opposed to a job completed.
Do you worry about political instability?
The forces behind Mozambique’s civil war, which lasted from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, have not all disappeared. There is still enormous political debate in Mozambique, and the debate is how should the country develop? Who’s going to be the first to get the benefits of development? And we all know that politics is just a half step away from conflict. It’s just a verbal form of conflict, isn’t it? That’s what politics is. So when people have intense disagreements with their words and can’t sort things out, it can spill over into violence.
Mozambique has had some political violence in the past 18 months. They had an election last year; not everybody was happy with the outcome of that election and there were some situations where people who see themselves as the opposition were blocking highways and trying to make their point. We’re affected by that. We’re not affected by that in that I’m concerned for the safety of my employees, because Gorongosa Park is neutral [and] I think we’re everybody’s friend; but we’re affected by it in other ways. We’re certainly affected by it if tourists choose not to go to Mozambique and we’re affected by it if families that we’re working with are harassed by rebel soldiers moving through. So we desperately want peace.
I’m glad that there’s a lot of dialogue going on in the country now. The two sides are talking—that doesn’t mean they agree, it doesn’t mean they’ve sorted it out, but they’re talking. War is an enormous risk to humans, we all know that, but what is a story that is not told as often is war is a tremendous risk to biodiversity, because with lawlessness in war, you’re certainly not going to be in a position to protect trees, protect animals, protect watersheds.
Why do you think people are drawn to places like Gorongosa?
One thing I love about Gorongosa is that it lies in the Great Rift of Africa where Homo sapiens evolved. It probably doesn’t look that different now than it did 200,000 years ago—mostly the same species, flora and fauna, maybe the same smells, maybe the same sounds from birds and so forth. So what that means is that when our species evolved and was becoming Homo sapiens a couple of hundred thousand years ago, this was our cradle. It’s in our DNA. This is what we feel and smell and hear and see. This is why I think when people go to Gorongosa, and really go to any big natural area in Africa, you feel something special, you feel at home, and that’s what I hope we preserve.
Professor E.O. Wilson wrote a book about Gorongosa. He titled it, A Window on Eternity. He was challenging us to look in both directions, forward and backward; looking forward and to imagine that we would protect this place forever, and looking backward and saying, “by the way when you protect Gorongosa you’re protecting the cradle of our species.”
Who can say how much that’s worth 100 years from now, that human beings will be able to walk through the Great Rift where our species evolved and see an intact ecosystem? I think as conservationists, we should use the precautionary principle, meaning we may not know for sure all the ways in which Gorongosa Park will be valuable to us in 100 years, but let’s protect it because it’s probably a lot of ways and it’s probably things we can’t measure. There might be a new medicine that we don’t discover for 100 years in some species in Gorongosa that saves human lives. There’s just that abstract satisfaction that anybody in the world can have knowing that [it] exists, even if they won’t go there. Maybe they’ll just see it on TV, but it still gives pleasure.
How has the park influenced your outlook on our planet’s future?
Homo sapiens have become far and away the most powerful species on Earth. We now have the power to destroy Earth; we have the power to destroy life on Earth or individual species, which also means the flipside of that—we have the power to protect life on Earth. There are millions of species on our planet. We don’t even know how many, maybe 10 million? There are 2 million species that have been named; there could be 8 million that don’t even have names. For the 2 million that we’ve named, for most of them, we haven’t really studied them. We don’t know their entire life cycle, their purpose in the ecosystem.
We humans need more and more to see where we fit. We are a species that evolved on this planet; we’re one of 10 million, or some number, of species on this planet, but we’re the only one that has the power to destroy the entire planet or to save it now. We need to see places like Gorongosa and other protected areas around the world and recognize that they need us. We also need them. If the natural economy collapses, human economy will collapse with it.
So we need to recognize that as humans, it’s both a humbling experience [and] it’s also a challenge, that says we have work to do. And [it’s] very satisfying work. There’s nothing more rewarding and wonderful than watching a national park, in this case Gorongosa, recover and feeling, wow, you know what? It doesn’t just have to be downhill. We’re not just watching the inevitable destruction of life on Earth. No. We can take a damaged, distressed ecosystem and bring it back to health. That’s an exciting feeling and that gives you a sense of, wow, humans, we could be okay on this planet for thousands of years if we understand what it means to live sustainably.
How do you envision Gorongosa in 2050?
One thing we want to do—and this is urgent and critical for a lot of ecosystems—is we need to make a corridor, what’s called a conservation corridor, from Gorongosa to an adjacent protected area. What you don’t want is conservation areas, where there’s a national park or any other kind of conservation area, effectively becoming islands; they’re blocked and there are cities or some kind of human intervention all the way around the ecosystem. Because if you’re truly blocked, you can’t have any transfer of DNA, you can’t have in-migration and out-migration of species, or repopulation of species. So you want to make corridors between them.
In our case we’re looking to create a corridor from Gorongosa to the Indian Ocean, right where the Zambezi River delta is. That will create an overall conservation area many times larger than Gorongosa. But it all doesn’t have to be Gorongosa Park; there are other categories. It can be protected forests and so forth. My dream for 2050 is that, let’s call it Greater Gorongosa, will be an even larger area of protected habitat than now.
Some scientists say we are headed toward a sixth mass extinction. Do you agree?
Based on our current trajectory, it’s pretty clear that in this century, a lot of species will go extinct. But is it 20 percent, 30, 40, 50 percent? How many is it? I think as people who love nature, who love life, who are conservationists, the goal is to make the number as small as possible. We know we’re going to lose some species to climate change, to habitat loss; it’s happening now. The question is, can we minimize how many species we lose?
I’m an optimist. I have to be! It’s the only way you get up in the morning and go to work. It’s possible that 100 years from now, Gorongosa Park in Mozambique could have the same number of species that it has now. It won’t be the exact same mix and the same proportion, but in general terms it could have as much biodiversity in 100 years as now. It’s possible; it’ll take work. But that’s what motivates me, that’s what gets me up in the morning. We can do this.
My very favorite biologist that I love to talk about is Professor E.O. Wilson—once again I’ll mention him. And he’s been talking about the idea that we should set aside half the Earth for nature. When people first hear it, it’s shocking. Like, what! Right now, about 17 percent of the planet is in some kind of protected area category. He’s saying, well, how about half? Seems crazy, but then when you keep talking about it and you say to somebody now, we’re talking about half the Earth for one species, Homo sapiens, and the other half for all the other millions of species, it doesn’t sound quite as crazy and, gee, maybe that’s fair! So, I don’t know whether we’ll get to 50 percent, but I do think that we will actually increase gradually, percentage point by percentage point, the amount of land and ocean on this planet that is protected over the course of this century.
You call yourself an optimist. Why?
Some people believe, and I do not agree with them, that humans are always selfish; I don’t agree with that. I think that we have genes inside us that cause us to be altruistic and there’s a reason that we evolved altruism as a species, going back hundreds of thousands of years, millions of years. Human beings evolved in cooperative small groups, in collaborative groups, and human beings that collaborated with each other and cared about each other survived more. So it’s a natural Darwinian principle, natural selection; human beings that were helpful to other humans passed on their genes. So we have genes that make us good and we also have selfish genes; we have both! That’s what makes us such a complicated species. We’ve got angels and we’ve got devils!
So we can spend our lives trying to cultivate the angels inside of us, and at the end of the day that’s why I’m an optimist and I think however many fits and starts we have, however many terrible things that happen, that over the long, long, long term human beings are heading in the right direction toward a more just society on Earth. Ever so slowly, nations creep toward democracy; ever so slowly, natures creep toward more human rights recognition. We’re seeing that, but you have to measure it in decades and centuries. If you measure it in months you’ll just have a constant disappointment.
There are a lot of nations on Earth right now that have already reached an equilibrium state in their population, which means—all economic growth is per capita economic growth—you have a democratic system that shares opportunity and shares benefits. It’s happening in Africa, but it’s going to take some decades. So the next 50 years for Africa are scary. There will probably be wars for resources; there are wars now in Africa for resources. There’s going to be lingering poverty [and] there’s going to be pressure on national parks. It would break your heart if you just woke up every morning and imagined everything that can go wrong or is going wrong—you just can’t do that. You have to wake up in the morning and look at the big picture and say we’re heading in the right direction; there’s one more African girl somewhere today who started school for the first time, there’s one more African woman who graduated school today and got a job. We have to look at it that way because it is happening. Africa is heading in the right direction. It’s going to take some time.
You started out as an entrepreneur. Why did you turn to philanthropy?
I didn’t want to make another computer company, mostly just because that would seem too similar to something I did. I enjoyed it, it was fun, and I liked the friends I made when I did that. So I wanted to do something that seemed completely different. I think I’m having tons more fun than if I’d have made another computer company.
I’m more puzzled by the person, somebody who beats their brains out for 10 years or 20 years in a dog-eat-dog high tech industry or whatever it may be, any kind of industry, and makes some money, and more money than they’re going to actually need just to live the rest of their life—I’m more puzzled by the one who says, “I’m going to do it all again because I need two times what I have!” That’s actually far more confusing to me than the person who does what I do, and [what] lots of philanthropists do, which is to say, “[I’ve] done that, that was really stressful. It’d be so much more fun to hang out in Africa.” Or whatever a philanthropist decides to do—support the symphony, support your favorite museum, support your favorite school.
My biggest question to any person who made as much money as they need by age 40 and then wants to work until 80 doing the same thing and beating their brains out, my question to them would be: “Could you possibly explain that behavior, instead of spending the next 40 years doing philanthropy?”