How Ted Turner Became a Pathbreaking Environmentalist


Last Stand: Ted Turner’s Quest to save a Troubled Planet, by the journalist Todd Wilkinson is a new biography that examines Ted Turner’s contribution to the modern-day environmentalist movement. Turner, of course, is best known as the media visionary who founded CNN, and later the United Nations Foundation. What is perhaps less well known is Turner’s longstanding commitment to environmental causes.

I caught up  Wilkinson by email this week to discuss his new book, why he chose to profile Turner, and what makes for an “eco-capitalist-humanitarian.” Read on. And buy the book! 

You are a veteran environmental journalist. There could have been any number of environmental leaders or philanthropists to profile, so why chose Ted Turner?

TW: For one, Ted is truly unique for our time and I think he stands out a potential 21st century model, not as an enigma which is how some have portrayed him. As Mikhail Gorbachev and other leaders recognize and have told me, there’s no other private citizen—some say in the history of the world—who has amassed a broader resume in the new emerging arena that I call “eco-capitalism-humanitarianism.” No one else out there has a more impressive arc of involvement that extends from the soil level on his own lands to trying to address and solve world problems such as global poverty and the need to elevate women and girls to the same level of opportunity as men, the nuclear threat, rising civil unrest related to scarce resources such as freshwater, and climate change.

Tell me: What other businessman/philanthropist can say he’s using his landholdings to serve as arks for saving imperiled species such as grizzly bears, gray wolves and prairie dogs (his two million acres makes him the second largest private landowner in the US), while enlisting world leaders into the fight to eradicate polio, curb the impact of malaria on millions of people, help young girls become the pathfinders of tomorrow and prevent loose nuclear material from falling into the hands of terrorists?

 What is it about Ted’s attitude that makes him noteworthy?

TW: First of all, he stands in sharp contrast to the tycoons of the Gilded Age era and the Masters of the Universe on Wall Street. He didn’t amass his fortune by plundering natural resources. He built his media empire in ways that were, relatively speaking, environmentally benign and he used his media platforms to champion environmental and humanitarian causes trying to bring people together to solve problems. But more than that, Turner rejects the environment verses economy paradigm as a false dichotomy and on his own ranches he’s put that into practice. People on the right dismiss Ted as a “lefty” yet he’s also a billionaire who is a shrewd fiscally-conservative businessman and capitalist. I often ask people: Is Ted Turner a Liberal or a Conservative? In practice, he’s a finely-blended mixture of both.

Can you share some more about his thoughts on capitalism?

TW: Many people present capitalism as a proposition in which wealth is necessarily generated by plundering the Earth and then foisting the cost of doing business on society. Ted will tell you that capitalism isn’t the problem, rather it’s the Ayn Randian approach to capitalism, of putting self before community, that has caused monumental problems and resulted in huge socio-economic disparity. If done right, Ted says that capitalism can be harnessed as a force for profound good and making communities richer and environmentally healthier instead of poorer and more despoiled. This is one of the reasons why I know that people are touting Last Stand not only as a memoir but a business book that managers in Fortune 500 companies and NGOs should read.