Podcast: Rhett Butler | Mongabay

Rhett Butler is the founder and CEO of Mongabay, one of the largest, longest running and most important environmental news sites online. 

Rhett started the site just 20 years ago when an area of rainforest he had visited and enjoyed in Borneo was cut down just eight weeks later, logged down for woodchips to supply a paper pulp plant. 

He spent the first ten years of the project operating Mongabay entirely on his own, publishing thousands of stories and tens of thousands of photos. Today, Rhett serves as editor-in-chief and CEO of Mongabay, which is a non-profit media organisation with more than three dozen staff across four bureaus and a network of around 250 correspondents in 50 countries. 

In today’s podcast we talk about Rhett’s journey setting up and growing Mongabay and where he plans to take things next. We also talk about the importance of journalism in environmental conservation, alongside practical tips on how to craft a compelling story. If you’re interested in news, media, journalism and communications, it’s a must-listen episode. Enjoy!

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Audio Transcript

RHETT: Hi, I’m the founder of Mongabay which is an environmental science and conservation news website. My name is Rhett Butler, I live in California and I’ve been doing this for 20 years now.  

NICK: Wow, yeah. Set up in 1999? So celebrating 20 years this year. If people haven’t come to Mongabay yet, I think most people working in or interested in environmental issues and biodiversity conservation, particularly tropical forest conservation, probably have heard of Mongabay but for those who haven’t, the unconverted yet, how would you describe it to people? You know, what would people find if they came to your sites? 

RHETT: Yeah so Mongabay is an environmental news platform. Kind of our main areas that we cover are wildlife, forest, oceans and then sort of the conservation sector. We tend to focus more on international conservation, especially around the tropics because that’s where the bulk of biodiversity is, also the highest degree of threat. So we do daily news reporting, you know, on these topics. We also have bureaus outside kind of global bureau which is English, we have an Indonesian-language bureau based in Indonesia, we have a Spanish-language bureau based in Peru, and then we have an India bureau, which obviously is in India, and that’s only reporting in English right now. We do some translation into other languages, we’re taking baby steps into some new markets this year, so we just hired a couple of people in Brazil, and so we’ll be expanding our Brazilian Portuguese offering very soon. 

NICK: Wow, so 20 years on it sounds like you’re getting bigger all the time. I read somewhere that for the first ten years you ran it on your own. You set up Mongabay yourself and then you wrote all the stories, you published your own photos. Just tell us about the first ten years, what was that like, the publishing and kind of creating a site like this, you know, back before it expanded and started you know, recruiting other people? 

RHETT: Sure, I mean it probably makes sense to go back to even before I started Mongabay for the kind of the origin story. I was very lucky as a child, my mother was a travel agent and my father had a lot of airline miles from travelling for business and so growing up my parents prioritised travel. And we would go to places like Venezuela instead of Disneyland, so more I guess exotic travel for an American and I always loved reptiles and amphibians and the best reptiles and amphibians from my perspective were in the rainforest, so I always wanted to go to the rainforest and then I had a few opportunities to do that with my parents and so those were really special experiences for me. Then as I grew older I became aware… more aware of what was happening with the environment generally, but the first time it really touched me personally was when I was 12 I went to eastern Ecuador and stayed with some fairly traditional indigenous people, you know, I would go out and play with the kids my age, we would look for frogs and you know, I had a wonderful time. I came back and a few months later there was a front-page story in the newspaper here about this huge oil spill that happened on the Rio Napo, up the river from where I had been. So what that meant is the whole area I just visited was now coated in oil. And so all I could think about was what had happened to my friends and the forest and the animals. Then a few years later when I was in high school, I was 17, I had another really special experience in Borneo. So this is Malaysian Borneo and I went to this beautiful forest and I had some really amazing times hiking through the forest, you know, these tall trees, a lot of really interesting wildlife, just a really beautiful place and there was just one moment that really stuck with me which was, I was sitting down by this little stream and there’s a little waterfall coming in and this wild orangutan passed over me about 10m away. That was just a really special experience, but I kept in correspondence with the scientist there and the forest was pulped to make paper a few months later, and now it’s an oil pump plantation. So once that happened I decided I wanted to raise awareness about tropical forests, and so when I started university I began writing a book about rainforests. My major had nothing to do with environment, I was doing math and economics, but this was really my passion so I worked on this book throughout my college career, you know, on the side, I managed to graduate university early thanks to my credit I had in high school, and I spent that extra year working on this book. I found a publisher, I went through peer reviews, and the publisher came back and said, we’ve got good news, we’re ready to publish this book but because we’re an academic press, we don’t have money to put pictures in it. So we’re gonna publish like a textbook with some grayscale images. And to me that really defeated the purpose of what I was trying to do, which was to convey the beauty of these rainforests and, you know, why they’re important. And so I thought, well I didn’t write this book for money, I wrote it for impact and so I decided to put it up on the internet so people could read it for free, and I named it Mongabay which is derived from the name of an island off Madagascar which was also a very special place for me. But I wasn’t gonna do this for a living, I needed to get a real job so I started working in Silicon Valley and so that’s what I did. But on nights and weekends I’d work on the website and it started to grow popular and so then when Google launched a programme where you could put advertising on your website in mid-2003, I… it started generating revenue. And so within six months, because the site was popular, the revenue was equal to about half my take-home pay. So I thought, maybe I’ll quit my job and pursue my passion, and that’s what I did. So starting in 2004 I was doing Mongabay full-time and really just, you know, me in my pyjamas in my apartment writing articles. I was still travelling, you know, I travelled to do reporting and collect… and take photos, because I never wanted to have an issue where I didn’t have photos again, so… and I mean by now I’ve taken and posted and captioned more than 150,000 photos from all over the world on the website, which get used a lot. So once I was doing Mongabay full-time I could sort of expand the site’s offerings, and so one of the… well the first thing I did was I created a section for children that was then translated by native speakers into almost 40 languages, but then I started this news service. I guess I kind of filled a gap because people immediately started reading the news service and it got highly respected, people thought we were, you know, this big entity where really it was like a guy in his pyjamas in his apartment, you know, writing articles. But it started to get well-known and then a few years down the road I had an intern who was really great, he was in grad school, he was wrapping up at university and he asked, you know, Rhett I’m looking for work after I leave university, will there be a job for me at Mongabay? This was in 2008. And I said, yes there will be and thinking it through myself I was thinking, well you know, ad revenue is growing to the point where I could sort of afford to hire somebody so this is a great opportunity, you know, I really, you know, like and respect this guy, Jeremy Hance, who does… who still writes for Mongabay. 

NICK: Yep, we’ve had him on the website too. We know Jeremy, yeah. 

RHETT: Yeah so he was, you know, he planned to join a team but then the financial crisis hit and basically ad revenue for media like collapsed. I mean it was like an 80% drop. But I wasn’t gonna go back on my… on my word because Jeremy would be entering this world of becoming an environmental journalist which is probably one of the least lucrative things you could possibly do and so I thought, well I’m not gonna… I’m not gonna leave him hanging so I just didn’t draw savings… I didn’t draw a salary for about a year, I just kind of went off my savings and, you know, scrounged around. But anyway, so Jeremy joined the team and so Mongabay is officially, you know, like an entity that had multiple employees and so that was great. But yeah, ad revenue was never gonna sort of support the level of ambition I had for the site, and I had all these ideas that there was no business model for, one of which was launching this Indonesian-language environmental news service. I mean, you may ask why Indonesian? Well at the time I saw Indonesia as being a potential tipping-point, kind of like where Brazil was in the mid-2000s where you could actually sort of make a lot of progress on addressing deforestation. In Indonesia a big issue is corruption in the natural resources sector. And so journalism is actually an intervention that could have an impact because you create more transparency and therefore more accountability in the forest space and so, you know, I wanted to do this. And so I decided to form a non-profit, so I formed a non-profit, I put out a grant proposal, my grant proposal got accepted and you know, the day that I got accepted I created three job descriptions and put these out to my network, and within two weeks I had over 200 applications. I picked the top 40, went to Indonesia and then spent three straight days interviewing, you know, the top 40 candidates and then hired my team a couple of days later, we launched the website within a month and then within three months it was the most popular Indonesian-language environmental news service, and I don’t speak any Indonesian so it was all the local team that was, you know, doing this, it was really wonderful and it’s kind of, you know, gone from there. So that’s kind of the long origin story and how this thing began. 

NICK: That’s amazing. And today, you’re a non-profit and you’re also funded by ad revenue. How are you continuing to scale and grow? 

RHETT: Well so there’s actually very little ad revenue, it’s a rounding error, it’s like less than 1%. So we’re really around donations and grants primarily. We also have a small subscription service but that’s really not much to talk about. And so we’re growing through getting more grants and donations. I spend about… about 3% of my time fundraising, I also have someone else helping with that. So I… I mean I’ve shifted… my role at Mongabay has shifted dramatically, I’ve gone from, you know, I guess doing the fun stuff and creating content to really being more on the business side and the fundraising side.  

NICK: And what’s the mission of Mongabay then? It sounds like it’s maybe evolved over time, and you said that, you know, ad revenue and just having Jeremy on the team wasn’t enough to fulfil your ambition for the site. You know, what is the ambition for Mongabay ultimately, what’s the mission of the charity that you’re currently running?  

RHETT: So when I started Mongabay it was really I guess more of an education awareness initiative. Now it’s a news service so what we’re doing is we’re providing information to people so they can make their own decisions. So we’re not an advocacy group, we’re not telling people what to do, which I think distinguishes us from your stereotypical environmental charities. So we’re a, you know, non-profit environmental media service and so, you know, we try to, you know, present the facts and information so people can make informed decisions.  

NICK: And do you feel that environmental journalism like you do at Mongabay can really make a difference in the world? I mean have you… have you had examples of how Mongabay have, you know, have changed… saved forest species, sites? Has it changed things at all?  

RHETT: Yeah so I’m very much about measuring impact. Because I don’t want to be pursuing something that doesn’t have impact. And so we’ve created an internal back-tracking system to actually try to measure these things. And so the quantitative stuff is not that hard to collect, I mean that’s like readership, it’s syndication, social media activity, you know, republication, things like that. The qualitative stuff’s much harder, and so those are the things like, you know, policy change by governments or corporations, funding flows, media coverage down the road on something we’ve already reported on, things like that. And so we actually source that impact data from our network of journalists. So it’s very anecdotal but we collect enough that we feel like we can measure pretty well. One of my favourite impact stories is from a few years ago, so we launched this initiative in 2014 which is essentially like a partnership with Global Forest Watch. Global Forest Watch is a platform which aggregates data from all different sources on what’s happening in the world’s forests. And so when this launched, I was really excited. It was an incredible dashboard for information, but it didn’t really tell you the full story so you didn’t necessarily know why things were happening or who was responsible, things like that. And so I thought, well could we actually use this amazing tool for reporting purposes? So I went out, I did some ground-truth thing where I visited some sites based off Global Forest Watch data and I found recent deforestation. So I thought, cool this will work. And so one of the early stories under that initiative was about this company in Peru. And so the origin of this is as I was monitoring Global Forest Watch and I saw some pink areas of potential deforestation popping up, they were very geometrical and pretty large. And I thought, well that’s kind of interesting, it’s in this area, you know, mostly intact forest, it’s very high in biodiversity, you know, what’s going on here? A few months earlier, this company had had an initial public offering in London the Stock Exchange called the United Cacao, they portrayed themselves as being like a good corporate citizen, they were supporting local people, they were like restoring the forest, it was like, you know, a wonderful story. What turned out once you started to dig into this… these polygons popping up in the Amazon, those… that area actually belonged to United Cacao and that was their cacao plantation. So they were actually misleading the public and investors on what they were doing. It turns out they were clearing primary rainforest for plantations. And so we sent a journalist, who’s now actually a staff journalist, to go report on this. And so he interviewed people on the ground, he visited the site and meanwhile we were pulling data from various sources from, you know, beyond just Global Forest Watch but, you know, looking at other sources of satellite data, and it just happened that a friend of mine had actually flown an aeroplane which has very advanced sensors for mapping the forest in this area. So he knew everything that was there before the deforestation happened, so he had all the carbon data, even individual species data, for this entire area. So we could measure what had been lost. And so that was really useful for supporting investigative reporting. So you know, the story was getting ready to be published and we were contacted by a very large law firm here in the United States telling us that they would sue us out of existence if we published this story. And you know, I wrote back to them and I said, oh thank you for your message, just wanted to let you know that we have all the data here so… and it’s all, you know, based on good science so, you have no libel or slander case that you can pursue here, or that you’d be able to win, and just, I reviewed your corporate sustainability policy and noticed that this company violates that policy. Oh and also, your firm prides itself as being a free speech law firm so you’re undermining the very principles of what your firm is built on. So… yeah, so the law firm decided not to pursue anything, we went ahead and published the story and then ended up doing a bunch more stories and what was interesting to see is how international environmental advocacy groups jumped on the issue and started to do campaigns around it. At the same time, local indigenous people started protesting, this really brought the issue to the forefront for the Peruvian government, which then revoked the company’s operating permits because it turned out that they were doing some illegal things and then the company essentially lost these permits and so, if you fast-forward a little over two years, the company was then delisted from the Stock Exchange. So the reason that was really important was, it turned out this company was part of a conglomerate of… that was owned by a shell company in the Cayman Islands that had about a dozen other companies that were doing oil palm. And these oil palm companies were planning to clear 100,000 hectares of forest just to the east of this area, so primary forest, for palm oil production. And so by losing that source of capital, they weren’t able to do that expansion. So that reporting, coupled with the awareness campaigns and the indigenous protests, led to this huge outcome where something like 29m tonnes of carbon emissions were avoided because of these plantations not going forward. 

NICK: That’s just amazing, yeah. That’s fantastic and it just shows how really good journalism can really kind of throw the spotlight on an issue. Do you see it as your role to throw the spotlight and then for other to act, really you’re kind of just enlightening people to the facts and hoping that civil society and non-profits will then jump in and kind of put pressure on the people to make real decisions? 

RHETT: Right I mean, so we’re trying to provide information to whoever can use it in a productive way so they can, you know, make informed decisions. So that’s kind of really our role in the ecosystem, you know, there are a lot of really great advocacy groups out there and they have their role, you know, this is kind of where we sit. 

NICK: And how do you find out about stories, do stories come to you nowadays? Presumably in the early days you had to go sniffing around a bit, I mean, what is the job of an investigative journalist, how do you find out about the kind of real issues? 

RHETT: We sort of have a firehose of information coming in where we can only cover like a tiny fraction of the story ideas that, you know, cross our desk every day. But I… you know, I have this network from 20 years of doing this so I get a lot of information via email, you know, we get a lot of confidential sources out in the field who send us stuff, we also have this network of about 450 journalists in 60 countries, you know, they’re our eyes and ears out on the ground and so they’re picking up all sorts of great story ideas so a lot of it’s through this, you know, network of people and information coming in through email and other platforms. But then we’re also doing things like monitoring satellites and things like that, so that’s also another platform, and you know, looking out to the future a little bit, we’re developing an initiative where we may be able to systematise this a little bit more where we have automated information coming in through the system and then being processed and then try to identify the stories that way as well. 

NICK: Got you. What makes a good story? I mean you were writing on your own for the best part of ten years, which stories stand out in your mind that you were really proud of, they got real attention and what did you learn through that, you know, what makes it a really good story if someone wanted to kind of sit down tomorrow that are passionate about a particular subject, perhaps they write a blog themselves, you know, they want to attract more attention to it, you know. What is the craft of storytelling, you know, how are you kind of pulling those together to engage people? 

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RHETT: If you’re developing like a, you know, a narrative story not just sort of like a news story, you know, one of the… the really critical things is figuring out what makes it relevant to your audience, so how do you hook them, how do you get them to care about it? One of the approaches is finding a good character and then building a narrative around that character. So if you’re writing about deforestation in the Amazon, you know, you can site just deforestation statistics but you’re much more likely to sort of engage an audience, get them to care, if you can find a character that serves as a vehicle for that story. So like an indigenous person whose lands have been invaded and destroyed for commodity production, you know, telling their story and what they’ve seen through their eyes and then using statistics and things like that to then flesh out the story, the scale of the story. So I think the narrative storytelling is really important, I mean, especially in the environment today because there’s kind of like this battle between facts and sort of emotions and so it’s… I think, you know, we all know from, you know, what’s transpired in the United States and other… other countries obviously in terms of the politics, facts aren’t necessarily as important at this moment in time as they used to be, so if someone can really get someone emotionally engaged in something, it doesn’t necessarily matter if it’s true or not. And so as a journalism organisation, you know, we want things to be true and factual but you also want to be able to move people. So you build a story around a character and then you use facts and, you know, and on-the-ground information to make it credible and substantive, so you can engage as many people as possible. Because there are some people who really just care about like the numbers, but most people probably won’t engage as much if there’s not sort of like a character or a narrative sort of taking them along. 

NICK: You’ve hired quite a lot of people over the years and you’ve had a lot of volunteers and writers, you know, working for you and with Mongabay. Who really stands out as a really good writer and what were the qualities that they had, you know, what were you looking for when you kind of put people into your team? What are the skills, you know, that a journalist is needed to have these days? 

RHETT: Yeah I mean the thing about journalism is I think, you know don’t necessarily have to be trained as a journalist to do it, I mean so I don’t have any background, formal background in environment or journalism, but I started this… this institution, and you know, some of our staff writers today, and editors, some of them came from a journalism background but not all of them. Some were scientists previously, so I think that’s the great thing about journalism is, is that it’s really about being able to distil often complex subject into something that’s relevant and interesting to the average person. So having journalism skills helps but it’s not like a pre-requisite for it. So if we’re like talking about people in my team who have… who sort of fit that bill, I mean Jeremy Hance is a really good example. So when I met Jeremy he had background in creative writing but he didn’t have formal training as an environmental journalist. You know, he wrote really amazing pieces that really resonated with people, he would go out and look for stories that sort of were on folks’ radar about interesting species or people and just craft like a beautiful narrative, a really, you know, powerful piece around something and so he is a good example of someone who did, you know, really great reporting for us. And so… and still does great reporting for us. You have a look at my team today, I mean, so I mentioned this United Cacao story so that was done by John Cannon who was a contributor for us, and then we later hired him as a staff writer. So our contributors are paid, they’re paid on a per-story basis and again, we have contributors all over the world but now you know, John is on the staff and so he travels around for us and does reporting pretty widely in the tropics, so I mean he’s reported in Asia, he’s reported in Africa, he’s reported in Latin America, so… but yeah, he’s another person I would call out. But we also have some, just some amazing editors who manage these groups of contributors like Becky Kessler, who I was just with in Madagascar, managed… she was one of our first editors we hired, she’s managed a bunch of different projects, everything from the intersection of indigenous peoples and conservation to Madagascar reporting to oceans. 

NICK: So since graduation really, you’ve been managing, developing, taking Mongabay forwards. In a minute I’d like to hear actually where you want to take it for the next 20 years, that’s gonna be quite interesting but have you had someone kind of help and support you through that process? Or is that something that you’ve been singularly driven to do? Has there been a… a mentor, someone advising you along the way? 

RHETT: There has not. So it’s been a lot of trying things and seeing what works. Which actually is fine with me, I mean that’s kind of how I’ve always approached things. In some ways it might have been helpful because I have had to learn how things work under the hood, so like all the web development, all that kind of stuff, I mean I have no background in any of that but I had to figure it out myself, and so it’s really useful to understand how things work. I also maybe didn’t fall into some of the trappings that someone who, you know, had like a long career in media might have fallen into, kind of in that transition phase of when we moved from kind of print journalism to online journalism. Yeah, I mean I haven’t really felt that it’s been a handicap for me. I think it’s a large part of function of my personality, is that I’m… sort of like to tinker with things and, you know, try to figure things out. 

NICK: If you could kind of cycle back and speak to your 21-year-old self and give yourself some advice that might help you, is there anything you kind of go back and advise yourself on, or perhaps change? Something that ah, you know, that wasn’t quite right or…? 

RHETT: Um, I mean not so much on the Mongabay front. So far I’ve… I’ve managed to mostly avoid catastrophic mistakes so I think I’ve been lucky from that standpoint. I guess I might have formed the non-profit a little bit earlier to give myself a head start. But no, there hasn’t been any like major thing which I felt like oh, that was a huge mistake. Oh no, I take that back actually. There was one thing that was um… that was fairly disastrous that caused a lot of extra stress and it just like almost killed me. That was our transition from our custom CMS to… to WordPress. It just did not go smoothly. Like the custom CMS I developed with a friend and, you know, I mean I hired him to build this thing, it worked really wellThe integration into WordPress I let another party handle it and just maybe it’s a bad hire, I’m not sure exactly what went down but it just did not go well and so I was like, two years of my life that I’ll, like, just brutal, brutal time where… 

NICK: That you’ll never get back. 

RHETT: Ill never get back, yeah. It aged me like ten years at least (laughter) I would say. 

NICK: Yeah you’re only 23 right? So 20 years in, you’ve still got plenty of time in front of you, plenty of career. Do you have vision for the next 10, 20, 30 years? Do you have an idea as to where you might want to take Mongabay?  

RHETT: Um, I mean I would… 20, 30 years is a long time from now. I don’t want to limit myself by having goals I guess that far out ahead. I mean, the nearer term we’re always looking for ways to expand our impact and so, kind of the obvious areas are expanding geographically and by language, so again we’re taking some baby steps into new markets this year, so we’ve hired staff in Brazil, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Madagascar and then we’re expanding into Africa but basically outside north Africa, so tropical Africa. And so those are places where we’re hiring… where we’ve hired new staff and we have ambitions which, you know, probably depend on resources but we’re testing out those markets. All those markets are strategic for one reason or another. Another area kind of besides that is looking at data, so how can we combine… do more data journalism but kind of take it to a new level, and so we have a… a partnership that I can’t quite talk about right now but it involves satellites in other data sources, including bioacoustic data, which could basically provide a new place for finding story ideas as well as advancing conservation science, including creating some new mechanisms for being able to measure the effectiveness of what works and what doesn’t work in conservation. In 2017 we started to do video, so short-form video for social media, we now have video in all four of our bureaus, and we have a lot of ambitions on the video front. It’s been a little bit slower than expected to sort of happen but we’re like, you know, laying the infrastructure and the groundwork, starting to expand our journalist network to include videographers and other video people, so I think there’s a lot that can happen there. And then there’s another initiative that’s a little bit under the radar but starting to come out a little bit more. It’s called Transforming Conservation and I guess if you were to sort of take a step back and try to categorise it, it would be more kind of like an events space around the conservation sector. It really emerged from the idea of conservation is not advancing as quickly as other sectors, so like healthcare, poverty alleviation and education. So why is that? So what are the kind of the systemic bottlenecks that are holding back conservation? So bringing people in to this conversation, but also it’s a great way to identify story ideas and sort of, you know, invite people to the conversation about, you know, why this is and so I guess next week, yeah next week, I’m gonna be in Africa doing a second event. We did our first event last year and so I would say there’s a lot cooking on that front but we haven’t necessarily, you know, shown our cards on that issue, or on that initiative quite yet.  

NICK: Exciting times, yeah. We spoke to a lot of CEOs of some of the big nature conservation organisations and we asked them, you know, what could the conservation industry do better and do more of? Often the response is around communications and engaging people, you know, converting the unconverted, reaching out to people who don’t understand the importance of biodiversity and the message and bringing them into the fold, if you like. People like yourself and Mongabay, you’ve been doing that for a long time now so I think you can play a really key role in that so it’s great to hear that that’s going on. 

RHETT: Yeah I think inclusivity is a big issue, so both crossing the aisle and engaging people who aren’t engaged on this, but then also bringing in voices who have been typically… who have traditionally been marginalised in the conservation space, so especially people from sort of outside, you know, western Europe, the United States.  

NICK: Going into the United States, just to kind of round things off with a couple of fairly open but fairly big questions. How would you convince, let’s say you’re in a lift with Donald Trump for three minutes, (laughter) it’s a long lift, and you had that opportunity to speak to him and try and convert him to be more understanding of biodiversity and its needs. How would you engage him in the subject to try and convince him that biodiversity, you know, requires his support? 

RHETT: I frankly don’t know if Donald Trump is engageable at this point. I mean, honestly so I thought maybe a few years he would have been. I mean I think like Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil may be more engageable. But I honestly don’t know about Trump. I mean, from what I’ve seen he’s, you know, not very interested in science, he didn’t show up at the climate meeting at the G7. I think I’d have to appeal to his naked self-interest of, this could be a legacy for you, like you could be seen as like the, you know, the Teddy Roosevelt of conservation, maybe you talk about it increases land values on his properties, something like that. I don’t think you could offer a sort of a reasoned argument to him that you would with 99.99% of the population. So unfortunately I don’t see a lot of hope there but… so I mean, sorry to sort of like you know, dodge your question but I mean, with like Jair Bolsonaro, who obviously is really getting in the news a lot right now around the fires in the Amazon, so he likes to talk a lot about how the Amazon is Brazil’s sovereignty and it really… it’s no one else’s business what Brazil does with it, and I would say, well yeah I mean, if you take a very short-term approach to the Amazon, you can produce, you know, you can have more… more farms and more agriculture and what not, but if you actually want to have national sovereignty, you need to look at the services the Amazon affords so, for something like 70% of South America GDP is fed by rainfall in the Amazon. So if the Amazon tips towards the drier ecosystem and the water… the rainfall, precipitation patterns shift further north, we’re talking about potentially destabilising the fundamental basis for a lot of Brazilian economy. So you know, this plays into food security, water security, energy security since 80% of Brazil’s electricity comes from hydropower. So if you… if you destabilise all of those things, it’s gonna be very damaging to Brazil’s economy, it’s also not gonna make the neighbours very happy since they depend on these services as well. So if you’re talking about national sovereignty, you need to be sure the Amazon is secure as a healthy and productive ecosystem. So I would make that argument and I don’t know if Bolsonaro’s convinceable but I would make that argument to his… his colleagues and people who support him, you know, businesses, banks, you know, developers, because these are the things they care about, it’s you know, their bottom line, so that would be the argument I would make to him, you know, in a scenario like that. 

NICK: Yeah, yeah. Great. And now I get to my final question, if I could make you tsar for the day, if I could make you the US president for the day and you could enact a law, click your fingers and make a change that would actually make a big difference to environmental conservation efforts, wherever you want it to be, what single thing would you like to change, what would you like to see changed? 

RHETT: I would say just like full-cost accounting to incorporate, you know, the real environmental cost of everything, essentially. So you know, factoring the externality, so you know, that would be carbon, water, all those types of things, because I think that that would have the most far-reaching effects on consumption and decision-making. So that would be the thing. 

NICK: Fabulous, yeah. Rhett Butler, it’s been such a pleasure to meet you, I’ve been a fan for over ten years of Mongabay so it’s nice to actually to meet you, to kind of hear its story, to hear about your passion and your impact and what you’re looking to do in the world. If people want to find out a bit more about Mongabay, perhaps get involved, you know, where should we send them? What should they do? 

RHETT: Maybe just come to Mongabay.com, if they’re… I mean to read our news, but if they’re interested in you know potentially writing for Mongabay or things like that, maybe go to Mongabay.org/opportunities, that’s where we list our open calls for pitches and things like that. Mongabay.org is kind of the about site, whereas Mongabay.com is the distribution platform for our content.  

NICK: Great, and we’ll put links in the description of this and the transcript yeah. Thank you so much Rhett for your time, it’s been a real pleasure to speak. 

RHETT: Wonderful, thank you for the opportunity. 

NICK: Likewise.  

NICK: Ok well I hope you enjoyed that everyone, if you did then please do hit that ‘subscribe’ button to get notified when new episodes are live and also give us a rating as it really helps us to get in front of more people. If you enjoy the interviews we’ve collated the best advice from over 400 professional conservationists into a free e-book, which you can download from the bottom of our website. And finally, if you’ve got any questions or suggestions for the podcast, please tweet them to @ConserveCareers, we’d love to hear from you. Ok, till next time guys, this is Nick signing out. 

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