A New Sustainable Frame of Mind with Earthwatch Institute’s Larry Mason

September 30, 2013

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome to another edition of Green is Good, and today we’re so excited to have on the line with us Larry Mason. He’s the CEO of the Earthwatch Institute. Welcome to Green is Good, Larry. LARRY MASON: Thrilled to be here. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Larry, we’re so thankful to have you on today. We’ve never covered the Earthwatch Institute but before we even get into discussing your great organization, we’d like you to share your journey a little bit. How’d you get here and what was your story before you came and became the CEO of Earthwatch? LARRY MASON: I guess you could call me the accidental environmentalist because I began my career in the corporate world. I spent 20 years at Procter and Gamble and then I was a leader at Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company and for almost 30 years, I traveled the globe trying to build businesses and also meeting lots of interesting people but also saw that the world was changing very dramatically and I was, in fact, able to see the impact that economic growth and business was having across the world and I developed a real interest in what the solutions would be. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Well, I’m on your great website right now. It’s a beautiful website. For our listeners who want to follow along during our discussion today, it’s Earthwatch.org. Talk a little bit about, Larry, how was Earthwatch even founded? LARRY MASON: It’s interesting. Back in the early ’70s, there was a real decline in field science research involving the environment. It was because the government priorities were shifting and there was the space program in the ’60s and our founder, Brian Rosborough, was very frustrated that scientific field research wasn’t being completed and the reason was there wasn’t any money so Brian came up with a model, kind of a Tom Sawyer-type model, where he recruited volunteers to go out and help do the research and eventually, the model morphed into volunteers actually paying to participate in field research and going out to exotic places and participating side by side with scientists. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That sounds exciting. So, then what is then the overall general mission of Earthwatch? LARRY MASON: The mission of Earthwatch is to engage people worldwide in this field science research and the education so it promotes understanding and action necessary for sustainable environment so it’s really a two-fer. When people have a personal experience, it often has an aha moment of change for them but it really also mobilizes them to go back to their communities and think differently. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Gotcha, gotcha, and so what we love to do is frame problems and there’s so many problems, obviously, in today’s environment, no pun intended, and around the world but how do people engage with your great organization? How can volunteers go and what do they study and how do they interact with Earthwatch and the Earthwatch Institute? LARRY MASON: One of the best things to do is to go on to our website, Earthwatch.org, and click on the expeditions and what we’ve done is we’ve grouped our expeditions into four categories of general interest so the first one is around wildlife and ecosystems and so these are typically preserving delicate ecosystems and preserving wildlife species. There’s a second one around climate change where we’ve got a lot of important research that’s going on documenting actual changes that are occurring in the planet. We’ve got an awful lot of ocean health type programs where there are marine mammals and marine wildlife and then finally, we have archaeology and culture, which is pretty interesting because there are a lot of lessons from the past that apply to the future. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Interesting, and this goes way beyond the United States. You have folks all around the world at Earthwatch working with your organization. Is this not true? LARRY MASON: Absolutely. That’s one of the exciting things about it. You can do work just around the corner or you can go to exotic places. We’ve got expeditions in Peru and Brazil and Ecuador and Madagascar and Malawi, South Africa, as close as Puerto Rico and the U.S., Thailand, Uganda, South Africa, Canada, Mongolia and the U.K. and France, so you can be exotic or you can be close to home. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is amazing. So, explain though — this is just amazing stuff. How is it different than this new trend and the new vernacular and the coined term of eco-tourism? How is Earthwatch different than that? LARRY MASON: It’s really interesting. Eco-tourism is where you typically will go, say, on a safari and you’re in a Hummer so it’s almost like you’re in a cage and the cage moves around and you look at the wildlife. At Earthwatch, you’re on the other side. You’re actually allowed to touch and to participate in the wildlife so if you’re in Africa, you may be on our Namibia Cheetah Project and you’re actually working with the scientists side by side who may have been and that’s the Cheetah that they’re putting a chip in or you can be in the Galapagos Islands and instead of just an eco-tourist being on a raft and being told you can’t touch the beach, you’re actually going to be on the beach and in the flora doing measurements side by side with the scientists so at Earthwatch, you’re actually in the story whereas, eco-tourism you’re kind of looking from a distance. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You know, Larry, you said the funniest thing at the top, but it’s such a funny but true statement. You said you’re the accidental environmentalist and you’ve had this storied corporate career and you could have chosen to do a lot of things in this portion of your life. Why Earthwatch? Explain what really got you to join this great organization. LARRY MASON: For me, the Earthwatch model of objectivity through science, acknowledging that there are issues but using the data to find the solutions really matches my personal values. As someone that was involved in growing business, developing economies, making people’s lives better from a financial standpoint, it’s also interesting to see the objectivity of what does the science say and then what are responsible people going to do? So the Earthwatch model is all about engagement. We engage with corporations. We engage with individuals. We engage with donors, anybody that’s got an interest in where are we, what does the data say, and what can we do, is where Earthwatch wants to go and our focus is really on managing these natural conflicts that occur between economic development and nature and they’re great solutions that are out there if you approach it objectively and if you’re looking for solutions, JOHN SHEGERIAN: If you’ve just joined us now, we’ve got the CEO of Earthwatch, the Earthwatch Institute, on with us today. It’s Larry Mason and again, it’s a beautiful and wonderful and very engaging website, Earthwatch.org. Larry, on your website, I’ve been reading and I’ve read prior to this interview you have 400 scientists that you’re partnering with right now around the world and over 100,000 volunteers just this year, which creates all sorts of field research that totals 10 million hours in just one year. These numbers are beyond wow numbers so your organization is really doing the work, like you said, around the world every day. LARRY MASON: We view ourselves as a Peace Corps. Those numbers that you’re looking at, those are cumulative numbers but we currently are supporting over 400 scientists this year in the U.S. with field research and our volunteers who contributed that 10 million hours of field research that’s out there and Brian Rosborough, our founder, kind of viewed Earthwatch as the Peace Corps of field science and it’s not only the work that you’re doing, but the impact that it has on the individuals. We have people that have been seven, 10, 12, 15 expeditions that just absolutely love the experience of being side by side with the scientists, the experience of learning about the data, and the experience of seeing other people that have that aha moment. We’ve had climate change skeptics that have been on a research project that have gone in with the scientists saying, ‘I don’t believe any of this stuff,’ and the scientists have said, ‘Great, spend a week with me and then tell me what you think at the end.’ We actually have a picture of one corporate executive that had that view coming in and on the way out, he literally hugged a tree and had his picture taken. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is great. Now there’s so many environmental organizations. When you’re talking to other folks and saying why Earthwatch, why now, what’s your special pitch look like over other environmental- and there are very good ones out there. How come Earthwatch when you’re pitching? LARRY MASON: You know, I don’t think it’s Earthwatch over anybody else. We’re a really critical link and our link is around learning and engagement and changing how people think and how people act so there are some environmental organizations that have a strong political or advocacy base so they develop a strong point of view and they fundraise and they promote around that agenda. We don’t do that. What we do is we let the science speak for itself but we really focus on the engagement and learning and we want to inform public policy so we want our research to all be published and be the data that’s available. It’s interesting. I live in Boston and if you look at sea level change, there may be a time 20 years from now when the city council in Boston says should we build a seawall and how high should it be? Hopefully, Earthwatch will have data so that when that question’s being asked, we’ll answer the question and accelerate the decision process. All over the world, we’re painstakingly tracking that data trying to inform public policy but ultimately, we’re accumulating that data so when someone’s ready to say what does the data say, we and our researchers have answers. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s great, and just for our listeners out there, I’m on your website. You cover so many topics in terms of the connections that you inspire at Earthwatch. You cover both ecosystems and wildlife, ocean health, climate change, archaeology. There’s really all facets of the environment and all parts of the world you’re covering. LARRY MASON: Absolutely, and again, this is the lens that brings people into connection with the environment. None are more important than the other but everybody has an emotional attachment that brings them closer to the environment and if it’s the water, we’ve got great water programs. If it is exotic and charismatic species and wildlife, you can do that. If it is going on a dig and enjoying both history and being able to piece together the challenges and the decisions that prior peoples made, we’ve got that program for you. All these things to us are gateways to bring people into interacting with nature, interacting with field science and setting them up to be much more engaged as citizens with what the issues are and what we can do about them. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And, speaking of that, we love giving solutions here. How do our listeners get involved? Tell them how simple it is to get involved with Earthwatch if they’re listening to this show and they say I want to go next. LARRY MASON: There’s a lot of layers involved but the first is you can pick up the phone and give us a call. You can see our phone number on the website, but it’s 800-776-0188, and you can talk to one of our development officers about the different volunteer opportunities we’ve got so that would be the first, which is get up and go. The second is if you don’t have time or if you don’t have the interest in roughing it out in the field a little bit, there’s some great opportunities to give to help others to go. We have a major focus on students and teachers, trying to get them out into the field and have these experiences. It’s interesting because today, the hard sciences, whether it’s nuclear physics or hard sciences, is very much in vogue and school systems are really pushing hard to develop those technical skills because it’s really important for our economy going forward but we think the natural sciences are also important and so just through giving to Earthwatch, people can support students and teachers that wouldn’t otherwise be able to go to get out in the field. We’ve also got an emerging sciences program, which is really exciting. We have donors that contribute that we can go out and find young budding scientists in these developing nations and sponsor them to get them into the research cycle and so we have people that we’ve sponsored, for example, from Madagascar that have now spoken at international symposiums because of sponsorships that Earthwatch donors were able to give so those are the various levels. The most exciting thing is to go because it’s personally rewarding but if you can’t go, your donation can help someone else go. They can underwrite a scientist or they can sponsor important future research. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it. You know, Larry, we’re down to the last two minutes or so. What do you like the best? How many years have you been at Earthwatch as a CEO? LARRY MASON: Actually, I’ve only been here for the last year. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Okay, so you’ve been there a year. What do you like the most about running this great organization? LARRY MASON: I picture Earthwatch as a diamond and there are really four corners to the diamond and the first is our mission-focused staff. All over the world, we have people that could be making huge sums of money doing all sorts of things but instead, they work in a nonprofit environment because they truly believe in the vision so I’m inspired at every office that I go to across the world. We have offices in Japan and Hong Kong and Australia and India and Brazil and the U.K. and the U.S. and everywhere that you go into an Earthwatch office, you just see that enthusiasm and that’s truly inspiring. The second would be scientists. It’s not a glamorous life to spend five years in a village in Africa counting small species or something like that but these folks are just committed to asking really important questions and getting the answers. The third is working with corporates. As a former corporate person myself, I enjoy interacting at the sea level with executives that are sometimes defensive about the environment and sustainability but in many cases, they’re on a really good path and they’ve made good progress and so we enjoy partnering with them to continue the path and then the fourth is the friends of Earthwatch, our donors, our directors, our advisors. These are amazing people that are very successful in their own right but for some reason, they’ve made Earthwatch and this cause an important corner of their life that they commit their time and their money to so those are very inspiring so I’ve been very blessed to be able to walk around all day at Earthwatch in the field with our partners, with our donors and be inspired. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Thank you, Larry. Thank you for your time today. For our listeners out there, it’s Earthwatch.org. Go to the site. Get involved. Larry Mason, you might be the accidental environmentalist but you are really an inspiring sustainability evangelist and truly living proof that green is good.