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Conversations on Conservation: A discussion with Jared Diamond and Rob Walton

Recently, CI’s supporters gathered in San Francisco to kick off a series of events to celebrate our 20 Year Anniversary. As part of the evening’s events, award winning journalist Tom Friedman sat down with Pulitzer Prize winning author, Jared Diamond and Rob Walton, Chairman of Wal-Mart, for a candid conversation about the most pressing issues of the day.

Both Diamond and Walton agreed, that now, like never before, is the time for action on issues such as climate change, energy and marine conservation. Below are excerpts from their discussion.

Tom Friedman (TF): I want to dive right in to the substance with you Jared, and that is to pick up on, really something that is very much in the air right now. What, in your view, as a historian, of this whole environmental phenomena, what is unique about this moment, in terms of the challenge we face as you look at if from the historical perspective, what is unique about this moment?

Dr. Jared Diamond (JD):
What’s unique about this moment is that in the past there have been lots of individual societies that collapsed or succeeded. And for example when Easter Island‘s society collapsed in 1680, nobody else in the world knew about it, nobody was affected. But what’s unique about this moment is the possibility of a global collapse. That possibility has never existed in history, but we can see that today when any country in the world, no matter how remote, when there’s trouble in Somalia, or Afghanistan, or Iraq, that affects the United States and the rest of the world. So, that is something new, the risk that everybody can go down together.

TF: That we are all more connected?


TF: You know, I was really struck this week, maybe I’m wrong about this, there are people in the financial markets who know more, but I was really struck this week that we had a 400 point drop in the Dow that seemed to have been triggered by the Chinese markets. And I never remember getting up in the morning and saying, or hearing on CNBC, you hear often Japan was down 10% today, you know, uh, Frankfurt was down, London was down, you know, we’ve caught the fever, but this was the first time I remember a steep decline in the Chinese market now triggering a huge fall in Europe and the United States, and it’s just a sign I think of a little bit of what you’re talking about.

It’s going to happen much more often because China has the world most populous country with the most rapidly growing economy of any major country. China is now competing with the United States, and Japan and Europe, for limited supplies of oil, and wood, and fish, and China is putting out its waste into the same atmospheres and oceans as all the rest of us, so perhaps ten years from now one will recall a couple days ago, as the first of what will become many times when a blip in China has massive repercussions on the world’s stock markets.

TF: Rob, if there’s anything that can reverse the kind of trend’s that Jared’s worried about, it’s really big players going green, and there’s no big player that’s gone green, that is more important than Wal-Mart today, given all the places you source your material, and all the places you do business. Take me back to the very original decision. What really tipped it in your mind, in your discussions with your CEO Lee Scott, the [Wal-Mart] Board, what was the Eureka moment?

Rob Walton (RW)
: You know, Tom, you have to go back a little earlier than that because like most things it evolved and it started with a meeting that I had, I was interested in developing an environmental initiative within our family foundation, I thought it would be something that would be good to draw the third generation into the foundation, it would be stronger than some of the other things which we had been doing. And so I had a meeting set up with a fellow from the World Bank who was going to talk to me and go over it and Lee Scott was going to sit in on the meeting as well just to get a little bit informed and the guy said in advance he was going to bring a guy named Seligmann, [Peter Seligmann, Co-founder, Chairman of the Board, and Chief Executive Officer] who I’d never heard of before, with Conservation International, which I’d never heard of before. And so I said “ok that’ll be fine we’ll learn something”, and it happens quite by happenstance I was in Tokyo on my way from the airport to the city on one of those interminable bus rides and I struck up a conversation with Michael Totten who many of you wouldn’t know, but he is CI’s global warming expert and a real scientist, so he bent my ear for an hour and a half that we were on the ride and told me that Peter Seligmann really was, a real person. We showed up and had the meeting and Lee and I were struck by what, and part of their interest in showing up was the opportunity to talk to somebody from Wal-Mart, and we were struck by what was going on, what they were talking about, and just mulled it over for a while, and it felt like there was some opportunity for us to have a positive impact, but we didn’t, we were really concerned about how to go about it. It evolved where, what really happened though was not so much a decision by him or by me except that he took the initiative to give people in the organization an opportunity. And what really made it happen was that a very large number of sort of senior middle management people, the kind of people that you’ve been exposed to some I know, just jumped at the opportunity to have an impact and so suddenly we, instead of taking the good advice we got to have a narrow focus, suddenly we had all this enthusiasm and identified a lot of opportunities, and that’s when we felt like there was something that really was good for the company, something that could be profitable for the company, from an expense savings and from a resource assurance, a supply assurance, because that’s not certain at all. But it’s largely the enthusiasm of this group of people that have taken it up, that let us know that there was really something that could be done.

TF: It’s interesting, I had a chance to interview Lee Scott this week and, this is Rob’s CEO, and he said, I happened to, two weeks earliest, interview Chad Holliday,[Jr., is the chairman of the board and CEO] of Dupont on the same issue, and they both said a very interesting, parallel thing. Chad said, “You know I ordered all these green initiatives, none of them worked. And then finally we just told people, bring us your best ideas. And suddenly the whole thing kicked in. It was very much bottom up and not top down.” But another thing that Lee said, I want to get you to talk about a little, Rob, was, only the CEO of Wal-Mart could say this, he said, ‘Look Tom, if we decide to sell LEED light bulbs, we can create a market for LEED light bulbs. Just by our purchase of them and our distribution of them.” Which are the green initiatives you’ve taken, I’ve been to the green Wal-Mart in the McKinney [Texas], but I’m interested, Rob, in which of the initiatives you’ve taken, things you’ve decided to sell that people here would really be able to relate to and say wow that isn’t just Wal-Mart talking green. If Wal-Mart sells that many light bulbs or whatever, that could really have a huge impact.

Well, the big thing that has, one of the initial things that we’ve really focused on is the CFL: Compact Fluorescent Light bulbs that just have a massive impact. They last 15 times as long, they’re expensive right now, but the price will come down very rapidly I think as we create more demand for it. And they use, I think a fifth of the power, so your 60-watt equivalent is only, what’s that, 12 watts. So that’s probably the one thing, but you know the focus that we’ve been able to bring to it, in seafood for example, you know we’ve said we’re going to only source MSC, [Marine Stewardship Councils] certified wild-caught fish.

TF: What does that mean in real terms?

Well, that means that the MSC group, which is a British based agency, examines the fisheries, which is the places that people are catching fish, and the way they’re catching it, and certify that it’s being done in a sustainable way so that we’ll have some more fish in the future. And that’s a real issue for us, and I think for all of us. That has had an affect that’s reverberating through our industry. And it’s caught on, I think it [has] made a difference

TF: Jared, you talked about that we could [see] some almost very, very rapid viral spread of negative systemic change as it were, that would be on a grand scale [of] what you studied at a micro scale. What for you is the canary in the coal mine? What are you watching, you know, you’ve written Collapse, you know what happened in micro. What will get Jared Diamond really worried?

What would get me really worried, Tom, people frequently ask me questions that are seeking a single answer and my flip response is what gets me really worried is whenever people ask me a question that seeks a single answer. Because the cruel truth is that we face a dozen problems now, any one of which could kill us, so for example, I frequently get people who say, ‘Don’t you think, Jared, that climate change/global warming, is the biggest problem we face now,’ or ‘Don’t you think that population is the biggest problem,’ or ‘Don’t you think that energy is the biggest problem,’ but that fact is, it’s like a happy marriage. To have a successful marriage you got to get 38 things right and if you get 37 things right and the 38th wrong, if you don’t agree about sex, money, or children, that one will do you in. Similarly with a dozen problems that the world faces now, we face problems of water and topsoil and forest and fisheries and energies and toxic chemicals and population photosynthetic ceiling*. If we get 11 of those right, if we get climate change and energy right, and we don’t solve the water problem, we’re finished. Or if we solve water and seafood and forests, but we don’t solve the toxic chemical problem, we’re finished. So my answer to you, Tom, would be the thing that really worries me is when people want to prioritize and say what do we have to focus on, but the essence of the situation we face now is we don’t have the luxury of focusing just as in a marriage you’ve got to solve 12 things and if you solve 11 but not the 12th we’re in deep trouble.

TF: I’m not going to let you off the hook so easy though. You get to be king for a day. You get to set the priorities. What would you like to see coming out of Washington, D.C. right now? From the White House and the Congress? That would make a difference.

If were committed to have only one thing coming out of Washington I could give you two answers. My first answer would be, if I were permitted to give one answer that would be to give me 11 more answers. [Laughter] But if you force me to give a single answer, then what I would like to see out of Washington is long term thinking instead of just short-term thinking. I’ll give you an anecdote. [Clapping] I have a friend in Chicago who has been closely involved with, it happens, Republican state government in Chicago. He was also closely involved in the 2000 Presidential Election. When my friend that went to Washington in the middle of 2001, to see what his friends were now doing in power in Washington he came back and said to me, ‘Jared, it’s amazing. Everybody there has a 90-day mentality. If it’s not going to blow up and produce a crisis within 90 days they can’t be concerned with it.’ Well the big problems that we face now are problems not with 90-day time fuses but with 4- or 5-year, 20-year, 50-year time fuses. So if you force me, Tom, to wish only one thing from Washington it would be a healthy component of long term thinking.

TF: It’s interesting, I was out at Three Mile Island a few weeks ago interviewing Excelon Company, which owns Three Mile Island, and the president of Excelon was telling me that he had just come from a conference of nuclear industry and they had had a speech from the spokesman, from the CEO of Toshiba, which makes the nuclear reactors in Asia for Japan. And it began with the Toshiba executive giving his company’s 40-year plan. And he was saying could you imagine an American CEO having the luxury of having a 40-year plan. But of course to build a nuclear industry that’s exactly what you need and I couldn’t agree more that’s what we’re getting away from. Rob, what’s your 40-year plan? …where would you like to go as you move down this path of making Wal-Mart more sustainable and more green? I’ve been to the experimental store in McKinny [Texas], you can talk a little bit about that, but where would you like this to go?

Well, our goals are to be supplied 100% by renewable energy, and these are aspirations.

TF: Right, but the goal of Wal-Mart stores is to be supplied 100% by alternative energy?

Yep. To create zero waste, which is certainly an aspiration, and to sell products that are not harmful to the environment. You know, Jared mentioned toxic chemicals a minute ago, Fisk Johnson is here in the crowd some place and really one of the ways that we originally got connected with CI because he’s on the board here and a wonderful supplier to Wal-Mart through SC Johnson. But that’s a company that’s in the chemical business, and these guys know chemicals. And we don’t. But when we go to a supplier like that with a focus on chemicals and substitutes and talk about the opportunity to get better shelf space or be a preferred supplier or get quicker, new products to the shelf, if chemicals in particularly adverse chemicals can be eliminated and alternatives found that produce the same good results, companies know a lot of those things. And it sometimes doesn’t take a big push to cause something different to happen. There are huge resources and huge knowledge out there and for us it’s been very interesting. The 40-year plan is kind of the reason we’re into this though, because from my perspective and my family’s perspective we do intend to be building a business that’s going to be around and be a good business, contribute to people, and contribute to society and make lives better, and we’ve got to change the way we’re doing some of the things we’re doing so we concluded.

TF: I once got a chance to interview China’s President Jiang Zemin. And I got to ask him what’s it like to be in charge, wake up in the morning and say, I’m in charge of 1.3 billion people. And I’d like to ask you, what’s it’s like to be in charge at this time of a company that, if it were a country would be China’s 8th largest trading partner? Ahead of Russia, Australia, and Canada. Is it more exciting or is it more terrifying at this moment?

RW: Well it feels like you’re a target a good bit of the time.

TF: It feels like you’re a target?

: Yea [Laughter]

TF: I can’t imagine why [Laughter]

That’s right we are getting our share. We get extraordinarily high visibility of everything we do. And an interesting part of that, when we make our mistakes, they are extremely public, and we make, like anybody else, plenty of mistakes. The interesting thing, though, is that in an area like this when we start to get some things right we get attention there too. And it’s amazing. We get sometimes more, well, much more credit than we deserve often, but it, and it goes both ways. So there’s just great opportunity from the situation that we’re in, but it was nice when we were a little company in northwest Arkansas and just trying to buy and sell merchandise and take care of our customers and our associates and our communities and now the concerns are broader.

TF: Jared, if the dangers facing us today are as great as you describe, and I think they are, why don’t we see more of a student movement? Why is there no Million-Student March on Washington for climate change? A lot is happening on campuses but one does sense the moral equivalent of the Civil Rights Movement or the Anti-War Movement. Why is that, do they not understand that this issue is actually going to be resolved one way or another in their lifetime?

That’s true, Tom, on the one hand environmental issues are not the burning immediate issue that the Civil Right movement was in the 1950s, but the civil right movement was things immediate in our face. One of the difficulties of environmental issues is that they are time bombs with a long fuse. They’re not time bombs with a one-day fuse. They’re not somebody getting on a bus and being ordered off the bus. That’s one of the reasons why it’s not the burning issue that the Civil Rights Movement was. But the flipside of that, Tom, is we’re been talking about 40 years. And 40 years, that’s the number that I can relate to because my twin sons are now 19 years old and in forty years my twin sons will be 59 years old, which is 10 years less old than I am now. So 40 years seems like a long time, but in 40 years my kids will be at the peak of their lives. And the decisions that we’re making, and the decisions that my kids’ generation are making now, those are going to be what will shape the world at a time when they’re now my current age. Just think of all the time bombs that we’re facing now. We’re facing the climate change time bomb, we’re facing the energy time bomb, the seafood time bomb, the forest time bomb. Most of these time bombs are things with fuses of five to forty years. So at the rate we’re going now if we don’t change our course on tropical rainforests, the world’s tropical rainforests outside of the Amazon and Congo will be gone in 30 years, a 30 year fuse. If we don’t change our energy policy, then within a few decades we will have exhausted readily accessible fossil fuels. If we continue to deforest as we are now, the lower forests of the Philippines will be gone in five years, so all these questions that we are talking about, questions of your seafood supplies, and questions of energy. They can get resolved one way or another in the next several decades. Either they’ll get resolved in pleasant ways that we choose for ourselves or they’ll get resolved in unpleasant ways that we don’t choose and that’s what happened on Easter Island. My hope is that we won’t end up as a global Easter Island, but we’ll end up like a global Iceland or … the New Guinea islands, or any one of these societies that in the past did manage their problems sustainably.

TF: Rob, let me end with you if I could, and ask you a simple question, which I think is appropriate for this evening, and also to end on, which is, you know, your Wal-Mart. Every environmental group in the world would love to be working with Wal-Mart, would love to be your partner. Why did you choose CI?

Well partly it was because Peter [Selligmann] showed up. [laughter] That’s a big part of it. As we looked into it though, we found that CI, and again talking to Fisk Johnson and a couple of other of our venders that we knew and trusted, we found that CI works in a collaborative way. They do not work in a challenging way, and there’s a place for that other approach probably. But for us we needed somebody that would, we would not have to spend a long time persuading that we were serious about what we were doing, and that saw the opportunity for us to work together. Frankly Peter and I think CI as an organization saw the opportunity before we did, before we realized it was there. So, it really wasn’t, it was not as elaborate or as difficult a decision as you might imagine. It was more a matter of being a really good fit just from the start, and we haven’t regretted it for a minute. And we have many other partners too. A number of them are probably here with us tonight, who have been extremely generous with their knowledge and their support for us, but CI’s been a great partner for us.

TF: Do you have other companies now, other big companies, coming to you and saying, “hey Rob, that green thing. I saw you on the cover of Fortune. Tell me about that.”

A lot of companies do. I think CI has even more that are coming to them that are wondering how, just wanting to know how to get started. They want to, so it’s really an exciting time. It’s a very exciting time. And I love Al Gore’s movie and the fact that Al Gore got the Academy Award and has gotten so much attention and really it’s not an accident that that happened, that that’s been so popular. I sort of think that’d have fallen on it’s face 10 years ago or five years ago and it’s a good time for change I think.

TF: Terrific. Well, it’s a, Jared, it’s a challenging time, you’ve certainly left us with that, with a challenge. Rob, you’ve said it’s a good time for change. There is hope in what Wal-Mart is doing. When the big players do the right thing, for whatever reason, that’s how you get big change. And in the middle of all this is CI, and all of you. So thank you very much. Congratulations to CI and thank you.

Note:* -
photosynthetic ceiling means humans appropriating energy from the sun fixed in photosynthesis, all for our purposes leaving no sun energy over for natural habitats including coral reefs and rainforests and eucalypts and natural vegetation. Source: Jared Diamond
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