Exit Interview: Peter Seligmann, Conservation International
Exit Interview is an occasional series profiling veteran sustainability executives who recently have left their job.
On June 30, Peter Seligmann, who co-founded Conservation International in 1987, and who has served as its CEO ever since, is stepping down from that role and handing the reins to a new generation of leaders. He’ll remain as chairman.
I spoke with Seligmann earlier this month to talk about his journey, the impacts of President Donald Trump’s decision on the Paris Agreement, and his perspective on engaging the public on sustainability. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Joel Makower: How does CI look today based on what you expected when you co-founded it in 1987?
Peter Seligmann: It feels very close to the original DNA of the organization. It was a very interesting evolution. We started CI with this idea that people and nature are together, and we wanted to look at what we refer to as ecosystem conservation, with people as part of it.
We had an aspiration. And we lost sight of that aspiration and began to focus on biodiversity and not really on the human side of it. But we re-found that original inspiration about a decade ago, and actually changed our mission to focus on the wellbeing of people. So, where we are today is what I had hoped we would become when we launched.
Makower: So how do you think it's going? Are those beyond the traditional environmental movement beginning to understand that they are a part of nature, not separate from it?
Seligmann: We're seeing an important merger of social movements, human rights movements and environmental movements that is very, very strong. For example, you can't deal with just oceans and fisheries now. You have to address the social inequities — the slavery, the inequitable distribution of wealth, the overfishing by foreign fleets and the impact on local communities.
That social set of really essential questions about equity, equality and human rights is becoming mixed in with the protection of nature. What's really powerful is that when you combine that kind of ecological foundation with the social fabric foundation, and you put that in social media, that's a very, very powerful catalytic force to transform the way businesses and governments operate.
Makower: We're having this conversation the day after President Trump announced the United States' withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. Does that change your perspective on what's possible or how fast we can make progress?
Seligmann: My predication is that this action — this amoral and flawed decision by the president of the United States — is going to galvanize an extraordinary response all over the world. It is going to accelerate engagement in climate action.
Makower: Are you saying that this could be a silver lining — that maybe this actually accelerates things rather than slows them down?
Seligmann: Yes. What he has just done is he has just motivated his opposition in a way that has never happened before. And that, I think, will end up being a very, very bright silver lining.
Makower: CI has done some innovative things to communicate the human-nature link to the public. What have you learned over the past 30 years about how the environmental movement can communicate more effectively?
Seligmann: We need to use language that people understand — that actually relates to their concerns. I often say to the people that I work with, that what we say is not as important as what people hear. We have to think about jobs and health and the health of a family, the health of a child, the health of the community, and how it is impacted by the conservation of nature, why they're so linked to the environment. And we clearly, as a movement, have not done that effectively.
Makower: It just feels like it's a skill set that is lacking relative to, particularly, those on the other side, who seems to be really good at it.
Seligmann: We hired Lee Clow a few years ago. He was the guru of communications and branding for Steve Jobs. Together, we asked, "How do we get across that simple concept that humanity needs nature to thrive?"
And out of that came these Nature Is Speaking videos that we put together that have been really impactful. We have to make an effort to get out of our own siloed thinking, and that just takes being awake. I think that all of us have a responsibility to beat that drum. We can't talk to ourselves.
I have never made alliances with likeminded organizations my priority. I've always tried to focus on, "How do you make the tent bigger? How do you make it inclusive? How do you work with corporations and with governments? And how do you engage the different communities, human rights community, the development community?"
If we don't do that, we're always going to be very comfortable with the 15 or 20 percent of the people in the world that agree with us. And we'll be a vast minority.
Makower: One of the things you personally have done is to be out there in nature — in every continent, from the deep ocean to the high mountains. I'm always impressed when I read about your travels. How do we get more people into nature who aren't inclined on their own to do that?
Seligmann: I think it needs to be a very important strategy. They're concerned about nature and conservation and the environment, and they're concerned about the linkage between human wellbeing and the health of oceans or forests or freshwater sources. It's important to get people there.
The way you do that, of course, is to find accessible places. You have to find places that are beautiful. You have to benefit the local communities. They have to be the owners of this ecotourism opportunity. And we should really strive to bring political leaders, business leaders and influential communities of people to those places.
That's something we at CI have done for 30 years — investing in building eco-lodges, training people on ecotourism, taking people on sojourns and trips. It's really a very important part of the work we do.
However, what I find with political leaders is it's very difficult to get these trips into their schedule, which is why, last year, we invested in virtual reality, which allowed us to take key appropriators and key leaders to places that were really important. So they could, in a VR way, have the experience of what it's like to dive in the Bird's Head Peninsula in West Papua, or to wander through a rainforest in Surinam with families to understand how these communities are dependent upon nature.
Makower: As you plan to leave the helm of Conservation International, what does that feel like? This was your creation, and for the first time in your life you won't be running it. Is that going to be OK?
Seligmann: Ten years ago, that would not have been OK. I wasn't ready. But five years ago, I began to think about the reality that these challenges are multigenerational.
The most important thing I had to do was to put together a team that had the right culture and the right knowledge, the right vision, the right skills, the right DNA, the right impatience to lead CI. And the three people that are taking over as the leaders of this institution — our new CEO, (M.) Sanjayan, our new president, Jennifer Morris, and our new executive vice president, Sebastian Troëng — they come from a diverse place: from Sri Lanka, from a business school, from fisheries in Sweden. They're a great group of people, and they are so ready.
So, I feel that this is exactly the right time. And I'm excited because I stay on as the chair. I feel like a proud father or grandfather.
We’ve got to accelerate, intensify and bring many, many more organizations and people into this. I don't, in any way, see this as a moment of slowing down. I see it as a moment of acceleration.