Unearthing Ted Turner: "Last Stand" is a Fascinating Read

by Marc Bekoff Marc Bekoff, in the picturte, is professor emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado 25.12.2014


Award-winning writer Todd Wilkinson, author of Last Stand: Ted Turner's Quest to Save a Troubled Planet, has written a critically acclaimed book that delves deep into the green psyche of the controversial legendary American, Ted Turner. By example, Mr. Turner is involved in rewilding the American West, joining the global fight to rescue humanity, and, against huge odds, trying to transform capitalism-as-usual. His efforts are inspiring others—progressives and conservatives—to change course. I really enjoyed Mr. Wilkinson’s book and did an interview with him about it and this most fascinating and enigmatic man.

(Editor's note: For links to Amazon for books pictured, please see below)

Marc Bekoff: TED TURNER DOESN’T BELIEVE THE MODEL OF CAPITALISM WE’RE USING IS SUSTAINABLE OR FAIR

Todd Wilkinson: Ted turned 76 this year and as he points out, humankind is not going to consume its way out of the grave challenges we are facing—not by putting another three to five billion additional humans on the planet in the next few decades and not by treating the earth as a resource colony there to be mined.

MB: YOU SEE TURNER AS A POTENTIAL CATALYST FOR THE KIND OF CHANGE WE NEED AND THAT HAS TO HAPPEN IN THE BUSINESS COMMUNITY—THE KIND OF CHANGE THAT’S BEING ESPOUSED BY PEOPLE LIKE NAOMI KLEIN IN HER NEW BOOK, “THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING”?

TW: That’s a great question. Although I’ve never met Naomi Klein, she and Ted are on the same wavelength.  The very kind of dramatic shift that she says is needed to avert disaster is being practiced by Ted Turner who understands business yet embraces the shift.

Look at the problems that are starting to converge: climate change, rising human population, the spiraling biodiversity crisis, widening gap between “haves” and have nots, poverty exacerbated by environmental destruction, and the looming threat of nuclear terrorism.

It’s rare to have influential people who become engaged tangibly and effectively in confronting any one those issues; it is almost unheard of to have an individual who understands the connections between all of them and is involved as a connector in the search—some would say, desperate search— for solutions. 

MB: LAST STAND DOESN’T READ LIKE A TYPICAL BIOGRAPHY.  IT HAS AN ACTIVE VOICE AND IT'S ENGAGING.  WHAT MADE YOU APPROACH IT THAT WAY?

TW: When I wrote Last Stand I didn’t want to have it come across as another wonky exploration of environmental/humanitarian problems, laden with doom and gloom. I wanted it to be accessible and inspiring. To maintain the interest of readers, it needed to be an adventure story that opened minds and delved into the inner workings of an imperfect human trying to harness his resources to do good in the world. It needed to have relevance to the lives and personal interests of readers.

Most Americans when they hear Ted’s name have a strong reaction one way or another. He’s a favorite of some on the ultra-right who continuously spew uninformed nonsense. I’ve found that even Atlantans and Georgians have a pretty narrow, often superficial understanding of him, not fully realizing what he’s done, for example, in the West.

MB: CAN YOU PLEASE SPEAK MORE TO THAT?

TW: Well, here is a guy who paradoxically is known and surprisingly beloved, especially outside the US, for being a different kind of American—an internationalist, not a John Wayne cowboy trying to ride herd over the rest of the world. He’s respected for what CNN did when it was under his command. This paradox still fascinates me.  And it’s something that drives commentators at FOX News crazy.

MB: HOW LONG HAVE YOU KNOWN TED?

TW: I first interviewed him in 1992 shortly after he arrived in Montana and started buying up ranches in the West to support a rapidly expanding population of bison. He was, at that point, already legendary -- he had won the America's Cup, founded CNN, bought some Hollywood movie studios -- but a work in progress. It would have been easy to dismiss him as the Mouth of the South in those days and question the substance of his commitment to environmentalism and humanitarian-related causes.   Even today, Americans, especially young people, have only a vague understanding of him—perceived to be just another rich guy, a boisterous Don Quixote who was once a “media mogul” and morphed into a “bison baron.” But the label, stamped on him by media, is simplistic and misleading. The book spans the considerable arc of Turner's life that has not received much media attention and yet is far more consequential for humanity.

MB: SOME PEOPLE I KNOW HAVE A NEGATIVE IMPRESSION OF TURNER

TW: Last Stand wasn't written to be a shameless hagioraphy. Ted isn’t a saint and the book never seeks to portray him as such. He’s been married three times, has five children by two different wives. I’ve encountered his mercurial moods firsthand. Yes, he can be difficult, rude and tempestuous, and he’s legendary for, as his close friends say, shooting from the lip and not bothering to edit what comes out of his mouth.

But as we know from knowing and reading about historic figures, including the late Steve Jobs, people involved with game-changing advancements in the world aren’t always completely likable. I’d note that the Founding Fathers of this country were prickly. And far from perfect, they were complicated souls full of contradictions.

But that’s what makes them interesting and in some ways, more compelling. We don’t judge them on their personality flaws; we remember them for what they accomplished—the virtues that defined them when everything was on the line.

MB: AND WHERE DOES TED STACK UP?

I had an interesting conversation about that with Mikhail Gorbachev and he noted that apart from what Turner did in media—being a pioneering technology disruptor with 24 international news and satellite TV—it’s what he’s doing as an environmentalist and humanitarian that really sets him apart.  Gorbachev described Turner’s as one of the most diverse portfolios of significant accomplishment by a single individual citizen in history. Gorbachev isn’t one who is prone to exaggeration.

Two things that I wanted to get at with Ted were his motivations and those aspects inherent in his closely-guarded psyche that caused him to be an overachiever and a force for good. 

MB: AND….?

TW: As it turns out, Turner operates fundamentally from the mindset of an underdog—of trying to prove wrong those who sell him short. And a driving emotion for him is empathy to those—humans and animals—that suffer.  As Jane Fonda told me, “Ted is the survivor of a very traumatic and brutal childhood laid down at the hands of his father who committed suicide.  Ted’s bond with nature, his desire to save wildlife and help other human beings is really an attempt to save himself.”

MB: HOW DID YOU GET HIM TO OPEN UP AND DELVE INTO THAT VULNERABLE SPACE.  HE TRUSTED YOU.

TW: That and slowly, steadily, going deeper in a non-rushed way. We established some ground rules before the book started: I would have unlimited access, be able to ask him anything I wanted and I would write things as I saw them.  At the same time, I had no interest in generating tabloid fodder, though a few publishers said they’d be interested in a tell-all full of salacious secrets.  I told them I wasn’t interested in writing that book.

MB: BUT THE MATERIAL YOU DO EXPLORE AND THE STORY YOU TELL IS PRETTY PERSONAL. HOW DID THAT REVELATION HAPPEN?

TW: There wasn’t one moment in which an epiphany or breakthrough occurred but it was an accumulation of pieces, little insights, that were assembled over time.  A criticism of Turner emanating from earlier books written about him—in fact one of the critics was Jane Fonda—had been that Ted wasn’t reflective. I pushed him to reflect and while there are parts of him that still remain a mystery; we had some very intense conversations.  In the end, he told me, “There’s a lot in the book that isn’t easy for me to read, relive or talk about publicly, but I’m glad it is in there.”

MB: SO LET ME PUSH YOU A BIT: WHAT DO YOU THINK MOTIVATES TED TURNER?

TW: Building upon what Jane Fonda says, Ted is a profound example of something you’ve written about and which has been gaining a lot of momentum in the scientific literature: the idea that immersing oneself with humility in nature and being generous can lead to inner healing and actually increase self esteem.

Jane said that if there is a heaven, Ted wants to get in but what he really wants to be remembered for is having been a good guy.

MB: AND WHOSE MONEY ALLOWED HIM TO BE INFLUENTIAL?

TW: Turner’s influential because of his ideas and the way he does things, not because he’s made money doing them. Money is a byproduct of being smart and being able to look around corners into the future.

You know, there are a lot of big givers out there but not all have pure selfless motivations. Some billionaires support causes simply because that’s the popular thing to do in the moment, or they give to charity to get their name on a building or as a mercenary means to cut another business deal. Some, quite frankly, command standing in philanthropic circles but they’re actually scoundrels with bad character. 

Ted isn’t a scoundrel. He has a big heart behind the public persona and he acts for the right reasons. Where his ego is involved is he often insists that goals skeptics deem impossible can actually be achieved. He proved it by building a media empire in spite of shenanigans from the networks and turning the hapless Atlanta Braves into perennial pennant champions. He didn’t give $1 billion in support of the UN because it was popular; he did it because the UN helps hold the world together, despite what neo-cons say. He’s proving naysayers wrong now by showing how humans can be better partners with the natural world, addressing climate change with alternative energy, trying to curb global population by delivering people out of poverty, and seeking the eradication of nuclear weapons. These are all matters of human survival.

MB: THOSE OF US WHO HAVE BEEN TRACKING ENVIRONMENTAL AND HUMANITARIAN CHALLENGES IN THE WORLD—WHICH ARE ALL INTER-RELATED—CONCLUDE THAT BUSINESS AS USUAL, WHICH IS TO SAY THE FLAWED MODEL OF CAPITALISM, HAS TO CHANGE.  THIS SEEMS TO BE A THEME THAT TED EMBRACES TOO, YES?

TW: Absolutely. Turner made a fortune by being a shrewd fiscally conservative businessman. He worshipped Ayn Rand when he was a young man. Running a major global company gives him undeniable standing when he says that things need to change. But more than that, he is putting his money behind his words and it’s having an impact.

Last Stand is intended to be a modern counterpoint and answer to the self-serving writings of Gilded Age tycoons who defined business for the 19th and 20th centuries.  Many of them accrued their wealth by being robber barons of natural resources. To put it in perspective: who better is advancing the best long-term interests of society, our country and the world—Ted Turner or the Koch Brothers?  One irony is the Koch Brothers could learn a few lessons about how to be better citizens by reading the book.

MB: THAT’S GREAT FODDER FOR AN INTELLECTUAL DISCUSSION IN COLLEGE CLASSES AND BOARD ROOMS.  IT ALSO SEEMS THAT YOUR GOAL WAS TO DO MORE THAN REACH COLLEGE KIDS, BUSINESS PEOPLE AND CONSERVATION ORGANIZATIONS. BUT ALSO SPEAK TO CITIZEN MEMBERS OF CONSERVATION GROUPS AND CONSUMERS TO GET THEM THINKING ABOUT BIG IDEAS THAT REPRESENT A SHIFT AWAY FROM THE STATUS QUO.

TW: Yes, and to earn and keep people’s attention, I knew that I had to take readers into the brambles of many of these contentious issues and explain why they matter to them.  Because of my own interests and career as an environmental journalist, I wanted Last Stand to be a biography that would be riveting to wildlife lovers who join Ted—a true biophiliac— in the field.  It was my intent that readers come to understand how Turner and his colleagues have approached rewilding, not only by amassing a large bison herd but bringing back grizzlies and wolves. Ted literally has howled to wild wolves off his back doorstep in the company of former President Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, E.O. Wilson, Richard Branson and others. He’s given a home to lots of imperiled critters at every one of his properties. What he’s done isn’t quixotic; it’s eminently emulative by others who want to do what’s right by their land, no matter how large or small the property.

MB: YOU EXPLORE SOME TERRAIN THAT PEOPLE WHO BELIEVE THEY KNOW TED PROBABLY HAVE NO IDEA OF HIS INVOLVEMENT, LIKE PROMOTING PEACE AND ADDRESSING NUCLEAR DANGERS.

TW: I hope readers get heart palpitations when absorbing those chapters so that they’ll trigger an awakening. When one realizes the real perils of potential nuclear Armageddon and terrorism involving weapons of mass destruction, which Ted and former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia are trying to address, you see Turner in a new light. I wanted Last Stand to be a page-turner.

MB: HOW HAS YOUR BOOK BEEN RECEIVED?

TW: Of greatest satisfaction is that Last Stand has been incorporated as a reading into college environmental studies, science, and business curriculums. I know that business managers are encouraging their employees to read it, it has been circulated among policy makers, environmental groups, and, more locally, has ignited some colorful discussions in men’s and women’s book clubs.

Like Turner or not, it is what he’s doing that’s laudable, not only in demanding that consumptive capitalism embark on a major course correction to be more mindful, better stewarding, and healers of the environment, but the stories in the book have application for every family.  You don’t need to be rich to make a difference.

MB: ARGUABLY, TED HAS HAD A CHECKERED RECORD WITH THREE FAILED MARRIAGES AND YET HE’S OUTSPOKEN WHEN IT COMES TO HUMAN RIGHTS, ESPECIALLY FOR WOMEN.

TW: As Tom Brokaw says, Ted loves women. He’s on a lifelong quest to become a better partner, parent, granddad and friend to the women in his life. It’s a personal challenge that was born in the dysfunction of his childhood. But globally he knows that besides being the cosmically right thing to do, the key to achieving a more just, equitable, fair and peaceful world is championing women.

Through the UN Foundation led by former U.S. Senator Tim Wirth and now Kathy Calvin, there is an aggressive agenda underway to not only advance equality for women everywhere and to provide opportunities for young girls to receive education as launch pads for empowerment, but it brings stability to families and really does result in a better world.

MB: CAN YOU GIVE ME A COMPELLING EXAMPLE?

TW: Senator Wirth and Kathy Calvin know that equality for women isn’t something that will be achieved through a simple legislative remedy. In many corners of the globe, respect for women is stifled by draconian cultural beliefs and traditions.

Women need not only the rule of law behind them to guarantee their rights, but even more importantly, they deserve the dignity of respect, equal opportunity, and celebration in their countries and communities.

Last summer at the AREDAY alternative energy conference in Aspen organized by Sally Ranney, it was the first time I ever heard a former U.S. President talk openly about the plague of female genital mutilation affecting millions of women in the developing world. Female genital mutilation is a horrible, reprehensible form of repression imposed upon women by men.

The fact that Jimmy Carter, a close friend of Ted’s and Tim Wirth’s and Kathy Calvin’s, brought it up publicly at AREDAY as a human rights issue shows the impact that the UN Foundation has had in elevating it. UNF is tackling women’s issues on all fronts. 

MANY CREDIT TURNER WITH PUTTING PRESSURE ON THE UBER WEALTHY.

TW: Women’s rights are just one of the focus areas of Turner’s $1 billion gift to the UN in 1998, which Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett acknowledge as an important spark in changing the attitudes of plutocrats. Turner also challenged Forbes magazine in addition to assembling a world’s richest list that recognizes people who hoard their wealth, to start a a list that hails those who are magnanimous with their money and give back to society.  Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan told me it functioned as a guilt trip aimed at the 1 percent and it helped change behavior of people who sit on their money.

MB: TELL US ABOUT YOUR BACKGROUND?

TW: I started my writing career as a violent crime reporter with the City News Bureau of Chicago nearly 30 years ago. I had an incredible number of talented colleagues and all of us were trained as classical old-school journalists.

From there, I moved to the wildland West, becoming an environmental journalist, for the same reason most people do who come to the region—seeking a personal connection with the natural world and trying to better understand how humans relate to it.  This is the issue of our time. Where I live, and where Turner first settled in the West, happens to be a gateway to Greater Yellowstone, the biggest and wildest ecosystem left in the Lower 48. As a writer, I’ve always wanted to inform readers about environmental issues and highlight the science to advance better conversations.

MB: WHERE DOES LAST STAND FIT INTO THAT?

TW: I’m always searching for people stories that provide windows into big ideas; individuals whose own journeys can open our eyes to better ways of reflecting about nature and treating both animals and each other with more sensitivity. The more I’ve written the more I recognize the sentient interconnections of life on earth. And here I have to say that reading your books has been a major influence.

MB: HOW SO?

TW: I’ve found as a humble journalist that people of influence in the world who actually understand sentience—policy makers, those who run companies,religious clergy and community activists—actually are exceedingly uncommon. They regard humanity and nature as being separate and it’s obviously not.

We live in heavy times in which a feeling of mass collective dissonance hovers in the air and yet there’s a hunger to rally together, which is something Turner mentions in the book. I have kids. I worry about the world we are giving them. I wanted to write a book about a person who can be invoked as one source for a new revolutionary way of thinking.

MB: IN THE BOOK, YOU NOTE THAT TED, LIKE WENDELL BERRY, RELATES TO MOM AND POP AGRARIANS, THE FOOD GROWERS WHO LIVE CLOSE TO THE SOIL

TW: Ecological destruction is not economically, culturally or socially sustainable. Period.  But stewardship comes with an economic cost and Ted realizes that in terms of his own lands, they cannot be passed down to his kids and grandkids as a debt proposition, which is something that the children of millions of American farmers and ranchers know so well.

Turner’s approach is to ensure that his lands are economically sustainable. He subscribes to the ideals of the triple bottom line: when doing an economic enterprise you do no harm, or minimize your impact or, even better, conduct your business in a way that restores and heals harms of past; you do it in a way in which profits are poured back into true sustainability aimed at maintaining ecological function; and you care for the people who work for you with dignity, paying them livable wages, providing health care, respecting them, and you spend your money in the local community where it can have positive impact.

Few individuals are doing these things, with regard to wildland properties, on the scale that Ted is and that’s why Paul Ehrlich thinks of him as a valuable human meme. The practices that Ted has adopted make them memes that are replicable.

MB:  YOU NOTE THAT HIS INVOLVEMENT WITH BISON ALONE HAS MADE HIM A HISTORIC FIGURE, ALONG THE LIKES OF THEODORE ROOSEVELT, JOHN MUIR AND ALDO LEOPOLD

TW: Ted is the second largest private landowner in the US. He has bison on 15 properties in six western states and his herd numbers over 50,000 animals. Because of who he is, he has sparked a renaissance of public appreciation for bison, once the most prolific land mammal on earth but which humankind nearly drove to extinction.

MB: YOU SAY HE RESPECTS AND ADMIRES THE SPIRIT OF BISON AND THEIR ROLE AS KEYSTONE SPECIES

TW: He sees them as ecological healers in helping to restore damaged grasslands that were overgrazed by cattle. He does not raise bison to be glorified cattle.  He gives them lots of space to roam and emphasizes stewardship that brings as little handling and contact with people as possible.

Yes, a portion of the animals do end up on human plates at his Ted’s Montana Grill restaurants every year.  Need I mention that bison were once the foundation of Native American culture and they are a native species. For meat eaters, bison are low in fat and cholesterol, high in Omega 3 and 6 vitamins; they require nominal inputs compared to cattle; they are “predator resistant” which means where you have bison, it’s easier to have wolves, grizzlies, cougars, and coyotes because bison are adapted to fend them off. Ted believes that bringing back native species is morally and ethically right.

MB: YOU SPENT A FEW YEARS INTERACTING WITH TED AND YOU SAY HE’S A DIFFERENT PERSON FROM WHEN YOU FIRST MET HIM. DO YOU BELIEVE HUMAN BEINGS CAN CHANGE OVER THE COURSE OF THEIR LIVES AND NOT BE HOSTAGES TO THE EVENTS THAT SHAPED THEM AS CHILDREN?

TW: Turner is proof that reinvention even in midlife is possible and for some it’s the only way to save their life.

MB: TED AS A MEME IS A POWERFUL NOTION…

TW: The things Turner is doing could qualify potentially as memes that lead our society away from self-destruction.  Turner himself, I think, represents a meme for the kind of change and personal responsibility that must occur within the mindset of individual business people—the need to truly think long term, multi-generationally, for the betterment of humans and nature and not to be guided by greed and only bolstering quarterly balance sheets in the short term.

We all know in our guts this kind of change needs to happen and it needs to be incorporated into our value system promoted in the pews, and embraced in Congress and the White House, the same way that good genes are encoded in our DNA.  If the book accomplishes anything, I hope that it establishes Turner as a reference for young people who want to hold elected officials and captains of industry accountable.

MB:  WITH THOSE WHO CONTINUE TO SELL TURNER SHORT, YOU’RE SAYING THAT DRAWING SIMPLISTIC CONCLUSIONS SPEAK MORE TO THE SHALLOWNESS OF THE INTERPRETER?

TW: Ted is the real deal, a blend of conservative and progressive instincts, and a guy who struggles to make a positive difference, the same as all of us want to do.

Let me share one final story:  After his father’s suicide, Ted was a young man searching for a father figure and then an unexpected mentor emerged. Turner was summoned to action by a close friendship that developed with the late Jacques-Yves Cousteau.

On board Cousteau’s famous boat, Calypso, Cousteau laid out a litany of serious environmental challenges that were descending. He commanded Turner to use his influence in media and other business endeavors to be a force for good.

When Ted expressed despair, saying the magnitude of the problems seemed overwhelming, Cousteau told him:  “What can men of good conscience do, but even if they know the world is going to end—and at this point we don’t know if the end is certain or not—but fight to prevent it from happening.” 

Turner took it to heart.  And he would say, it’s a moral obligation that applies to us all.

Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., is a former Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and co-founder with Jane Goodall of Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. He has won many awards for his scientific research including the Exemplar Award from the Animal Behavior Society and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Marc has published more than 1000 essays (popular, scientific, and book chapters), 30 books, and has edited three encyclopedias. His books include the Encyclopedia of Animal Rights and Animal Welfare, The Ten Trusts (with Jane Goodall), the Encyclopedia of Animal Behavior, the Encyclopedia of Human-Animal Relationships, Minding Animals,Animal Passions and Beastly Virtues: Reflections on Redecorating Nature, The Emotional Lives of Animals, Animals Matter, Animals at Play: Rules of the Game (a children's book), Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals (with Jessica Pierce), The Animal Manifesto: Six Reasons For Increasing Our Compassion Footprint, Ignoring Nature No More: The Case For Compassionate Conservation,Jasper's Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation,and Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence. The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson) will be published in 2015. In 2005 Marc was presented with The Bank One Faculty Community Service Award for the work he has done with children, senior citizens, and prisoners. In 2009 he was presented with the St. Francis of Assisi Award by the New Zealand SPCA. In 1986 Marc became the first American to win his age-class at the Tour du Haut Var bicycle race (also called the Master's/age-graded Tour de France).


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