British billionaire adventurer David de Rothschild has one warning about our ailing Great Barrier Reef: Don't write it off yet.
"When we say things are dead, we forget about them … but nature's incredibly resilient," says the rugged 41-year-old. "The earth has been around for 4.1 billion years. We're still the recipients of an oxygenation event that happened 3.5 billion years ago. That's pretty f--king cool, don't you think?"
De Rothschild knows a thing or two about what's cool. He's the rock star of the environmental world, founder of the Sculpt the Future Foundation, and the youngest Briton to reach both geographical poles. He's also remarkably straight talking when it comes to our environmental woes.
"We've taken an incredibly stable planet, and it's like a kind of bodybuilder injecting himself with loads of steroids, and at some point it kind of gets a bit funky, right? We're spinning at thousands of miles an hour on border-lined lava in the middle of f--king space!"
De Rothschild can barely contain his enthusiasm. "We can eat the beautiful fish from the ocean, and we can grow fruit, veg and all these things and, like, that's a f--king miracle, right? And we're just like, "Let's just throw all this stuff into [the ocean] and see what happens?'"
So how do we help the planet in the long term? "I'm not advocating that we go back to, you know, sticks and stones … but we're poisoning ourselves. We're still addicted to oil and we're still letting the minority dictate our future by putting profit before planet. We're giving the fox the keys to the chicken coop every time."
De Rothschild achieved international attention in 2010 when he sailed Plastiki, his catamaran made from 12,500 reclaimed plastic bottles, from San Francisco to Sydney to highlight the effects of single-use plastics.
"I think people are just extraordinarily adapted to the plastic straw movement, which has been backed in Australia in the past year," he says. "Look how quickly culture shifts. I mean now you leave your phone at home, you're like "I'm lost." It shows how quickly that cultural beast can happen, and we became so addicted to systems … and we've just got to break the cycle."
It helps that de Rothschild has the means to spread his message – he hails from the legendary Rothschild banking family of England, and has an estimated personal worth of US$10 billion. "We grew up and I was super privileged," he says. "I spent a lot of time at my aunt and uncle's when I was a kid, just because I was riding horses and they lived in the country. They gave me this set of values where we reused things.
He learned valuable sustainable habits such as opening a window instead of turning on the air conditioning, putting on a jumper when he was cold, not leaving the tap running while brushing his teeth. "It wasn't through the lens of environmentalism, it was that's just how you did it. Try not to be wasteful. Try and re-use and just fit it in."
As his classmates left school and took prosperous, indoor jobs as bankers and lawyers and doctors, de Rothschild knew he was on a different path. "I realised I felt way more comfortable being outside," he says. "I felt way more comfortable camping. I felt way more comfortable being in nature … and it's a luxury. Don't get me wrong, it's a real luxury to go into nature."
Watch and learn
De Rothschild was recently back in Australia visiting the reef as part of his association with luxury watch brand Breitling, for which he is a member of the "explorers squad" alongside adventuring pioneers Bertrand Piccard and Inge Solheim.
He says his attraction to work with the brand is due to his relationship with Breitling's charismatic CEO Georges Kern. "I'm a big fan of Georges," he says. "It's like you have a pre-internet brain and a post-internet brain. You also have a pre-Georges life and a post-Georges life."
What he values most about Kern is that the businessman backs stories and ideas, including offering support on nature conservation programs and developing watch straps made of recycled nets.
"Yes, [Kern] is on a mission to build a company and all those things, but if you're wearing a watch, it's an expression. It's one of the only outward expressions we make. It's a choice and so if you're wearing a story, it becomes something of deeper value."