David de Rothschild – Things In Nature Don’t Ask What Their Purpose Is

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover”, so apparently, wrote Mark Twain. But whether he did or not, these words were not lost on David de Rothschild. In 2010, after 7 years of planning and with a crew of 6 de Rothschild embarked on a 4 month journey from San Francisco to Sydney aboard the Plastiki,  an 18 meter long catamaran built from 12,500 reused 2.5 liter plastic water bottles to start a conversation about the harm we are doing to our oceans with discarded plastic. Many expeditions later, de Rothschild is putting his love and craft on The Lost Explorer, a lifestyle brand established in 2025 (sic); because after all, it takes time to brew a collection “mentored by nature”.

Five years ago intrigued and enthusiastic I followed the Plastiki’s journey with my children. Today, I sit with David in London, just a week after meeting him for the first time at the United Nations Climate Conference in Paris to conduct this interview.

When did you first realise that you were an environmentalist?

I don’t consider myself an environmentalist per se. I am more of a storyteller. Stories that have substance need to be told and don’t necessarily need to reside within the label environmental because when you break everything down, everything is interconnected.

A lot of what we read about nature and the environment is very abstract, unemotional and dry, like sustainability reports. I like to think of the guys that invented the vitamin gummy bears. No one likes medicine. But they created vitamins that taste good and are natural to people. That is smart. Stories are about making learning an adventure that people are drawn to vs. something that is forced. For me the big question is how do we tell stories that inspire people to work in partnership with nature versus working against it.

Your stories revolve around nature as a central theme…

Yes they do. I used to think about humans and nature as two worlds colliding. Now I like to just think about nature, about human nature. We are part of the system. We have to learn how to be more human and how to be more part of nature.

Do you remember when you first felt aware of this deep interconnectedness?

I used to spend time with my aunt and uncle in their farm. We lived in rhythm with the seasons and the day. We went out at the crack of dawn. Came back inside when it was late and maybe grabbed a jumper, lit a fire. We fetched the milk in the morning. My aunt was a war baby and very frugal until her mid eighties. Scarcity was a way of life and nothing was wasted. Everything was used and reused. Living like that means there is a basis for being more conscious of where products come from and a deeper harmony with nature. As soon as I got back to the city I realised how detached we are. We don’t know where our food comes from. We have a convenience culture. We can live with no seasons; we go from a house to a car to an office. We turn the thermostat with our phone and go into these conditioned environments. This lifestyle leads us to a more human centric conversation, detached from nature.

What is exploration to you?

To me, exploration is about ideas and cultures. Exploration first started with the idea of exploring new land and resources. You were sent away to conquer. The Golden Age of exploration was about heroic gusto; man conquering nature, a race, putting the flag on top of something, being able to say who was the first person to reach a certain place.

We are now moving to an area where through technology, we can explore more of our understanding of the environment. Not only can we connect, we can have an instantaneous conversation when we see something, like a species we did not know about and share it with the world and have the world explore this too and send their feedback.

So exploration is moving away from the guy conquering something to the word’s true essence of discovering, getting to know, understanding…

Yes. I love the Natural History Museum in London. I love the juxtaposition of the outside, which looks like an old museum and what they do today. They have 130 scientists doing live sciences on expeditions around the world. I love that! You have to have the history, especially when it comes to conservation to understand the present. Today we can have both history and live sendings from space!

When you go out on an exploration, do you already have a script in your mind or do you go off to discover the story?

My aim is always to find a story that needs to be told and then I build an expedition around it. It’s only the very essence that is there from the very beginning. We take a cause that needs to be discussed.

Today we have decreased our consumption of soda but actually have increased our consumption of bottled water. Is it time to discuss plastic again?

Yes, you are right. I remember when we finished the Plastiki journey a journalist asked what we considered success. One measure was to be able to do the journey itself, from A to B. But the real measure of success is discussing our toxic relationship with plastic and unfortunately that hasn’t abated. We are seeing more people consume and throw away more plastic than ever. It is a challenge. The momentum around these causes can easily be lost because of the busyness of information we consume as adults, every single day is overwhelming. And we are not going deeply into the issues. We are good at taking the sound bite and the headline but that is becoming a dangerous place because people can easily take something, flip it around and believe it. We are turning to very simplistic, pointed narratives that create divides. I think this is symptomatic of how disconnected we are as a society. We have lost our centre.

Because the Plstiki project took so long I had time to reflect a lot. At the start I saw plastic as the enemy but then I realized maybe it was not plastic. Plastic is an ingenious material when it comes to building a prosthetic limb or a structure that needs it and lasts much longer than a straw or a disposable lighter. There is a smart use of plastic and a dumb one. So it is about the choices we make. Plastic is not the enemy, it’s our inability to decide how to best use it. I wanted to have a conversation about the choices we make that end up in the ocean.

The world is now more urban than it ever was. More people live in cities than in the countryside. How can we overcome this disconnectedness?

A lot of people feel connected when they are in nature. Nature lives you standing between and answer and a question. You are somewhere bigger than yourself. If you ask anybody to their shut eyes and go to a place that makes them feel good, most people will tell us they are in nature feeling alive, feeling connected, feeling purposeful.

Nature creates purpose. Things in nature don’t ask what their role is. They know it. They are part of the system. The leaf knows it has to capture sunlight and turn it into energy. When the leaves fall of they will give nutrients to the soil. There is a cycle.

When you meet any indigenous group you sense that too. Their sense of purpose is clear. They know their role. They are stewards of nature. Of course, there are still problems, we are all humans, but they are less detached.

Tell me how the idea of the Plastiki came about…

I had just returned from the North Pole. We had done an expedition trying to start a conversation around the melting ice caps. When I returned I felt that whenever the word climate change was used, there was debate even when one could show and see the ice caps melting in the North Pole. Climate change just felt so far away to people. When things are out of sight, they are out of mind. We don’t often think about our energy consumption. We can’t visualise how carbon looks like.

I wanted to do an expedition that presented undeniable evidence of our human consumption and made it tactile so people could feel it and engage in it. When you think about messaging, it is often about tactility: you touch it, feel it, smell it, taste it.

At that time, I saw a UN report about the impact of plastics on the biodiversity in the ocean. It had some statistics that said there were 46 000 items of plastic in every square mile of our oceans. I thought there must have been some error. But there was no typo. I kept reading.

I met with film producer Jeff Skoll (first President of Ebay and Founder of the Skoll Foundation) and I presented to him the idea that I would take a vessel to the Pacific Garbage Patch and get artists to collect trash and make art with it in different places around the world. He thought that was great but challenged me: “where is the drama? The Patch is twice the size of Texas. How are you going to tell that story?” I left the meeting and as I was flying back to Europe looking at the Ocean I thought of what were the most iconic sea expeditions ever. I thought of the Kon-Tiki and that is how the idea of the Plastiki came about.

In every great adventure there are the friends and the foes. How did you form the team of believers around this journey?

We formed a really good team of people who were part of the journey not because of what we were doing but because they believed in why we were doing it.

It took us a while to find a naval architect who believed in this project. The greatest thing I had to fight was to ensure we did not cut corners. The easiest thing would have been to build a ship of melted plastic. I refused to take the path of least resistance. I was adamant the bottles had to be visible as an important part of the conversation and narrative. This was at the center of all design choices. Because of this we lost some great people but we also attracted some very interesting people who were fascinated by the challenge.

How did you end up with the catamaran design?

We were fortunate Andrew Dovell came on board as the naval architect of the Plastiki. We brainstormed for over a year with people from all walks of life, artists, musicians, poets, designers, people who think creatively, people who think logically. We went for as broad as possible group of people. That kind of collaborative approach often results in unexpected outcomes.

The team consisted of 30 people, a story team, a build team, a mission control team. We also created this open source conversation. We wanted to let innovation from outside in. As clichéd as it is, the journey is just as important as the destination.

We looked at teams were innovation happens and found there are habits that keep on recurring. It’s always about persistence, optimism, curiosity, not taking the path of least resistance, being able to learn, unlearn and relearn. This was really important for instance in the build team, where a conventional mindset did not work because we were using unconventional materials.

I understand you used in addition to the recycled bottles only sustainable materials down to the glue, which was made of cashews and sugar. How did you come up with the inspiration of the pomegranate for the catamaran’s structure?

Nature is wise. It has 4.5 billion years of R&D. Some of the most interesting design is derives directly from nature, like the skin of a shark that is hydrodynamic in use of sports clothes. So we played with different inspirations from nature. The main challenge was to create a structure that held together the bottles. Plastiki was literally “spaceship earth” because we had to keep all of our resources in check. The longest leg was almost 2 months (57 days) without touching land.

How was life at sea? Five guys and a girl and yourself? Are you still friends?

Five guys and a girl, sounds like the start of a bad joke! (laughs). We are friends. Jo Royale, David Thompson and myself were the core crew and Vern Moen, Singularly Agnew, Max Jordan, Luca Babini, Graham Hill, Olav Heyerdahl and Matthew Gray did parts of the journey. We are definitely like brothers and sisters, where you love each other and get on each other’s nerves. The hard thing about being in the ocean is that it’s juts tough. The movement. The salt. The damp. The searing heat during the day. Everything tastes salty even the provisions that you have air-dried. You are constantly thirsty and you constantly want to escape the sun and then it gets really cold at night. It’s a small space and you can’t escape. You get sensitive. You are tired. Your human nature gets tested.

You had a whole conversation with the world through the Internet. Did it nourish you?

It did, but it was also distracting for me personally, because you have this responsibility and you can’t fully disconnect. I struggled with that because it was the whole purpose. We were fortunate. We went live on Times Square and TV shows. And the story was well received.

Did the Plastiki change you?

Yes. It took 7 years from start to end and reinforced this concept that everything is possible, if you are willing to be wrong, to iterate, to be nimble. We were doing things completely outside our comfort zone. You go through moments of self-doubt. But I have these great memories of the team working in San Francisco, of the incredible commitment we had to the project and to each other. Plastiki taught me a lot about the power of a group.

What have you been doing since?

I am building a lifestyle company, The Lost Explorer. It’s taken us two years but we are getting there. It will have everything from apothecary, wellness, health, clothing, goods and accessories, apparel. Everything is thought out nature first. We are building a narrative around collective consciousness. So far all my projects start a conversation but it then dissipates. This aims to keep the conversation going. There is a strong element of craftsmanship, about how things are made. We work with local artisans around the world.

Are you hopeful about nature?

Yes I am. I am not hopeful that our ability to live in this planet as we know it will exist but I am hopeful that there can be rapid change and we can find solutions. Ten years ago, we had just a phone, now we can run health diagnostics in these devices, we can locate things, collaborate with people. Moore’s law is moving fast so I am hoping ten years from now we will find solutions to today’s and tomorrows problems. I think what we need is a moral code of conduct. We have pushed away and delayed action for greed.

We can flourish and thrive if we are conscious. We have a window of opportunity. We either do the right thing or loose our ability to live.

What’s happiness to you?

Being around people that I love. Waking up in the morning and being able to do what I do. Being with my nephews and nieces. Seeing my mum. Being with my partner. When my dog licks my face in the morning or I catch a perfect wave as the sun is going down.

What is the most underrated value?

Curiosity. We are afraid to ask questions as we get older because there is a perception we should know everything. We are afraid to be wrong. Being curious and remaining childlike. Living curiously. Asking questions and not taking things for face value. Transparency and curiosity are really important.

So is that your motto?

Living curiously is the motto of The Lost Explorer.

What is the most overrated value?

This desire to be unique. It’s kind of counterintuitive especially when I talk about living curiously. What I mean by this is this idea that we are all disconnected from one another. I don’t mean you can’t be different; it’s this detachment that people pursue to be something. Being part of the tribe is where we really resonate.

 

Image: Mason Poole

2 responses to David de Rothschild – Things In Nature Don’t Ask What Their Purpose Is

  1. Vihaan says:

    Wonderful interview. Loved every bit of it. Kudos to Blanca as well for the good job.

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