David Rockefeller Junior speaks with the Good Men Project about the environment, philanthropy, and masculinity’s “different shades.”
David Rockefeller Junior is the director and former chairman of the Rockefeller Foundation, a philanthropic organization that’s been around since 1913. As a member of the famous Rockefeller family, David has devoted much of his work toward the preservation and care of the environment and the natural world. He’s a former vice chair of the National Parks Foundation and aslo served as a member of the Pew Oceans Comission, which in 2003 issued a comprehensive report of U.S. marine waters. This led David, an avid sailor himself, to create Sailors for the Sea, an organization that promotes ocean-health awareness among the boating community. Sailors for the Sea also provided the impetus for the recently-released book, One Island, One Ocean: The Epic Environmental Journey Around the Americas, which Rockefeller sponsored.
Rockefeller is also a former vice chair of the Alaska Conservation Foundation, a trustee of a number of different environmental and arts-supporting foundations, and a current member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Oh, and he graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Law School, which, somehow, is the least impressive thing he’s done.
David took some time out to talk to us about the new book, his environmental work, and being a man.
Tell us a little about One Island, One Ocean.
This is a book that reports on an expedition around the American continent. Five years ago, the captain of the boat, Ocean Watch, and I were sitting on a boat in Naples, Italy, and he was basically saying that he grew up on a farm in Nebraska—this is Mark Schrader—and had moved to the West Coast and had this wanderlust to race around the world a couple of times, but he had never really thought about the condition of the ocean as something he should worry about. As we watched the garbage float by in Naples harbor, he was saying, “I would love to help Sailors for the Sea,” which I had just started, “to get on the map. I’m thinking I could maybe do a big voyage of exploration that no one has ever done before.” And I said, and my partner at Sailors for the Sea David Treadway, “that sounds really interesting.”
So, we massaged the idea. He found the boat. He’s a Seattle resident, so he wanted to begin in Seattle. I helped him put together the financing for the expedition. I shipped aboard for two weeks out of the 13 months that they were gone.
Out of a passion for sailing came a passion for the ocean.
A lot of your chartable work has been concerned with the health of the environment, so I guess this combines two of your passions in a way?
Exactly. It works best that way, I think. For probably the last 20 years, national parks, oceans, and Alaska have been the three pieces of my environmental work. It comes through a passion for those places. When you find out that some of them are in trouble, there’s something to be done, and the people who love a place most are most likely to protect it. And that’s the rationale for Sailors for the Sea.
Why has the environment always been an important point for you in your philanthropy?
The environment means so many different things. It’s the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, as well as the landscapes and bodies of water that are so beautiful and compelling. But I think it’s that combination of the essential elements of what make living on the planet comfortable and what makes it beautiful—what makes it lovable, actually. And it’s that combination of loving the services that the planet provides for us, depending upon those, appreciating those services, and realizing that we can mess it up if we’re not careful. We can help to protect them if we understand the science of the ecosystems. It’s many different things that draw me to the environment: from the span of health to beauty and engagement.
Who taught you about manhood?
Always one’s father, and that was true. But there’s so many different shades of manhood. There were the athletes at school. There were the great teachers. There was the boat captain who ran our powerboat on the coast of Maine. There were the rugged men. There were the intellectual men. There were the successful businessmen. There were the poets.
I think what I learned was that manhood had a very big range, and that’s been wonderful. No single definition. But my father was certainly in that mix.
What two words best describe your dad?
He’s an internationalist. He is an art-lover and a nature-lover. He is a successful businessman.
What’s the best advice your dad’s ever given you?
That loyalty to friends is a very important principle and being loyal to friends generates wonderful returns, some of which are unexpected.
How are you most unlike your dad.
I’m more ironic. I think I’m more playful.
What’s the biggest mistake you’ve ever made? How’d you learn from it?
Going into a situation and under-investing, whether it’s financial or emotional. And when something wasn’t working, not getting out soon enough. That applies to a business, to a marriage. Some people call it “cutting your losses.”
What advice would you give to teenage boys trying to figure out what it means to be a good man?
To adopt a generous—meaning “wide”—view of what it means to be a man. Not to be afraid of aspects of manhood that might seem more female. To embrace the feminine.
When was the last time you cried?
It was either a month or two months ago, I can’t remember. But not so long ago.
—Photo mybulldog/Flickr and icte.umsl.edu