The Visionary: Ted Turner Talks About Environmental Conservation

by Bret Love for

“Call me Ted” isn’t just the title of Ted Turner’s latest book, the bestselling autobiography (co-written with Bill Burke) detailing the first 70 years of his legendary life. It’s also the first thing he says to visitors entering his downtown Atlanta office for the first time, usually accompanied by a welcoming grin and a remarkably firm handshake that belies his age.

It’s this dichotomy– the charming good ol’ boy and tough-minded businessman– that has characterized Turner for the better part of his career. And there are reminders of his greatest achievements practically everywhere you turn, from classic sailing paintings (which evoke memories of his America’s Cup win in 1977) lining the walls and Atlanta Braves (which he turned into a pennant-winning franchise) bobbleheads lining his assistant’s bookshelves to televisions quietly showing CNN (the network he founded).

But once the office doors close and the interview begins, it’s clear that the legendary entrepreneur is most comfortable being just plain ol’ Ted, a man who speaks from the heart, shoots from the hip, and is refreshingly frank about his desire to save the world.

The term “maverick” has been thrown around a lot in recent years, and has often been used to describe your approach to business. What does that word mean to you?

Well, it’s somebody that doesn’t fit the mold perfectly, somebody who’s a little different. Being able to think outside the box has served me well most of the time, but sometimes you make mistakes, and that’s a part of life. But the word doesn’t mean that much to me. “Visionary” means more. I don’t really think of myself as a maverick.

You created the first cable TV giant, TBS, as well as the first all-news network, CNN. How do you feel about the way the digital revolution is changing the way people experience television?

It gives people more choice and freedom, which has been the trend with a lot of consumer products and services. It’s made life more convenient, like the microwave oven. But if I was a young man today, I wouldn’t go into the TV business because it’s matured. I’d go into the clean alternative energy business.


It’s at the very beginning [of the industry’s lifespan], and huge because everybody needs energy. I can’t think of any other industry that has the same level of potential upsides. There’s wind, solar and geo-thermal energy and all sorts of new technologies being developed in these areas. We’re going to have to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels because it’s running out, and we only have 3% of the world’s oil reserves here in the United States. We use 20% of the world’s energy, and news reports say that even if global warming wasn’t the threat that it is, we’d still need to move to renewable energy sources simply because of the financial situation. We cannot keep sending trillions of dollars over to the Middle East, where they’re building indoor ski resorts with our money while we’re unemployed.

Why do you think it’s taken the Western world so long to figure that out?

Because it requires dealing with the future, where we’ve been living for today and letting the devil take care of tomorrow. It’s finally caught up with us. We’ve been spending more money than we’re making, which you can do for a while, but not forever. Warren Buffett said the United States as a whole has been spending 6% more per year than we make for the last five years, and that’s trillions of dollars! We’ve been splurging on our credit cards, but all of a sudden the bill comes due and the piper has got to be paid. It’s very painful, but it’s always very painful to cut back.

What role do you think the environmental movement will ultimately play in fixing the nation’s economy?

Environmentalists are in favor of clean renewable energy and combating global warming as fast as we can, and I think that’s gonna be good for the economy too. It’ll create a lot of new jobs here in the United States, because while you can outsource the production of the windmills and solar panels, you’ve got to install and service them here, and there’s no reason we can’t build them here as well. It should provide a great stimulus to the economy, and it’ll also get us away from fossil fuels. Here in Atlanta, incidents of asthma in children is 100% what it was 20 years ago, and it’s all because of automobile emissions and our power plants burning coal. Even if we do nothing but get cleaner air, it’s still worth doing it because our poisonous air just keeps getting worse.

How does the over 2 million acres of land you own fit into your environmental vision?

I think we’re setting an example for how to manage land in an environmentally sensitive way, with a real strong emphasis on maintaining habitats for a variety of plants and wildlife.

Ted’s Montana Grill has been promoting a “Green Restaurant Revolution.” What’s that all about?

We’re doing everything we can to encourage businesses to become more eco-friendly. I’m heavily invested in the chain, and we’re trying to set a good example for environmental stewardship. We’re doing everything from using bio-diesel and paper straws that are biodegradable to using more energy efficient lighting.

You’ve pledged a billion dollars to the United Nation’s causes. Why do you think that organization is so important?

Because we live in a very complicated and interconnected world today, and I think we’d have absolute chaos if we didn’t have the U.N. It’s like the national governments, which aren’t perfect either, but we can’t function without them. If you look at failed nations such as Somalia, they can’t get anything done because have no government or police department, so it’s total chaos. But the United Nations deals with things national governments can’t do alone, like addressing climate change, which requires all the countries in the world to work together. They handle world food programs in countries dealing with famine, helping to alleviate hunger, and deal with the global problem of refugees. The list just goes on and on.

I know you considered running for President at one point. How would you grade the job Obama’s done so far?

I think he’s done a very good job considering the fact that he inherited, through no fault of his own, this serious financial trouble we’re in. I’m not sure what the right way to deal with this financial meltdown is, but he’s got some of the smartest people in the country working on it with him. As far as environmental concerns, I think he’s put climate change and getting rid of nuclear weapons right at the very top of his agenda. He’s also got to balance the quest for renewable resources with the survival of the auto industry, which is a very complicated problem I’m not sure I have all the answers for. That’s why he’s President and I’m sitting here talking to you (laughs).

How has your life changed most since turning 70? What do you do to keep yourself so vibrant?

I haven’t really seen any major changes. Your 70th birthday is just like any other day. Of course, as you get older you do seem to slow down a little, and it becomes a little more painful getting in and out of chairs or the car. But I do exercise every day, and I read a fair amount to try to keep up with everything that’s going on in the world today. I read The Economist every week, because it’s got the best international coverage of any magazine I’ve seen.

If you were writing a sequel to Call Me Ted in 10 years, what new achievements would you hope to be able to write about by then?

I’d like to see the world rid of nuclear weapons and see us handle the issue of climate change effectively. I’d like to see the population stabilized, and poverty and hunger eliminated. There are a few other things as well, but they would all be achievements of humanity, not personal achievements.

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