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“Captain Planet, he’s our hero, going to take pollution down to zero..”
Anyone who grew up in the ’90s will be familiar with the opening song of the popular cartoon Captain Planet, the brightly coloured, mullet-flaunting superhero who educated a generation of kids on how to save the planet. The show was extremely successful, running for 113 episodes across more than 100 countries and translated into 23 languages.
The creator of Captain Planet was none other than Ted Turner, the founder of CNN (Cable News Network) which became the world’s first 24-hour news network. During his successful career, Turner was well known as the “Mouth of the South”, for his controversial opinions. Combined with a taste for booze, woman, hunting and fishing - he seemed an unlikely candidate for a conservationist.
His motivations for this conservation work stem from a childhood dream. In an interview in a new documentary on CNN - Ted Turner: Captain Planet - he explains that after reading a National Geographic magazine about the decline of the American bison, the young Turner decided he was going to save these animals. But he knew that to keep them protected he would need land - and for land he would need money.
“Turner developed his ranches by pioneering the idea of “eco-capitalism” -- the idea of using the free market to promote sustainability.”
How did he do it?
From the mid-1980s, Turner started buying up massive areas of ranch land in Montana with plans to restore them to their natural state in the hope of encouraging not just the bison back, but other indigenous animals.
Scientists believe that more than 30 million bison once roamed the USA but after European settlers slaughtered most of them, at the beginning of the 20th century there were only an estimated 100 bison left.
Fast forward to today and Turner now owns 16 ranches across Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico and South Dakota, as well as three more in Argentina. They cover a total of almost 2 million acres -- 10 times the size of New York City -- making him the second-biggest landowner in North America.
The land is now teeming with animals, elk, mule deer, antelopes, wolves, bears, mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes, foxes, eagles and osprey. Native species such as grey wolves, the black-footed ferret and the prairie dog also share the land with his beloved bison.
Actor Jane Fonda (Turner’s third wife), speaks in the documentary about Turner’s knowledge on the way species interact with each other to sustain their habitat.
“One of the important things that he taught me was the existence of what are known as keystone species -- certain species, that if they disappear the ecosystem collapses. He taught me that prairie dogs are a keystone species and they were disappearing. It was synergies between prairie dogs and bison, the two of them working together, that allowed the Great Plains to be the breadbasket of North America. Take away that foundational species and everything begins to collapse.”
Turner developed his ranches by pioneering the idea of “eco-capitalism” -- the idea of using the free market to promote sustainability. Turner’s view is that “conservation if it’s going to endure, has to pay for itself, especially if it’s happening on private land.”
Now that bison numbers are up (according to Turner’s website, he currently he has 51,000 bison across the various ranches), he slaughters for meat for his “Ted’s Montana Grill” chain of restaurants. Weather this is ethical or not is still up for debate, but the ranches also generate income through eco-tourism, fishing and hunting.
Philanthropy throughout his career
Turner has signed “The Giving Pledge” in which the wealthy pledge to give a large proportion of their earnings to philanthropic causes. His most notable contributions include the $1 billion he gave to the United Nations to create the UN Foundation to support humanitarianism work around the world. Founded the Nuclear Threat Initiative to reduce the risk from weapons of mass destruction. Set up the environmental focused Turner Foundation, Turner Biodiversity Divisions and the Turner Endangered Species Fund (TESF). More recently, he started the Luckie Street Solar Project in Atlanta, Georgia - the first and largest solar installation in down town Atlanta.
Now aged 80, his motto is “save everything”.
“It’s a pretty wonderful world that we live in down here, and it’s worth saving,” he tells CNN’s Dr Sanjay Gupta, reflecting on his decades of conservation work.
“You have to save the species that live on the planet to save the planet”