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Interview: David de Rothschild

March 21, 2011

Last week I interviewed David de Rothschild about his book Plastiki*, which hits book stores in May and became available on Amazon last week. After sailing 8,000 miles from San Francisco to Sydney to raise awareness about ocean pollution, de Rothschild compiled a book about his voyage. Part travelogue, part adventure narrative, his book documents life at sea and includes essays from thought leaders like Sylvia Earle and William McDonough discussing the importance of preserving our natural resources.

ME: First, what inspired you to write a book?

DR: It’s part of the continuing process to keep the story alive. The book is a little bit more personal. It’s the complete story in one place, which is hopefully quite exciting for people who follow the Plastiki because obviously it was spread out over a number of years. There’s a lot of content in there that maybe people haven’t seen—early content from when the boat was nothing more than a couple of drawings on some brown paper. It’s a nice collection of not only narratives around the Plastiki but also people’s opinions. It was really important for me to have a book that wasn’t just the sort of first person, “and this is what we did,” but to really mix in the crew’s voice—there were some great writers on board. So mixing that in but also mixing in some opinion pieces from characters who are really champions of the earth, which hopefully broadens the book out.

ME: In the book you mention a conversation with Jeff Skoll, the first president of eBay, where he challenges your initial idea to sail across the Pacific by saying: “Where’s the drama; what’s the hook?” You later come up with the idea to sail across the ocean on a boat made of plastic bottles and say, “Now that would be dramatic.” So I wanted to know if you could talk about the importance drama played in this expedition.

DR: I think it’s about ultimately creating a story that’s going to be intriguing and if you have a narrative that is too predictive, too quantifiable, too absolute then I don’t think people are interested in hanging around. The unknown factor definitely created a lot of interest and I think that’s part of why there was such media interest. I think there’s an element or undertone of disbelief that this was ever going to materialize out of Pier 31, where we were building. And then when we said we’re going to leave I think the media’s interest was really piqued because the public’s interest piqued. Because it was like well, they’re in a huge amount of jeopardy here. We’re on an unconventional boat with untested materials in an unknown environment. There’s a lot at risk. And I did and I continue to argue that the risk was well worth taking in the sense that you know, how much are we willing to risk to try to lessen our impact on the planet? I think it should be all chips on the table.

ME: Right, and your discussion of the media actually leads to one of my other questions: in the book there are several full page color spreads of the media taking photos of or interviewing the crew and the book mentions Outside magazine, USA Today and The New Yorker articles about the Plastiki journey, so how important was media coverage to this expedition?

DR: Whenever you’re creating a campaign or you’re trying to instigate change you need awareness of what you’re trying to achieve so the media is an incredible tool to distribute the story and that’s really what we wanted was reach. We wanted to make sure that the three or four years of developing and sailing and all the things that went into the Plastiki weren’t just done under the radar. So we wanted to make sure the message was heard and that this would influence people from all walks of life from all different countries and hopefully inspire them, one, to be more aware of the situation at hand and secondly to drive real world solutions whether that’s a personal change in the household or the community or the business or whether that’s innovation in the supply chain or innovating plastics. So I think the media obviously plays an incredible role in helping us distribute the message and it was vital to keep that message fresh and present and continue to use this incredible distribution platform, as I said, to instigate change.

ME: Another unique part of this voyage was that not only were you receiving attention from outside media but in a way your crew acted as their own media outlet, writing online and publishing on the blog. So what was that experience like for you, as the one tweeting about this or blogging about that and receiving info from the public?

DR: It was incredible. It was a double-edged sword to be completely honest. On one side it was obviously us doing this to let people know about [the voyage]. For me it was probably one of the most connected expeditions I’ve ever seen and that I’ve been involved in. I think in a way we were more connected at sea than we ever were on land. We were sitting on the Plastiki with full streaming capabilities which allowed us to open up the conversation to the media, to schools, we did live Skype into schools and live chats with groups all over the world from the boat, not just the media and I think that was vital to the message. On the flip side of things obviously the experience of disconnecting from everyday life and having that divide, that didn’t manifest and unfold as I would have liked because you’re never offline.

ME: In many parts of the book you used terms like, “polymers are forever,” and “a synthetic sea” which were perhaps first used by Captain Moore who discovered the Patch in ’97. Where do you see yourself within the tradition of marine debris researchers like Captain Moore of Algalita or Scripps’ SEAPLEX?

DR: It’s always been very clear from our side, we’re not an NGO, we’re not scientists, we’re not researchers we’re not a group that is going to take one side or another per se. We have our opinions and we have our beliefs and we stick by them and we push as hard as we can on issues that we think are important to be recognized and need the spotlight. Our role as an organization is to create a notable conversation that points to the people in the trenches, to Charles Moore or to, as you said, Algalita or the plastic politicians or to any of those groups that are engineering the work day in and day out and will be there actively trying to solve this plastics issue in many years to come.

ME: So what’s one thing you hope readers of this book will take away?

DR: Very very simply, it comes down to this issue that everything is possible and the list of solutions outweighs the list of problems and that’s how the Plastiki worked; it was a floating hotbed of solutions and innovation and fundamentally, if this group of individuals can build a boat out of plastic and sail across the Pacific I can definitely look at my consumption habit and minimize my use of single use plastics.  There’s really no excuse so hopefully it’s a motivator, it’s something where people recognize they are part of the problem and can easily become part of the solution.

You can learn more about the book or de Rothschild’s other projects at Myoo

*Disclaimer: Some of my garbage patch photos appear in the book

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