It would be easy to dismiss Ted Turner as a billionaire with a big mouth, a blowhard or even a buffoon.
Wrong, wrong and wrong.
Ted was on display in all his Ted-ness the other day at the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Cooking for Solutions conference on food and sustainability. He ranted, he raved, he clowned, he ignored questions from interviewer, Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post. Moderating Ted is about as easy as domesticating a bison. (His herd numbers 50,000.)
But what Turner said made a lot of sense, even as his answers wandered, ADD-like, all over the map.
I’ve covered Ted, on and off, since the late 1980s,when I was a media writer. He’s always been underestimated. Conventional wisdom in the broadcast industry was that CNN, his pioneering 24-hour news channel, would never work. Much later, after he merged his Turner Broadcasting Co. with Time Warner (my employer at the time), he was one of the few top execs who opposed the disastrous merger from the start. He has always lived his values, using the platforms he created to support causes dear to him–the environment, nuclear disarmament, the end of the Cold War. Remember the Goodwill Games?
His bombastic demeanor may be a reason why he hasn’t gotten the credit deserves for his philanthropy. Turner, who is 72, has given away more than $1.3 billion to the Turner Foundation, the United Nations Foundation, the Nuclear Threat Initiative, the Captain Planet Foundation, and the Turner Endangered Species Fund. He also took the Giving Pledge put forward by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.
As if that weren’t enough, Turner owns about 2.1 million acres of land in the U.S., making him the nation’s 2nd biggest landowner (behind his fellow cable mogul John Malone). Most of his land is protected from development.
So what’s on his mind these days? Lots. Some highlights:
Food, population and women: “What really concerns me is if we go to 8 or 9 billion. The natural world is collapsing all around us. There are two things we can do that won’t cost a lot of money… Millions of women don’t have access to family planning. If you provide people with family planning, they won’t have unwanted pregnancies and they won’t have to have abortions. The second thing we could do and we should have done it a long time ago is half the women in the world don’t have equal rights with men. In the Arab world, people are treated like dogs. They can’t vote in Saudia Arabia. They can’t drive a car. They don’t get an education. Women need to have equal rights with men, and equal education and equal rights to a job, and when women have that, they will choose to have smaller families.”
War: He’s against it. “If we re not bombing someone, we’re not happy. But if people come bomb us, we get mad as hell. Look what happened when they bombed the World Trade Center. We were mad, mad, mad.”
Energy conservation: He’s for it. “I sit in my office in the dark. I only turn my light on when I really need it.”
Energy poverty: Rich countries should get together to help the two billion people in the world who don’t have access to electricity. “Why not give everyone in the world who doesn’t have electricity a solar panel and a light bulb so their kids can do their homework?”
The defeat of climate bill: “It’s going to go down in history as one of the great tragedies that we’ve ever had.”
Politics: “This polarization that’s going on in Congress is not good for this country, and we should demand that it be stopped.”
His bison herd: It started as a hobby, like getting a dog. “We came very close to losing the bison completely and that just broke my heart as a little boy.”
His Ted’s Montana Grill restaurants: There are now 46 of them, and he urged the crowd to give one a try. “Bison is much better for you. It has half the cholesterol and fat than beef. And it tastes better.”
He who profits most who serves the best: That’s the Rotary Club message that Turner says has guided him. “I am absolutely sure because I’ve tested it myself that you’re far better off living a well rounded life where you make a contribution to society that just being hoggy and greedy and piling it up like Scrooge McDuck. Remember he had that big pile of money and he went for a swam in it? It’s much better swimming in water than swimming in money. And right now we’re swimming in debt.”