Laura Turner Seydel – Environmental Advocate

by Elysian Magazine

 

“My definition for sustainability is longer-term than most peoples. I think humanity should consider sustainability throughout our children’s lifetimes and their children’s lifetimes. Much like the indigenous people who consider their impact today on the seventh generation or 120 years from now. I do not think we are doing that.”

 

LAURA TURNER SEYDEL is the firstborn daughter of American entrepreneur, businessman, and founder of CNN and TBS, Ted Turner. Celebrated for the many philanthropies he has founded and supported over the years, Laura attributes her own passion for environmental health and conservation issues to her father, who raised his five children to be benevolent and aware of the world around them. “It’s in my DNA,” Laura says. Married and the mother of three, she serves as chair for the Captain Planet Foundation, founded by Ted Turner and Barbara Pyle in 1991 and named after the cartoon show, Captain Planet and the Planeteers, which they produced between 1990 and 1996. Today the foundation is a 501c3 public charity that has grown into a worldwide network of young people who strategize, connect, and strive to make a meaningful difference locally and globally to save threatened and endangered species, and ecosystems. Laura is cofounder with her husband, Rutherford, of the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, which they established in 1994 to monitor and ensure the purity of the waters of the Chattahoochee River Basin, Georgia’s most heavily used water source, and is among many philanthropies that Laura dedicates her time and financial resources.

Tell me about your brothers and sister?

I have three brothers and one sister. I am the oldest child, my sister is seven years younger and the last child, so we are the bookends in our immediate family. My siblings Teddy, Rhett, Beau, and Jennie all work on environmental issues. Teddy is a world class sailor. He spends a lot of time on the ocean and has been involved with getting at-risk youth to learn about healthy marine systems. Rhett is a documentary filmmaker and photographer and has made many nature documentaries focused on Sandhill cranes, the Chattahoochee River, and other important topics. He has a coffee table book of pictures of wild landscapes, soon to be released. Beau works with my dad, dedicating most of his time to managing wildlife for conservation and running his properties in the Southeast. One of his passions is getting inner city kids into nature by teaching them how to hunt and fish. I believe it is important for our youth to have a connection to nature. Fishing and hunting are one way to educate and expose them to the outdoors. My sister, Jennie, has had her own television program for eleven years, on PBS. EcoSense for Living is seen in approximately 90 markets across the country. The stories spotlighted in EcoSense for Living are all positive and inspiring. Jennie does not present a doom and gloom perspective but rather a factual accounting of what is happening and suggestions on how you can help. My brothers and sister are doing amazing work.

Your family is collectively focused on the environment. How has your father, Ted Turner, maintained strong family connectivity around issues to which he has dedicated his life?

My dad started family gatherings around his philanthropic initiatives over thirty years ago. He wanted to make sure that our family members would get together a couple of times a year, primarily during Christmas holidays, where he combines the gathering with foundation meetings. We do a second, big trip in the summer, an environmental retreat, and bring our children. The fourteen cousins have all built a great bond over those years and remain very close to this day. I think the number one reason he started this beautiful tradition was to bring the family together. It also taught us to work together, to learn about and become quasi experts in the environmental causes that are most interesting to us. The foundation we had was much larger initially because we had Time Warner stock. After the merger with AOL, the value of the stock dropped and so did the value of the Corpus, so we have less funds to grant. But we also are much better at putting that money to work, to achieve our goals.

How might a philanthropy access those grants?

Organizations have to be a 501c3 public charity whose work has to align with the Foundation’s priorities related to land, air and water strategies such as actively managing land for improved resilience, habitat, quality and contributions to climate solutions. The Foundation needs to invite organizations to apply for a grant which can be general support or a specific program. We like to see that there is other financial support for the work. Our staff then brings a recommendation to the board for a vote–that’s how it works.

What are your first memories of your father’s dedication to conservation and saving the ecosystem?

My dad really became hyper passionate about the environment during the oil embargo when President Carter was in office. President Carter made recommendations for how the country could save energy collectively. For example, by driving your car 55 miles an hour, no faster, would save a tremendous amount of fuel. Keeping your thermostats at 65 degrees in the winter was another recommendation. At that time, most homes did not have air conditioning. We had an attic fan that sucked the heat out through the roof, which worked like a charm. Even at his house outside of Charleston, we did not have any air conditioning and it got really hot. With the climate warming it became hotter and hotter. When my brother was married in Charleston and dad stayed in the house with Jane (Fonda), it was so hot he said, “Okay, maybe now we can get air conditioning,” which we did. Dad has said throughout the course of his career, he did not get wealthy by spending money. He got wealthy by saving it and investing it in things that mattered. Wasting money on energy was not what he was about. I remember being really cold in the winters, but you would just go and get a sweater and put it on. He was not alone in his approach either, he was raised by parents that survived the Great Depression and they passed that ethic to him. When we visited our grandparents, it was the same way. If you got cold, you put on a sweater. You also did not waste food. We composted the coffee residuals, eggshells and= grapefruit peels that went in the garden. My grandmother who lived in Birmingham, Alabama, had great big roses which could easily have won awards. She would dig a hole, put the residuals of those three components in there and cover the dirt back over the hole. The compost created the richest, most wonderful fertile soil that grew these magnificent roses without any spots . . . none of the toxic stuff that you buy at the store today. My grandparents and dad are superheroes for the earth.

There is so much written about Ted Turner, your father, but tell me about your mother.

My mother, Judy, is from Chicago. She was a big sailor, which is how my mom and my dad met. She sailed for Northwestern University, and he sailed for Brown. They ended up racing against each other. They were both skippers which is probably why it did not last because there’s only one skipper on a boat. She has stayed in the Northeast and lives in Michigan. She is an artist and blows glass, which is quite amazing. She had a bookstore with her second husband for about 35 years.

She was not integral in your life as a young person?

I was three years old when my parents divorced and we moved from Atlanta to Chicago with her. When I was five and my brother Teddy was three, we came down to visit dad for a holiday and never went back. I never regret that happening, but I do remember receiving a letter from her just saying that she would not see me for a while because it was better and less confusing. Shared custody wasn’t an option since they were living in two different parts of the country. I did not see her again until I was 14 years old. When I got married in 1991, it was important for her to come to the wedding, and I really wanted that relationship. She came 30 years ago, and it has been a great relationship ever since, something I really value.

During those years, who filled the “mother” role model in the absence of your natural mother?

My grandmother did. She lost her only daughter, my dad’s sister, to lupus, to a long, painful, horrible death. Back then they had no way of managing the disease. She used to call me Mary Jean sometimes and I became like her surrogate daughter and ended up living with her for a couple of years when I was in middle school. My great-grandmother and my grandmother lived together so I was with them both.

Multi-generational influence from your father’s mother and grandmother?

Yes, they were in the hotel business in Cincinnati during the Great Depression. They would collect the untouched and unwanted food from the tables after people left, like the big baskets of bread that they put on tables. From the leftovers they created a soup kitchen out their back door. My grandmother wanted to go to college, but she had to stay home and help with the business so that her brother could go to college instead. He went to Cornell. She would tell us about feeling sorry for herself because she could not have a new pair of shoes until she passed a woman sitting on the street that did not have any feet. It shifted her whole way of thinking about life. I think what I learned from my grandmother and my great-grandmother was how to live within your means, and to live in reality. Many people today are over-consuming, which is not what you did during the great depression. I just keep coming back to that.

Other than your grandmother, were there any other women’s strong influences before the age of 25?

Not really. No.

How did you meet your husband, Rutherford?

My father was receiving an award at the Governor of Georgia’s International Businessman of the Year Award Ceremony. I was my dad’s “date” because he was between relationships. Rutherford’s dad, Scott Seydel, was also getting an award and we were seated at the head table. I sat right next to my future father-in-law. We got on fabulously and had a wonderful evening. I did not meet Rutherford, who was there that night with his, at the time, girlfriend. He asked his dad “who is Ted’s young girlfriend?”, to which he replied, “that’s not his girlfriend, that is his daughter.” We later ended up meeting through a mutual friend. He was charming and very talkative, which was refreshing because we cared about the same things. I had been working at Green Peace International in England and was passionate about whales and the harp seals that were being clubbed to make trinkets. My heart just was being ripped out of my chest. Most people glaze over when you start talking about those types of issues. They call you a tree hugging, granola eating, environmental extremist . . . but he valued, shared, and liked the same interests. We went on to do great projects together.

Are you a partnership or soulmates?

We are definitely soulmates which makes for a much better, long-lasting relationship. Physical attraction to somebody can wax and wane, but he is my best friend. I could not do what I do if I had a husband who expected me to put three meals on the table every day, which I did during COVID. But I missed that part earlier in our marriage. I felt bad for being away—it was a sacrifice, especially for our youngest daughter who would ask “Mom, why can’t you just be like some of the other moms and do what they do…drive us here and there? And why can’t you have a family dinner every night”? I tried to explain it to her, but now at 25, she fully recognizes and understands what I was doing. I was fighting for her future and the future of all young people.

Do you think that you have to make an either/or choice to emulate a traditional role model versus a work/passion focus?

Everybody has to find their own balance in life. When I was young, I really wanted to be married. I wanted to have children and I did not really picture myself doing anything else. I did not know what I wanted to study in college, so I only applied to one university, which is where I went.

This seems so strange to me because your father has such a strong personality and is a visionary. I assumed he would task and propel his daughters to “change the world.”

He always made it clear to his children, that he would not put pressure on us because his father had put so much pressure on him. He lost his sister to lupus and was treated like the only child. My grandfather was hard on my dad. I think the way he responded to what he went through was to encourage us to do whatever we wanted to do but to do it well. Ultimately, he wanted us to be happy. Dad taught my brothers how to hunt and fish. He also took my brothers ocean racing, which took them away from home a good bit. It was also fine with me not to go because I didn’t find joy in those things. However, both my sister Jennie and I fell in love with horses and spent time riding and competing.

Competition and passion are pervasive themes in your family. Is this hereditary?

It is in my DNA. It did not take me long to figure out what I was passionate about. When I was young, my grandmothers filled my head with “the prince charming story.” I heard it from my grandmothers so much I really started to believe it. But when I saw what was going on in the world my perspective changed. I grew up in nature and my siblings and I spent all our time in the outdoors playing, which is something today’s children do not get to enjoy nearly enough. They develop this terrific fear of bugs and dirt because it is so unknown to them. I think a natural evolution for me was to be concerned with what was happening to our environment. Dad was sitting on this mountaintop of global information, suddenly you could see we were messing up the world. My dad was seeing these big gaps and opportunities. He used his media platforms to educate others, to make them understand how amazing nature is. He wanted to connect their hearts with the idea of preserving our wildlife. He also wanted to show the world what happens when you do not take care of our planet. You cannot drink fresh water, crops will not grow, there is not enough food to eat, land dries out and burns up. This is what we are doing, and it is affecting our microclimates. When we take down the rainforest, we change the hydrological cycle. We affect the rainfall, dry out the ground. We are dewatering many of the aquifers so quickly. My dad showed me that by taking action, and putting your passion to work, you can actually solve problems.

The product of a strong father and divorce is a familiar theme amongst many of the women I have interviewed. You have been married for over 30 years. Is that the effect or lesson you learned from having divorced parents or is it because you made a commitment and never deviated?

It is a combination. Witnessing what happens when people get divorced is always very sad because, for the most part, it does not go well and is a hardship, especially for the children. Rutherford and I both experienced divorce in our family. We are both the oldest of five, with fathers who had been divorced three times. We did not want that for our children, and it was just ingrained into our personal choices. Fortunately, we are very compatible and lucky to have found one another.

There are three core and foundational areas of focus, for your father and you. The first one is nuclear threat, somewhat short term. Second is a comprehensive concern for the environment and the global eco-system. The third is what you describe as having “overreached the caring capacity of the earth” or overconsuming. Let us delve into the first, nuclear threats.

There are three existential threats that my dad talked about constantly while we were growing up, and he used his megaphone in the media to build awareness for the world at large. In the short term, it was the threat of nuclear weapons which would just be devastating for people and for nature.

Does the situation in Ukraine give you a consternation?

Of course, I think people everywhere are experiencing increased stress and anxiety from what we are all witnessing. For goodness’ sake, the risk has never been higher than now. It just seems to be the way of the world as there are more signs of fighting, animosity, fear, racism, escalation of gun violence, and domestic violence. What we are seeing, whether firsthand or watching through the media, is absolutely frightening. Dad started CNN because he wanted to show the world the truth. He put war in people’s living rooms. The first war that people could watch live and in real time was the Gulf War. He showed the atrocities of war; innocent people dying, cities being blown up, antiquities demolished, and the destruction of nature. It is absolutely ridiculous. I serve on the Nuclear Threat Initiative Board where experts contend that we are beyond where we were for the Cold War and the risk of nuclear war is escalating.

What do you think is the solution or antidote to diminish the threat of nuclear war?

I think more women in positions in leadership and politics, much like the Indigenous tribal nations. There were certain tribal nations where the war chiefs were women, and they were the ones to make the decisions on whether it was worth going to battle because they had to send their children. I think we can learn a lot from Indigenous people, because they survived in harmony for thousands of years. It took a couple hundred years to create the existential threats with weapons. I find it hard to believe that in my home state of Georgia, you can wear an overcoat, cloaking assault weapons designed to kill a lot of people extremely fast, and go into a church, a store, or walk down the street armed. I agree with Pope Francis, the amount of money spent on weapons of mass destruction is a sin when there are so many people in this world that don’t have access to basic human rights like fresh food and water.

The second bucket is our global eco-system. Is that where you now spend most of your effort, time, and energy?

Yes, because my father’s long-term concern, is now here. We see the devastation of escalating temperatures, air pollution, rising seas . . . I have been so focused on environmental health and environmental conservation, but I just cannot do it all, so I spend a lot of time working with “intersectional issues.” An example of what this means is when you talk about climate change, you must talk about issues in relation to people’s lives and the effect on them personally and their communities. For fishermen, concern is over the water levels in the rivers and the warmer temperatures are causing fish to go belly up.

Does this also apply to ranchers?

Yes. Ranchers are watching their range lands dry up because they have been overgrazed and the rainfall patterns have changed. The antidote is to regenerate the life in the soil and there are techniques of managed grazing that can lead to many win-wins for wildlife, the climate, livestock and for ranchers. On our fourteen ranches, nearly two million acres, we are implementing the principles and best practices of regenerative agriculture and the bison on our properties are helping to do it. I am passionate about this.

What are other examples you might give?

When talking to people who live in an urban setting, their intersection is the health of the community where asthma rates are high, because of dirty outdoor air from the transportation sector and the energy sector. I started an organization that addressed this with Stephanie Blank 17 years ago called Mothers and Others for Clean Air. There are so many ways to talk about what matters to diverse groups. But you cannot just say, “It is global warming,” people want to hear about solutions.

Am I hearing you define “intersectional issues” as the connective messaging that is needed for people (at the most local levels possible) to understand how they are personally affected by the destruction of the eco-system?

Yes, creating the narratives for people to connect with and building awareness that gets people to take action. With the Captain Planet Foundation, we have educated and trained youth activists around the globe. Now they are making a difference themselves like banning plastics in their school districts and their communities, shutting down coal fired plants, closing pollution sources that are contaminating their water supply.

What is your definition of sustainability?

My definition for sustainability is longer-term than most peoples. I think humanity should consider sustainability throughout our children’s lifetimes and their children’s lifetimes. Much like the Indigenous people who consider their impact today on the seventh generation or 120 years from now. I do not think we are doing that. Healthy planet, healthy people. Today, we take more than what we should and are degrading the ecosystem, the life of the planet . . . we are taking resources and not giving enough back. I love the term regeneration because that is what we have to do, figure out how to build back a lot of what we have taken. We should focus not just on how to keep the rainforest but planting new rainforests and new mangroves.

At the end of the day, why do you think people do not engage holistically on the environmental causes you are so passionate about?

We have 10 years left and people do not want to hear that. Just like Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth. People just do not want to believe it and the topic is polarizing.

10 years before what?

Before we cannot put the genie back in the bottle. Environmental destruction, global warming, wildfires, oceans rising and eroding away the seashores, extreme weather. The heat index will rise for people who live in urban settings, and for people who work in the outdoors, there will be an uptick in disease like Lyme disease, asthma, and heart disease.

The third core area of focus is overconsumption, or as you call it having “overreached the caring capacity of the earth”?

Yes, because there are approximately eight billion people on a finite planet with finite resources. One half of a percent, of all the water on earth, is potable and can be used to irrigate crops. Water in China is so polluted that they cannot even use it for industry. They dewatered the aquifers in the Northern China plain where they grew most of their food and fed their people. The same happened in the Middle East, where many countries dewatered their aquifers and were unable to produce enough grain to feed their people. Extremism and the violence came out of the Middle East because it is 150 degrees and food cannot be grown. The Arab spring started as a result of rising food prices because of importing . . . everything is interconnected.

For what do you want to be remembered?

I want to be remembered by my children and grandchildren for doing everything in my power to ensure a healthy and livable planet for them and future generations.

Your children play a role in your legacy; can you tell me about them?

My three kids are amazing. Of course, all mothers are biased about their children. I really appreciate and admire them individually, and they are sincerely passionate about the work that they do. I believe it is because they were influenced by their grandfather and what Rutherford and I do, and have done, their whole lives, in working to affect some of the toughest issues that will impact their lives and their children’s lives. John R is 29 years old and he is the Director of Sustainability for the city of Atlanta, a job he has held for six years now. The city of Atlanta was one of the first cities to sincerely address food desert issues and the first in the country to hire a Director of Urban Agriculture to address community gardens, as one small example. Our daughter, Vasser, is living her passion centered on ocean health as the campaign director for a nonprofit to fight deep seabed mining. She speaks at conferences, does media and podcasts. Interestingly, Vasser is a family name given to her that means water in German. Laura Elizabeth graduated in 2020 from the film school at UCLA and she is very dedicated to the entertainment industry. Music is her specialty, and she produces music videos. She also just launched her own production company. She has a great ability to influence young people about social and environmental causes.

Tell me about a few organizations that you both support and with whom you work?

I try to work with and support organizations that address urgent challenges affecting the health, functionality, and vitality of our life support system: our air, water, land, food, biodiversity, and climate. I serve as chair for the Captain Planet Foundation which has been working collaboratively for over thirty years to engage and empower young people to be problem solvers for the planet. I cofounded the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper which has fought hard and smart since 1994 to make the water of the Chattahoochee River and its tributaries drinkable, swimmable and fishable. I also cofounded Mothers and Others for Clean Air which works to protect the health of our most vulnerable populations—especially children—by reducing the impact of air pollution and climate change throughout the Southeast.

Global warming and connecting children with nature are two of your passions. What organizations do you champion in these areas and why?

I am passionate about the boards on which I serve. Project Drawdown which was the first to enlist researchers to map, model and measure the top 100 scalable solutions to address global warming. The Children & Nature Network, whose mission it is that all children grow up realizing the many benefits—physically, mentally, developmentally, and cognitively—that exposure to nature provides is also important to me.

At the end of your life, what do you want your dad to know?

Well, I tell him every chance that I get . . . but he usually leads by saying “Laura, I’m so proud of you.” A lot of parents do not tell their children when they are proud of them. But he does on a regular basis. I would say, “I am so proud of you, dad. I would not be doing this work if it were not for you. Look at all you have done and the amazing difference you have made on a global scale. You are passing it down and have influenced the thinking of millions of people around the world, with “Captain Planet and the Planeteers.” Millennials that watch the cartoon have an ethic for social causes and environmental causes. I do tell him that on a regular basis. I have a great life thank you, dad. I have a great life. You gave me these great opportunities to be able to make my passion the reason for getting up every day.

You can ask God, any question, what would it be?

I would ask him if we all start taking care of your creation and the least of these children, as you have mandated us to do, then will you let us live on this planet for another couple hundred years, at least?

What is your favorite book and why?

The most important book is Drawdown, the 100 Top Solutions to Address Global Warming. People want solutions. Personally, of the top ten solutions to solve the climate crisis, I love number three, which is reducing food waste. Number four, which is eating a more plant rich diet, and then number six, educating girls and number seven is family planning. If you add three and four together, that’s the number one solution to address the climate crisis. And if you add number six and seven together, that becomes the number one solution for the climate crisis.

What piece of advice can you give your younger self and a young woman who is coming into her own, in today’s world?

Growing up, I was always hung up on being judged for how I looked. I felt that there was a “perfect standard” to meet and what mattered most to society was how you looked. Words matter and what people say is important. You can see it in social media where young girls are bullied and/or become hyper-focused on looks and manipulate the way they look for the world. I would hope to change what we are seeing now with teenage girls. I do believe we are finally changing because media and advertisers have been pressured to do so. For the first time, models are more real, they are full-figured, and they have imperfections. In hindsight, I wish that I had felt comfortable in my own body. I would not have gone through some of what I experienced. I would remind my younger self and the young women who follow, what my grandparents would say “beauty is as beauty does.”

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