Upper-class eco-warriors

David de Rothschild is one of a small band of people who have set themselves the task of saving the world. We used to think of climate activists and eco-protesters as scruffy outsiders. Now they are anything but. De Rothschild, son of the prominent banker Sir Evelyn de Rothschild, is the heir to a fortune. He could be lazing around, doing pretty much what he wants. But what he wants is to save the world.

Something interesting is happening to eco-warriors. To those making the headlines at least. They’re getting posher. A couple of years ago, the words “climate activist” would conjure an image of unkempt clothes and dreadlocks. They looked like people who wanted to spoil the party because they hadn’t been invited. Now, as activism enters the mainstream in a big way, we’re seeing something different. The new breed, such as Tamsin Omond, founder of campaign group Climate Rush, and Franny Armstrong, director of the acclaimed docudrama The Age of Stupid, mostly protest in expensively educated accents. David de Rothschild looks like the sort of guy who could get into any party he liked.

De Rothschild is 6ft 4in. He has long hair and a beard, dresses like a lumberjack, and uses words such as “dude”. His latest plan is to sail across the Pacific in a boat made from plastic water bottles. He has named the boat “Plastiki” in homage to Kon-Tiki, the raft on which Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl crossed the Pacific in 1947. He intends to set sail from San Francisco early next year and head south to Sydney.

I’d heard many things about de Rothschild – that he had been a troubled child; that he’d moved from school to school; that he had wanted for a time to be a show jumper. For a while he designed and sold T-shirts, operating on the fringe of the music business. He went on treks to the Arctic and the Antarctic. And then, at some point in his twenties, he began to think that human beings were ruining the planet, so he decided he wanted to do something about it.

We meet at the London headquarters of Adventure Ecology, the organisation he founded in 2005 “to try to get kids interested in environmental issues”. De Rothschild, 31 and still boyish, takes me into an empty room and offers me tea and biscuits.

What follows, over the next couple of hours, is a torrent of ideas, anecdotes, statistics, and theories. Conversationally, he’s an unstoppable force. Even in a quiet room, he talks as if he’s making a speech to a full auditorium. In the space of five minutes, he sketches the history of humanity during the past 10,000 years. We farmed. We mined. We became obsessed with economic growth. Now we have a lot of waste to clear up. De Rothschild gives a lot of talks to schoolchildren.

After setting sail from San Francisco in his bottle-boat, which has taken a couple of years to build (he doesn’t want to reveal the cost, which might be a “distraction”), he aims to sail through the Eastern Garbage Patch, an area of the ocean that lies somewhere between California and Hawaii. It is twice the size of Texas. Most importantly, it is full of plastic waste.

De Rothschild had his first real taste of climate change in the Arctic in 2006, when he mounted an expedition with three others to see if the ice was melting. He was sitting in a tent, supposedly in one of the coldest places on earth. But he wasn’t cold. “There I am, sitting in my long johns,” he says. “I’m sitting there, going, ‘It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realise it’s only minus-one and I’m sweating in my tent. There’s something wrong here.’ That was the starting point for me. I just went, ‘This is nuts. How did we not know about this?’”

It is noticeable how often de Rothschild distances himself from his ultra-wealthy background, as if he sees it as bad PR. He has often said that he’s too proud to ask his father for money. He’s also keen to point out that his first car was a Ford Fiesta and that he worked in a bar to earn the money to pay for it. He is not keen on amassing material possessions. “Stuff does not equal happiness,” he says, “the more shit you have the more you’ve got to worry about.” But, he tells me: “I feel incredibly blessed to have that heritage, that financial security. It gave me the space to think about these things. ”

Should we worry that people from the moneyed elite are trying to save the world? Perhaps we should cheer. I talked to climate protester Tamsin Omond about this. She is, as everybody points out, the granddaughter of a baronet and studied at Westminster school and Cambridge. Like de Rothschild, she plays down her background. In her book, Rush! The Making of an Activist, she writes: “Last year, when I was really, really skint, I became amazingly good at asking people in restaurants for their leftovers.”

“Class,” says Omond, 25, “is a really interesting issue to the media. It’s interesting to the British people.” After Cambridge Omond wasn’t sure what to do. For a while, she thought she might become an Anglican priest. And then, in 2006, she changed her mind. As she puts it: “The world needs another climate activist more than it needs another Anglican priest.”

What changed her mind? A series of little things. She took a flight to Spain for £30. At the airport, there was a terrorist scare and her flight was delayed. When she arrived at her destination, her luggage was missing. Angry with this particular cheap flight, she began to think about cheap flights in general. Back in England, she met people who were terrified about climate change and joined Plane Stupid, an anti-aviation group.

She became fixated by the notion that, if the planet heats up by just two degrees, mayhem will almost certainly ensue. Glaciers will melt. Cities will be flooded. Disease will be rife. Like de Rothschild, she sounds happy. She has a cause. She has climbed on the roof of the Houses of Parliament. She has been arrested and put in jail. “It’s just kind of glum,” she says, of being in jail. “You can’t stop thinking about things you don’t want to be thinking about. I started to compose a musical in my head – in Italian. I don’t really speak Italian.”

She suggests I get in touch with Leo Murray, a fellow member of Plane Stupid. Murray, an animator, wrote and directed a short animated film about climate change called Wake Up, Freak Out – Then Get a Grip and his artwork, which is brilliant and rather haunting, also appeared in The Age of Stupid.

Murray, who is the grandson of the late Labour peer Anthony Greenwood, agrees that activists “tend, on the whole, to come from materially secure backgrounds and to be relatively well educated. These features are not quite prerequisites but it’s easy to see why they’re important. You need to be clear about where your next meal is coming from before you can start worrying about other people’s problems.”

But the world is full of problems – nuclear proliferation, war, poverty, sweatshops, Aids. So why focus on climate change? “It is,” says Omond, “the problem that amplifies all the other problems. Where there’s poverty, climate change will make it worse. Where there’s social discord, climate change will make that worse, too. In terms of my generation, it’s been gaining traction, and it’s in our consciousness that action is needed. Now it’s just at the point when it’s close to being too late.”

Another thing about climate activism, according to Omond, is that it’s a really good place to make a start. “The first thing we’re asking for is not an end to capitalism. We want sustainable capitalism. You’re asking for the world to transform, but you’re not asking for people to accept a new ideology. You’re just saying: find sustainable ways of doing these things.” In other words, climate activism need not be about upsetting the apple cart. The apple cart can wait. But there are things you can do, and you can start doing them immediately.

“The basic thing,” says Franny Armstrong, “is that human life is worth saving. There isn’t time left in the lifespan of our sun for intelligent life to evolve again. It would be a catastrophe to blow it.”

Armstrong, 37, attended Godolphin and Latymer, which she has described as “one of London’s most expensive schools”. She has also said that “after witnessing the superiority complex that comes with extreme wealth, I wanted nothing more to do with it”. It was at school that she first became concerned about the environment. At 14, she remembers a teacher talking about the greenhouse effect. She couldn’t stop thinking about it.

She knows that getting human beings to change their ways, in a very short time, is a huge task. The consequences of what we do now will only really affect the world in a few decades. We are not used to such nebulous incentives. Nevertheless, Armstrong is the driving force behind 10:10, a campaign to cut emissions by 10 per cent in 2010. “The people working on climate change are the happiest I know,” she says.

George Monbiot is the perfect activist – smart, articulate, and totally respectable. He grew up in a country house and went to Stowe, and then Oxford. Now 46, he lives in Wales, grows his own vegetables, and fishes from a canoe. He tells me he’s always been “fascinated by the natural world”, even when he was four. It will cost him a lot to get to the climate summit in Copenhagen next week because he will travel by train. He doesn’t fly.

He says people sometimes sneer at him because he’s posh. “But would it be better if people like me did what we’re supposed to do, and became stockbrokers?” Later, in an e-mail, he confides that he’s “finding it harder and harder to believe” that human beings will turn things around in time but “there are some things I find too painful to face.”

This is why being a climate activist can make people so happy. It entails having hope. It is, in a way, a denial of the thing you feel most certain about in your heart of hearts – death.

I call David de Rothschild, who is in San Francisco at work on Plastiki, and wish him luck. He says he’s getting more emotional the closer he gets to casting off. “I drive across the Golden Gate and I look right, across the Pacific,” he says. “And I see container ships 200ft high. And there’s definitely a pang of nervousness and anxiety. But when anything’s happening, you’re in the moment. And you’ve got to have confidence.”


Green dreams, blue blood

Britain has a venerable tradition of environmental activists from the upper echelons of society.

An organic farmer in the 1920s, Lady Eve Balfour, discovered that soil was more “biologically active” if you didn’t put artificial fertilisers in it. In 1943 Balfour wrote an influential book called The Living Soil, arguing that “all life is one” and, three years later, she founded the Soil Association.

Lord Melchett, now the policy director of the Soil Association, has been a protester for years. Educated at Eton and Cambridge, he was an anti-nuclear activist in the 1980s, and was acquitted of criminal damage in 2000 after being present at a protest against a GM crop trial. At the time, he was executive director of Greenpeace UK. “My background,” he has said, “is irrelevant.”

In 1984 Jonathon Porritt, son of Lord Porritt, former governor general of New Zealand, wrote a book called Seeing Green. In the same year, he became director of Friends of the Earth. Recently he has begun to say the previously unsayable – that “the p word” (population) is our biggest problem – stating: “I think we will work our way towards a position that says that having more than two children is irresponsible.”

As activism entered the mainstream, Zac Goldsmith, son of the late billionaire financier James, took centre stage. He edited The Ecologist magazine until 2007, owns a 300-acre organic farm in Devon and has joined the Tories as an adviser on the environment and prospective MP. The super-rich Goldsmith this week said he had given up his “non-dom” status. “I’m not a tax-dodger.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.