Is David De Rothschild a Douchebag? Does it Matter for Plastiki?
A couple of weeks ago I wrote a piece here calling bullshit on Plastiki. It stirred up a number of comments and emails, some pissed off, some complimentary, and a few with some extra details. Current and former Plastiki team members and others with intimate knowledge of the project came out of the woodwork to share things they had learned. Granted, disgruntled employees do not great sources make, but still there were some recurring themes, and hell, where there’s this much smoke, there’s usually a fire.
The overwhelming sentiment of the people with whom I spoke is that De Rothschild is a douchebag. “He, and the whole top tier of the team, just treats people like little machines. No one really matters except themselves,” one source said of the British billionaire. “That guy won’t leave the house without a camera. But this wasn’t just any vanity project, he really wants people to perceive him as a good person,” another said.
Which got me thinking: If Plastiki raises awareness among thousands of people that using tons of disposable plastic is wrecking the ocean, does it matter if De Rothschild is a good guy? One person put it thusly, “I guess I like the message, but I hate the messenger. And I sort of feel like the message is going to eventually be ruined by the messenger.” If De Rothschild and his team leave a sea of mistreated people and misinformation behind them, that’s entirely possible.
One source told me that because the San Francisco-based project manager of the Plastiki expedition wasn’t able to get all the used bottles needed to build the boat, there were in fact some new bottles used to build it. Another described scenes of underpaid and poorly treated immigrant workers spending 10 to 14-hour days washing out bottles, only to be completely ignored by the higher profile members of the team. Upon further research we discovered that boat designer Andy Dovell seems to have been ignored in favor of pushing design “consultants” with bigger names who came on later in the process (primarily biomimicry king Michael Pawlin and Architecture for Humanity’s Nathaniel Corcorum).
Interestingly, most people I talk to don’t seem to be phased by any of the above. It’s a large project, with people on multiple continents involved, and shit happens. What seems to bug people is the fact that De Rothschild doesn’t appear to be spending a penny of his own money on the project. Although presented as a sort of charitable outing sprung out of De Rothschild’s generous and deep pockets, Plastiki is largely funded by its corporate partners (HP, Kiehls, and watchmaker IWF Schaffhausen), according to our sources. “We couldn’t get certain things we needed until the HP check came in,” one source told us. “And there was definitely never any mention of David dipping into his own funds to help out in the meantime.”
The fact that a billionaire is getting companies to donate millions to fund his vanity eco project is what seems to piss people off the most. That money could be going to some other more worthy project, the thinking goes.
But if, as many Plastiki supporters say, the important thing is the message, and if, as is clearly the case, De Rothschild’s involvement is extremely important in getting that message out, does any of the rest really matter?
Maybe not, if the right message is really getting out. The problem, in my mind, is not that some reportedly obnoxious guy is hopping on the eco train to get attention. That happens all the time, and while it’s annoying, in the end it does bring more awareness. Rising tide raises all boats and all that. No. The problem here is the message itself. As I argued in my previous piece, the Plastiki folks run the risk of conveying to millions that everything will be fine if they just re-use plastic.
Plastiki is now officially on its way to Sydney from San Francisco. And despite many mentions of sailing “through the Great Pacific Garbage patch,” we’ve learned that’s not actually possible if the ship keeps to the route it has publicly laid out. At this point, keeping track of the little bits of misinformation no longer seems relevant; I hope that the crew is safe and that it does what it has ostensibly set out to do. And who knows, maybe a little danger on the high seas will be a character-building experience for fair De Rothschild.
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