The millionaire artist aiming to bring environmental issues to the world's attention

David de Rothschild is rich enough to live an easy life. Instead, he travels the world with a group of artists to highlight environmental disasters. Sophie Morris meets him
Click to follow
The Independent Online

David de Rothschild claims he doesn't want to be known as "that green guy", though that's exactly the sort of reputation his eco-exploits invite. Two years ago, the 29-year-old scion of the Rothschild banking dynasty took time out from developing his organic farm in New Zealand to join an expedition to the Antarctic. Once out there, faced with several months of trekking for 12 hours a day, retracing Amundsen's steps to the South Pole in perishing temperatures, he came over a little existential and began to ponder the point of his journey.

As it happened, he had announced his participation in the expedition in a small Antipodean educational publication before he left, and on his return discovered the adventure had generated some considerable interest among schoolchildren and teachers. "They wanted to know what was next," he reflects now, looking every bit the rugged explorer with his long hair and beard, his head almost hitting the ceiling of the central London headquarters of Adventure Ecology, the environmental awareness business that evolved from his Antarctica mission.

De Rothschild carried all the rubbish he generated out of Antarctica with him, but not everyone is conscientious enough to clear up after themselves. Earlier this year he travelled to Ecuador with a group of artists in the first of a series of trips designed to document the devastating impact of waste on the environment there.

He was busy planning an expedition to the North Pole, which would make him the youngest British person ever to reach both geographical poles, when he heard about an ecological disaster in the Ecuadorian Amazon that was threatening the natural habitat of the indigenous Achaur tribe. Ever since oil was discovered under the soils supporting Ecuador's primary rainforest 40 years ago, the government has been drilling for oil, or selling on the exploration rights to companies like Repsol and Chevron (it was Texaco, but the company merged with Chevron in 2001).

Once they have taken all they want the oil giants move on, leaving pits overflowing with crude oil in their wake. The crude has permeated the forest's water resources and transformed the floor of the jungle it into an oily marshland. Around 1,000 of these toxic slicks now stain the Amazon's dense foliage and the Achuar are determined to stop further exploration.

"It's on a par with Chernobyl," claims de Rothschild. "Why isn't this on the front pages of the newspapers? The human and environmental impact is phenomenal."

De Rothschild decided this tragic rape of the majestic jungle and its ancient peoples would be best told by art, and that the medium could help him reach a new audience – the art world is not known for its eco-credentials. He travelled to Ecuador earlier this year with the Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco, American film-maker Dustin Lynn, and Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, two South African photographers who work together. The results of the trip will be exhibited next week as part of London's Frieze Art Fair under the title "Ecuador: Block 16" – the name of the oil-rich region bordering Peru and Brasil has been carved into homogenous numbered blocks denoting oil ownership.

De Rothschild laughs when I ask him if his eco-adventuring is proving a moneyspinner. His father Sir Evelyn de Rothschild was chairman of the family business until 2003, and although David became an online entrepreneur after university, he has no need to chase great riches. He fled Down Under in his early twenties to make his own way in business and pursue his studies in natural medicine, which no doubt informs much of his New Age-y logic: " We're all dreamers," he says, describing his mission. "But when we grow up we put our dreams to one side. The moment you act upon a dream it becomes a reality and an adventure. We all have that capacity to be an adventurer."

Despite the earnest rhetoric, he posits himself outside of the " dolphin-rainbow camp", and says he is no finger-pointing activist. "Big business is only big because of you and me. They're only responding to demand." A sceptic would say big business had a hand in creating that demand, but de Rothschild prefers to work constructively and advise corporations on green issues, such as the Swiss watch-makers IWC, which has funded the Ecuadorian trip and the future art expeditions to endangered environments, and has pledged to reduce its own carbon emissions by 50 per cent.

Being green seems to come very easily to de Rothschild, whose take on ethical clothing is the trendy hippie-ish flower-print shirt he's wearing, stitched by a friend from a vintage fabric he found himself. His green pitch, though, is to call it "responsible living" and "common sense", in order not to scare off any eco ingenues. The reality, he admits, is that sustainability - his only ambition for Adventure Ecology – takes effort.

"It is hard work. If we're really honest with ourselves making these choices is going to take a bit of pain. Everything has been built in a way as if there were limitless resources of cheap oil and every single action we do has a reaction all the way back to the source. All the products made of oil may have started as a result of what is going on in the Amazon. We have to connect the dots."

"Ecuador: block 16" will be shown at The Gallery @ The Hospital, 24 Endell Street, London, 9-14 October.
(; 0870 890 0514)