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Dissecting Frogs, Saving Rainforests, and Preserving the Planet with Environmental Journalist and Mongabay CEO Rhett Butler ’96

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This is the fourth article in Bears Doing Big Things, a weekly column celebrating the stories of notable M-A alumni. Read last week’s article here.

As the son of a corporate attorney and a travel agent, Rhett Butler was the recipient of more frequent flier miles than the average kid. When he was twelve, he visited Ecuador and stayed in an Indigenous community. Butler remembered, “I would go out with the kids my age and look for frogs and catch fish. A few months later, I read a story in the San Francisco Chronicle about an oil spill in the area. All I could think about was what had happened to all my friends and the animals in the forest.” A few years later, Butler visited a beautiful rainforest in Borneo and came home to read that it had been destroyed by loggers. These experiences planted the seeds for his future passion for environmental journalism. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. 

Butler progressed through Laurel, Encinal, Hillview, and M-A. He enjoyed school, especially his history and biology classes. He remembered, “In AP Biology, we dissected frogs, then earthworms, then cats, and then worked with cadavers (!!) because our teacher had some sort of arrangement with a Stanford lab.” During his senior year, Butler wrote a book about Tropical Freshwater Fish. He explained, “I just got really into freshwater fish, especially where they came from in nature. So, that was the angle I took. I wrote it because I was trying to learn more and there wasn’t very much good information out there. I compiled everything I found, in case anyone else was curious. It had nothing to do with school. I did it on the side, just for fun.” 

At this time, Butler did not consider himself an environmentalist, journalist, or anything of the sort. As he started making decisions about his future, he had a different career path in mind: finance. He said, “I thought I was gonna go into banking or management consulting, you know, something along the lines of big money.”

Butler graduated from M-A in 1996 and attended UC San Diego. He majored in management science, a combination of economics and math. He got a summer job at Deloitte, a consulting company, to prepare for his finance career. On the side, he started writing a second book, this time about tropical rainforests, which he explained was “based on interviews with experts and many hours in the library.” Thanks to his AP credits, he was able to graduate a year early and ended up spending most of that extra year working on the book.

Butler decided to build a website to share the contents of his two books online, again, just for fun. He said, “I didn’t really have any technical background. Back then, the internet was a lot simpler. I’d just go to websites and view the source code and start experimenting. I designed my own site in straight HTML. I named it Mongabay, derived from the name of an amazing island off Madagascar, and posted both my books. Mongabay started off as a Freshwater Fish and Rainforest Site.”

Butler wasn’t planning to run this website for a living, so he had to get a “real job.” So, he got a 50-60 hour/week job at a Silicon Valley company. On nights and weekends, he worked on the website. At first, Mongabay was just Butler sitting in his apartment in his pajamas writing articles about exotic rainforest animals. He wrote so many articles that people began to assume it was a large organization. The site grew in popularity and began circulating within environmental news reporting groups. After Butler put up ads and started making about half his pay at the company job, he decided to quit and work on the website full time. 

Since then, Mongabay has significantly expanded. The organization now employs 80 full-time staff and 900 correspondents from around the world. The site and its platforms draw about 10 million visitors per month, and is regularly used as an information source in mainstream media, including National Geographic, Bloomberg, and The Economist. Butler recently received a Heinz Award, which is one of the most prestigious awards in the field. He lives in Menlo Park with his wife and two young children: a four-year-old and a new baby who just turned one. 

Butler’s advice to current M-A students: “Communication skills are really important. When I was at M-A, I did a ton of writing. I assumed that that was normal for high school, but in hindsight I realize it was a lot more than average. I think that prepared me really well for college, and for life. The ability to communicate effectively through writing is a critical skill for any career, even if you’re doing engineering or computer science or whatever. I encourage people to really think about that.”

On his favorite books, Butler said, “I tend to like books by David Quammen, who writes about nature in a very compelling way. I also like Wade Davis, an ethnobotanist who looks at the intersection of indigenous peoples, medicinal plants, and culture. And I read The Economist regularly.”

 

Disclaimer: Bears Doing Big Things is not meant to be a list ranking the most accomplished or famous M-A graduates on Earth. It is a collection of people with a wide range of expertise, opinions, and stages of life who were kindly willing to share their stories. All have wisdom, entertaining anecdotes, and book recommendations to share. There are 45,000+ additional accomplished M-A alums out there, so keep an eye out for them!

Caroline Pecore is a senior in her first year of journalism. Her column, "Bears Doing Big Things," runs every Monday. She enjoys meeting new people through journalism and writing about the M-A community. Outside of school, she spends most of her time rowing for Norcal Crew and also enjoys reading, drawing, and exploring the outdoors.

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