Disney's Dr. Beth Stevens (Photo by Mariya Stepanyan)
To Beth Stevens, winning a Rachel Carson Award fits: Carson is her role model and the namesake of the center where Stevens conducted her doctorial research. But Stevens, who has been with Disney for more than a decade, is also humble, crediting her larger Disney family for the environmental strides the company’s made.
And if you don’t necessarily associate Mickey and Minnie with conservation, maybe you should. Stevens says the company’s been in the green game since Walt’s day; today, it has seriously ambitious goals for cutting water use, energy consumption, waste, and emissions. As senior vice president of environmental affairs, Stevens is in the thick of it all. Audubon talked to her about what it means to be a female conservation leader, as well as Disney’s unique ability to reach thousands of children daily.
Audubon: Is it challenging to be successful as a woman in conservation?
Stevens: Conservation is as much about understanding how to work with different people and understanding how to bring all the disciplines together as it is about having a scientific answer or having a public relations answer. It’s like a big puzzle. And it’s about bringing the puzzle pieces together. I really don’t feel like it’s any harder being a woman.
How do you feel about earning this recognition?
To get anything done, it has to be very collaborative and it depends on partnerships. Nobody can do it by themselves. It takes a team, no matter what you’re doing in conservation. So I really feel humbled because I’ve been privileged to be part of many great teams of people who’ve done some really positive conservation work.
What do you say to people who don’t consider Disney an environmental company?
This is not a new idea to Disney at all. We have a very long and rich history and legacy of environmental stewardship. While it may sound trite, it started with Walt himself. He loved nature. He loved animals. If you think about it, the True Life Adventures—which he started—were really the first nature documentaries. And Walt, he had a lot of foresight. When he bought all of the land in Florida to build the Magic Kingdom, he set aside almost half of the land as a conservation area.
Disney has a unique stage from which to teach crucial environmental lessons. What advantage does that offer?
I spent my first 11.5 years at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park. There, we have a huge opportunity to inspire, every single day, all of our guests to care more about the future of wildlife and wild places. It’s a great immersive experience, and there are so many experiences there. I believe that there’s one that will touch somebody. For everyone there’s somewhere in that experience at Animal Kingdom, someone’s heart strings are going to be plucked, and they’re going to leave the park caring more about the future of wildlife than when they came in.
In my current role, I work with every business across the company, and we’re a very large company. We have amazing potential because we’re such a powerful, far-reaching brand. We have the potential to really educate and inspire all of our many consumers—guests, viewers, fans—to inspire everybody to care more about the planet, and to inspire a sense of environmental stewardship. Certainly with youth, we have just untapped potential.
Describe the environmental programs geared toward children.
We really recognize that kids are aware of environmental problems. They want to know what to do about it. They really care. So we took that passion and we developed two programs. They’re really designed to empower kids in a positive way.
Planet Challenge is a program geared toward classrooms, fourth, fifth, and sixth grade classrooms, and it’s a project-based learning competition. Classrooms come up with environmental projects that they want to do in their school or community. It’s very student-driven. They carry this out over the course of time. It’s a competition in the sense that we give out prizes and grand prizes to the winning classes.
Disney’s Friends for Change is a fabulous program set up to help kids help the planet…A lot of the Disney Channel stars came together to start this campaign. We give kids great tips on simple actions they can take in their everyday lives that can make a difference. They can go online and make a pledge and see immediately the impact of their pledge. They also can vote on how they want Disney to spend $1 million on conservation programs around the world. And in fact, National Audubon has been the recipient of two Friends for Change grants for two different projects.
What do you consider the biggest environmental concern today?
As a society, we’ve sort of taken for granted the fresh air that we breathe. We’ve taken for granted that there will always be water. Our natural resources are really undervalued…It’s really important that we start to value those because then we’re going to pay attention to them, and we’re going to try to save them.