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WWF works to sustain the natural world for the benefit of people and wildlife, collaborating with partners from local to global levels in nearly 100 countries.
When it comes to conservation, Gerald Butts considers himself a “skeptical optimist.”
“I think people are fundamentally good, and looking to build communities that are in closer harmony with nature,” he says.
No doubt that viewpoint has its roots in Butts’s childhood spent on Canada’s Cape Breton Island. “I’m biased, but it’s one of the most beautiful places on Earth,” he says. “That’s where my love of nature came from, because I was surrounded by so much of it.”
Butts also grew up understanding the central role that natural resources played in his community’s economy. His parents worked at the coal mine in his hometown—his dad as a miner, his mom as a nurse. Shortly after his father retired, an explosion at the mine killed 10 people, closing it permanently.
“I also happened to grow up at the time of the Atlantic cod fishery collapse,” Butts says. “So it was hard to escape the tensions brewing between the beauty and bounty of the natural world and the pressure that human beings were putting on it.”
Butts has made a career of understanding the economic, social, political, and environmental dynamics—and their associated implications—at play around the world.
Currently, he works at Eurasia Group advising clients on climate change, trade, energy, sustainable finance, and more. He also served as principal secretary to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and was president and CEO of WWF-Canada. Butts joined the WWF-US Board of Directors in 2022.
Having served WWF as a CEO and now as a Board member, Butts has a unique perspective on the organization and what makes it tick. “If we’ve learned anything in the past 50 or 60 years, it’s that the most daunting conservation problems are intrinsically global,” he says. “WWF is the only truly global conservation organization, but it achieves that status by being authentically local in the places where we work. I think that’s the secret sauce of what makes WWF so successful.”
Butts can also celebrate the progress of certain initiatives that have spanned his tenure with WWF. One example is WWF’s ongoing initiative to double the number of wild tigers globally. As CEO of WWF-Canada, he supported tiger conservation work in Nepal, which recently announced a near-tripling of tigers in the country. And like all Board members, he brings his acquired wisdom to bear on WWF’s biggest challenges and opportunities. For Butts, that includes his decades of experience in government and how that translates to the geopolitical aspects of WWF’s work.
“Like the economy, patterns of trade, and geopolitics writ large, what’s happening in conservation is that the relationships between countries increasingly define whether or not we’ll be successful,” Butts says. “As the political structure of our world fragments, we can’t rely on a shared, stable policy environment to support our work, which is why WWF’s local presence—and our proven ability to be nimble in the midst of changing circumstances—is so crucial.”
Even amid constant change, Butts remains positive. “We have awareness of how our actions are impacting the environment and have tools to help fix it,” he says. “Sure, there’s a lot to be skeptical about. But optimism always wins.”