Who is Hansjörg Wyss – and why is he giving away a billion dollars ?
Just before the end of 2018, nature lover-billionaire-philanthropist Hansjörg Wyss wrote a New York Times op-ed from his home in Wilson, Wyoming, explaining why – and how – he is pledging $1 billion as an “investment to help communities, indigenous peoples, and nations conserve 30% of the planet in its natural state by 2030.”
Wyss, at 83, is not an armchair philanthropist. He’s passionate about the landscape of the American West, where he first spent a summer in Colorado, as a student in 1958, as a surveyor in the Colorado Highway Department, learning to hike the Rockies. Swiss-born Wyss completed graduate studies at Harvard, and in 1977, founded Synthes Medical USA (medical devices) and built a fortune. He sold the company in 2012 to Johnson & Johnson.
On his own time, he’s been a witness – and philanthropist – in protecting wild places in Africa, South America, Europe, Canada, Mexico and the United States over the past two decades. He’s donated “more than $450 million to help our partners conserve nearly 40 million acres of land and water.” With that comes, he believes, the opportunity for local communities to use protected areas for sustainable economic growth that includes jobs and revenue from tourism.
Now comes a really big idea that Wyss announced in November 2018. It seems to have roots in the bold proposal by Harvard biologist Dr. E.O. (Ed) Wilson to set aside half the planet (including oceans) as conservation zones to preserve biodiversity. Wilson’s idea was outlined in his 2016 book Half Earth
As Wyss puts it, “We have to protect half to save the whole.” His pledge is $100 million annually for 10 years, toward the goal of protecting 30% of the planet’s surface by 2030, both land and ocean.
Here’s what he has rolled out in the race to save earth’s wild places: “This money will support locally led conservation efforts around the world, push for increased global targets for land and ocean protection, seek to raise public awareness about the importance of this effort, and fund scientific studies to identify the best strategies to reach our target.” His foundation will do that by working with partners like the National Geographic Society, African Wildlife and other NGOs.
“Every one of us — citizens, philanthropists, business and government leaders — should be troubled by the enormous gap between how little of our natural world is currently protected and how much should be protected. It is a gap that we must urgently narrow, before our human footprint consumes the earth’s remaining wild places.” (Courtesy of The New York Times)
In a time when some billionaires casually drop $5 million on celebrating their birthday, Wyss’s legacy gift to us is a potent reminder that self-made men and women can be a powerful force for good. Think of media magnate Ted Turner (he donated $1 billion for the United Nations Foundation) and Gerry and Marguerite Lenfest of Philadelphia, who sold their business for $1.3 billion and decided to give it all away to educational, artistic and civic institutions.