Greg Bourne in His Natural Habitat

G Magazine

Greg Bourne was once a senior executive with petroleum company, BP. Now, he's head of WWF. So just what made this poacher turn gamekeeper?

Greg Bourne, WWF CEO

Credit: Anthony Greenaert

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In the Melbourne office of WWF, Greg Bourne sits beneath an alluring poster of actor Pierce Brosnan, who’s promoting a sustainable forests scheme.

While it’s hard to compete with the poster boy’s smouldering pout, Bourne represents another take on the changing face of the green movement : he’s an oilman, a BP executive for more than 30 years, and a one-time adviser to former British Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

As environmental campaigners and business increasingly join forces to tackle the more alarming global issues, perhaps it’s no longer so remarkable that a former BP employee should swap the oil rig for a green gig.

But as chief executive of WWF (formerly World Wide Fund for Nature, and World Wildlife Fund before that), Bourne is still called upon to defend his former incarnation, which he does robustly.

“When people say ‘Oh, you’ve decided to give something back’ by joining WWF, my response is I don’t think I ever took anything away,” he grins. “It’s to do with the contribution you make to society. In the first part of my career, mine was with the economic part of society.

“Then I applied for this job. I could have gone sailing continuously – I love sailing – but to waste your talents seems to me a travesty. So it’s not about giving back; it’s about contributing in a different way.”

Bourne is part of a generation of energy company leaders who have seen the writing on the wall: resources are finite, alternatives must be found. But he also insists that his ethical values as a person pre-date his oil days. He had always been influenced by his parents and grandparents, who knew the necessity of thrift and scorned waste during the Depression of the 1930s. “They didn’t call it recycling; they called it hoarding for a rainy day.”

Early days
The young Greg grew up in Perth with a love of sport, hiking and camping. Graduating as a chemist from the University of Western Australia in 1971, he rose through BP’s ranks, working in drilling and exploration in the Middle East, USA, Brazil, Venezuela, Papua New Guinea and Canada.

By the 1990s, while working for the oil giant (formerly British Petroleum), he was preparing papers on global warming and renewable energy, an interest sparked by a stint advising Thatcher. She was, he says, extremely interested in the economics of climate change.

He returned to Australia in 1999 as regional president of BP Australasia, retiring from the company in 2003, and joining WWF in late 2004.

Bourne laughs when asked if, amid the drilling, selling and the might of a multinational juggernaut, he had an epiphany that led him to abandon life as an oilman.

“No! There’s an old idea about having a calling to be a doctor or priest: I don’t think you have a calling to become a car salesman or an oilman. But I also don’t think people in my previous business are any less passionate about what they’re doing, just because they’re in business rather than in an NGO [non-government organisation].”

While he wouldn’t call it an epiphany, an experience as a junior oilman perhaps sowed the seed of a closet greenie. Working in the Middle East, on his very first drilling rig in shallow water, he saw its legs crunch into the coral below.

“Even then in my very first job, I thought, ‘This is not the right way to do it’. You might be low on the rung, but you know there must be a better way. As you get further up the ladder you can effect change.”

Weathering the storm
He might have added that, further up the ladder, you also weather public relations storms. In 2004, a damaging report by the leftist Australia Institute, “Taming the Panda”, accused WWF - Australia’s second largest environment group after Greenpeace - of being too close to the federal government. “There are strong grounds for questioning whether WWF Australia can legitimately continue to describe itself as independent,” the report found.

The outspoken new chief executive would court his own controversy by saying publicly that – as global warming worsens – nuclear power should be considered after solar, wind and other alternatives. While he has not openly advocated it for Australia, he has argued that every nuclear power station built in booming economies like China and India is one less coal power station, the most polluting form of power, and “on balance, I personally think that is a good thing.”

In the ensuing media storm, the Wilderness Society suggested he go back to the business world where he belonged. Yet Bourne has also publicly attacked the (former) Howard government for what he called “misleading statements”, which sought to downplay global warming.

The Australia Institute report was published before he took the helm, and Bourne says that WWF’s reputation is intact and its membership growing. “And we still get attacked from think tanks – of both the left and the right,” he adds.

After 30 years of having corporate clout on his side, clearly Bourne wouldn’t have joined just any green group. WWF makes much of its scientific and economic research; and of collaborating with government and business. This is Bourne’s natural habitat, and it’s hard to imagine him in orange overalls on-board a rainbow-painted ship, whipped by ocean spray, pursuing Japanese whalers.

Instead, Bourne wears a suit and tie, and his revolution is wrought in the boardroom. “The NGO world has been about pointing to problems, and it has been up to businesses to try to work out the solutions. WWF is about working with business and governments to find solutions.”