NEW YORK—Mermaids have captivated her imagination since she was a child. Part human and part fish, the mermaid bridges two worlds. Laid back and fully comfortable in her own skin, Susan Cohn Rockefeller spoke with a relaxed cadence that would easily conjure memories of the ocean—the soothing sound of ocean waves.
“I’m a strong swimmer. I love the ocean,” she said in her Upper East Side home, shortly after returning from a month in Maine. There she saw some seals, porpoises, and huge jellyfish.
She finds the ocean beautiful and magical, but not as much fun to swim in when there are too many jellyfish. “That shows that the sea is in distress,” she said. Overfishing has killed off the natural predators of jellyfish. As she has mentioned in one of her short films, “Mission of Mermaids,” the oceans are on the verge of collapse.
So much plastic waste has been dumped into the oceans that “it’s like a minestrone soup of plastics,” said Rockefeller.
The large debris spinning in the middle of the Pacific Ocean—called the Pacific trash vortex—as ugly and alarming as it looks, is not the worst of it. Plastic is not biodegradable, so it can only break down into smaller and smaller pieces that end up looking like phytoplankton. Fish and other marine life eat that minestrone soup of plastics and then we eat those fish, Rockefeller explained.
A filmmaker, jewelry designer, and philanthropist, Rockefeller wore a necklace with a little bee and drop pearl earrings dangling at the end of recycled sterling silver chains. She designed the bees for her up-and-coming jewelry collection, “Food for Thought, Food for Life,” which will launch alongside her film of the same title on Food Day, on Oct.24 and on the selective Tribeca Short List.
It’s not so easy to break into a conversation about the state of the environment at a cocktail party, so her jewelry helps carry the initial small talk to more substantial depths. If someone asks her about her necklace, she can then talk about pollination and the importance of bees for agriculture. One percent of the sales of her conversation pieces, which she calls “inspired messaging accessories,” are donated to the 1% for the Planet environmental organization.
Like a mermaid, one could say Rockefeller bridges different worlds—between sea and land, between nature and high society.
Nature Loving Couple
She and David Rockefeller Jr., an avid sailor, conservationist, and philanthropist, married seven years ago. They fell in love while making a short film, “This is Alaska,” for the Alaska Conservation Foundation.
“He saw Alaska through the lens of being a sailor and I saw it through my experience of living with the Inuit, off and on for three years, doing agriculture and fisheries development,” Rockefeller said. “Art is the greatest muse. We met making a film about a place we love. We continue to do our work and now it really is about healthy soil and healthy sea.”
Rockefeller was born in the resort town of Larchmont in Westchester County, New York. In the summertime her mother, who was an anthropology professor, would bring her out to East End, Long Island, when it had yet to be rebranded The Hamptons. They would stay in an old farm house surrounded by potato fields.
She remembered the Good Humor man driving around in his truck selling ice cream, the fire flies coming out at night, and the beautiful beaches. Then on the weekends she and her brother and sister would wait for their dad, an environmental science professor, at the train station. “This sounds very classic ’50s or ’60s, which I guess it was back then,” Rockefeller said with a hint of nostalgia.
Later she would follow in her parents’ footsteps by studying environmental studies, receiving her bachelor’s degree from Hampshire College, and a master’s degree in education from New York University. She did a lot of research and wrote books, including “Green at Work: Finding a Business Career that Works with the Environment”—a seminal book during the emerging green corporate culture of the early ’90s. Craving a more collaborative spirit that was missing in the solitary process of writing books, she transitioned to directing and producing award-winning documentary films, which have aired on HBO and PBS.
She has been asked many times how life changed after marrying into the prominent Rockefeller family. She said it opens doors, but she still has to create interesting work to make an impact. She continues to work hard, now more than ever, because there are pressing issues she cares deeply about.
Her motto is to “Protect What is Precious” (also the name of her company). “That’s family, art, and nature,” she said. “Family is most important and then the global family, art because it is the greatest expression of the human spirit, and nature because we are only as healthy as nature.”
Now she works on protecting what is precious together with her husband. For instance, they will travel to Asia to show her latest film. He will join her on the panel and will open a conference with a Q&A about “Food for Thought, Food for Life.” In addition to serving on the Rockefeller Foundation board, and several other boards, he’s a board member of the Asian Cultural Council and she will join him for many of those events. They will also give a talk together in Paris and organize an event in London, and so on and so forth.
In addition to her filmmaking, Rockefeller participates on the boards of Oceana, Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, We Are Family Foundation, and a small trust for a land and garden preserve in Maine. They all complement each other.
“What has changed is that it’s really busy, there’s more of us,” Rockefeller said, mentioning how the family had expanded with both of her two children, ages 15 and 18, combined with her husband’s two children, ages 30 and 33, from their previous marriages.
Having Mermaid Moments
In her “Mission for Mermaids” film, Rockefeller asks rhetorically, “What has become of the mermaid? Is she simply a myth or is she the human face of the sea crying out for help?” From there she proposes a solution for re-establishing a balance with nature.
“I have something called the three Rs, and that is rest, rejuvenation, and re-imagination. If we give the oceans time to rest, if we let the land lay fallow, it can rejuvenate and we can actually reimagine a different world,” she said.
Giving nature that time to rest starts with taking care of ourselves, appreciating the beauty of nature and of life. She also called it “mermaid moments.”
‘Food for Thought, Food for Life’
The world’s population is already 7 billion and is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050. If overconsumption and pollution growth continue at the present rate, the amount of pressure it will put on the environment could be huge, said Rockefeller who feels compelled to inspire others to help mitigate a possibly scary scenario.
“If you understand that we have this miraculous ecosystem, with these incredible gifts, how do you want to make a difference in your life? One way is how you make a choice three times a day with what you eat,” Rockefeller said. “So if you are going to be doing beef three times a day, your carbon footprint is going to be huge. It’s a real problem in terms of land use.”
Rockefeller is a “flexitarian.” Her diet is mostly plant based, with occasional meat. She pointed out how we are very interconnected with the environment, whether we are aware of it or not.
“It’s not just about what is out there, it’s about what is affecting your health and your family’s health,” she said. “The bonus is you take care of yourself and you are taking care of the planet. So it is enlightened self-interest. People are just waking up to making those connections and I think its very exciting,” she added.
Rockefeller herself isn’t really attached to material things. She could have it all, but fundamentally it does not interest her. In the event of a fire, after making sure her family was safe, she could not think of anything that she would take with her. “I’m thinking, is there anything? There really isn’t, which is kind of astounding to me,” she said.
Rockefeller’s biggest challenge is time. “There’s not enough time in the day,” she said. “I need to take care of myself in order for me to be a good wife and a good mother and also a good daughter to my aging parents. How do I do all the things that I want to do and determine the best way to amplify these efforts?” she said, noting that there are too many things she wants to do, so her husband helps her stay focused.
“It is a beautiful, an abundant, and a mysterious world. We have the human capital and innovative capacity to solve these [environmental] problems and I want to be one of the people that helps solve them,” she said. “I feel there’s so much work to be done, and I would love to inspire more people to do work that will actually make a difference. There’s only one of me and there’s only so much that I can do,” she said.
Despite her successful career, at the end of the day, Rockefeller doesn’t see her legacy as being about her books, films, or jewelry.
“My greatest legacy are my children and the people that I have influenced,” she said. “Life is really short. We will blink and we will be gone, so what is the legacy that we want to leave? For me the legacy is clearly the love that I’ve given,” she said.