5th edition of the BBVA Foundation’s environmental communication award

Mongabay CEO Rhett Butler champions ‘solutions journalism’ in the face of climate change and the biodiversity crisis at the Biophilia Award ceremony

Mongabay’s founder and CEO, Rhett Butler, defended the vital role of “solutions journalism,” focused on the action needed to address the challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss, during the presentation ceremony of the 5th Biophilia Award for Environmental Communication. The digital news platform he leads received the BBVA Foundation award for its “outstanding track record in reporting on nature and biodiversity conservation, especially in the countries of the Global South, through the contributions of over 800 journalists, scientists and other correspondents in more than 80 countries and six languages,” in the words of the selection committee. After collecting the award on behalf of all his team, Butler delivered a lecture titled “Reasons for Hope in the Face of the Global Environmental Crisis,” in which he set out his vision of the advances being made in the protection of nature despite the narrative of despair that dominates much of today’s reporting on the threats of global warming and species extinction.

20 February, 2024


Rhett Butler




5th Biophilia Award for Environmental Communication

Previously, in his speech opening the award presentation ceremony, the BBVA Foundation’s Director, Rafael Pardo, remarked that “the models and empirical evidence provided by the environmental sciences show that any assessment of our interaction with the planet in this first part of the 21st century shows that we are set on a dangerous course; most notably on the twin fronts of accelerated biodiversity loss and climate change, whose effects are now perceptible not just with the analytical tools of scientific research, but also though the media and in the macroscopic, day-to-day experience of any citizen not ideologically intoxicated or under the sway of real or spurious vested interests.”

In the context of the unfolding environmental crisis, Rafael Pardo stressed the importance of the journalistic work of Butler and the entire Mongabay team, which “through its global network of correspondents has reported on environmental degradation from a sound scientific basis, highlighting success stories and solutions that, aside from their inherent value, can help push a paradigm shift in humanity’s dealings with the planet we share, in conditions of radical asymmetry, with all living beings.”

In closing, the Director of the BBVA Foundation announced that the sixth Biophilia Award would shortly open for submissions. This new edition, he added, would expand the conceptual perimeter of the award, recognizing contributions that help to rethink the relationship between human beings and nature from the realms of the humanities and social sciences as well as journalism and communication: “The goal is the same, to recognize narratives and interpretations which, relying on the knowledge of environmental sciences, contribute to shaping the environmental culture – beliefs, values, attitudes and behavior – of society as a whole. Ultimately, it is these narratives, prolonging and complementing the analyses of the scientific community on the impacts on nature of human activity, that operate as a GPS, guiding individuals, social agents and institutions in their attitudes and conduct towards the environment.”

The personal blog that grew into a reputed global media outlet

Founded by Butler in 1999, Mongabay is a non-profit environmental news platform that publishes stories and features in English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Hindi and Indonesian, with a primary focus on biodiversity-rich tropical regions within Asia and Latin America. Initially just Butler’s personal blog, sharing the articles he produced late at night after working by day in a Silicon Valley startup, almost a quarter of a century later, Mongabay has grown into a leading international news site – with bureaus in Indonesia, India, Brazil, Peru and, shortly, Africa –, whose reports reach a vast audience of five million people a month.

For the selection committee, Mongabay “successfully makes the connection between science and journalism by disseminating research on environmental protection and making studies available under conditions of maximum access.” This formula, it continued, has enabled the platform “to highlight specific situations or serious environmental problems affecting communities that tend to be overlooked by mainstream news sources.”

The Biophilia Award, with prize money of 100,000 euros, was launched by the BBVA Foundation in 2019 to recognize the work of professionals and organizations in any country that have contributed exceptionally to improving public understanding and awareness of environmental issues.

The “reasons for hope” in the face of the global environmental crisis

After collecting the Biophilia Award, Butler began his speech with a reference to “the escalating environmental destruction” being experienced globally, as evidenced by alarming statistics like the fact that “2023 was the hottest year on record, we saw severe droughts from the Amazon to Sumatra, and species extinction rates have soared to at least 1,000 times above normal.” But despite these “grim observations,” the Mongabay CEO devoted the rest of his talk to the idea that “there is still room for hope.” In this case, hope fueled not by a “naive optimism,” but by recognizing and shining a spotlight on “emerging trends that can help us mitigate these crises.”

For Butler, one such trend is that a growing share of environmental damage is being driven not by farmers and fisherfolk but by corporations and governments. What this means is that we are shifting from “poverty-driven to profit-driven environmental degradation,” a significant change since it narrows the focus to fewer entities causing major planetary harm. For instance, “tackling deforestation once meant finding sustainable livelihoods for rural populations. Now, it often involves urging companies and governments to adopt more environmentally-friendly practices that don’t necessarily undercut productivity and can yield other gains.”

To illustrate his point, Butler gave numerous positive examples of firms and governments who have changed course in recent years “thanks to pressure by environmental groups and consumer campaigns, whose activism has led them to adopt zero-deforestation policies.”

Another encouraging trend cited by Mongabay’s CEO is the unprecedented transparency provided by technologies like satellite imaging: “With these tools offering near-real-time insights into our planet’s condition, ignorance can no longer be an excuse for inaction.”

At the same time, Butler talked of how the escalating severity of environmental degradation “is expanding the constituency for environmental protection, especially as the science solidifies the link between healthy ecosystems and human well-being.” More and more people around the world are realizing that the benefits of thriving ecosystems “extend far beyond carbon storage and wildlife habitat to include human health, more resilient agriculture and water supplies, and buffering against storm damage and erosion.”

The “positive tipping points” that can transform our relationship with the planet

It is for all these reasons that Butler embraces the concept of “positive tipping points” in our society that can trigger rapid and profound changes in addressing climate change and biodiversity issues. “When we talk about tipping points, ecological tipping points, they tend to be negative: the Amazon collapsing, glaciers and sea ice melting. But there are also positive tipping points. For example, technological advances that can transform how we move around, through the revolution of electric vehicles, or how we produce electricity, using renewable sources like the sun or wind. So we need to highlight the fact that as well as the negatives there are positive developments; countervailing trends that are positive for protecting nature and the sustainability of our economy and how we live.”

In describing these developments, Butler stressed the pivotal role that journalism can play in raising social awareness: “Journalism not only informs but also inspires and mobilizes public action. It is through well-researched, compelling storytelling that the broader public becomes engaged and motivated to participate in these solutions.” This, precisely, is why Mongabay’s reporters are turning more and more to “solutions journalism,” striving to “move beyond doom and gloom, highlighting effective, innovative strategies that make a real difference.”

“By presenting these success stories, we aim not just to inform, but to empower,” he added. “Maintaining hope and optimism is vital, as these are the sentiments that fuel the creativity needed for new technologies, strategies, and approaches.”

“As we confront the multifaceted challenges of climate change and mass extinction, the role of solutions-focused journalism becomes increasingly crucial,” said Butler in closing. “It serves as a beacon, guiding us through the complexities of these issues and offering tangible, inspiring examples of progress and possibility. With relentless pursuit of truth, journalism has the power to do more than just document the state of our world; it can help transform it for the better. This mission, at its core, is an act of hope – a belief in the capacity of informed action to create a more sustainable, equitable world for generations to come.”

About the BBVA Foundation and the Biophilia Award

For two decades now, the protection of our planet has numbered among the BBVA Foundation’s key focus areas, translating as support for scientific research, the funding of projects to conserve species, habitats and ecosystems, the promotion of an environmental culture in society at large, and the recognition of communication professionals who have contributed decisively to inform individual and collective engagement with the ecological challenges of our time.

In 2004, it created the BBVA Foundation Awards for Biodiversity Conservation, distinguishing projects in defense of nature in Spain and worldwide along with achievements in communication and knowledge dissemination on environmental matters.

The BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Awards, established in 2008, recognize excellence in climate change research and the environmental sciences, which take their place alongside the remaining categories of these international prizes: basic sciences, biomedicine, information technologies, economics, humanities and social sciences. In their first fifteen editions, around 50 of the world’s most prestigious ecologists, conservation biologists, economists and climate scientists have received the Frontiers of Knowledge Award, along with world-class researchers in other areas.

Effective solutions to today’s environmental problems can only be achieved by mobilizing ecological knowledge and awareness on a global scale, and this, in turn, calls for communication on environmental issues that is at once engaging and well-grounded. It is from this conviction that the BBVA Foundation launched its Biophilia Award for Environmental Communication in the year 2019. With annual prize money of 100,000 euros, this award recognizes the work of professionals and/or organizations in any country that have contributed exceptionally to improving public understanding and awareness of ecological issues, bringing to bear the best available evidence and knowledge.

The name of the award, which alludes to the “biophilia hypothesis” proposed by naturalist Edward O. Wilson (2010 Frontiers of Knowledge Laureate in Ecology and Conservation Biology), denotes the deep connection that we as humans instinctively feel with nature and all forms of life.

In its first four editions, the Biophilia Award went to the BBC’s environment correspondent, journalist Matt McGrath; The Guardian newspaper, for its coverage of environmental issues, debates and news; Marlowe Hood, environment correspondent at Agence France-Presse; and Elizabeth Kohlberg, a journalist at The New Yorker and author of The Sixth Extinction.

Evaluation committee

The committee in this edition was chaired by Miguel B. Araújo, Research Professor at the National Museum of Natural Sciences, Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), with members Alberto Aguirre de Cárcer, editor of newspaper La Verdad; Rosa Basteiro, Science and Environment editor with Spanish National Radio (RNE); Antonio Cerrillo, Environment editor of newspaper La Vanguardia; Patricia Fernández de Lis, Editor-in-chief, Science, Health and Technology, and head of the “Materia” science section at newspaper El País; Teresa Guerrero, head of the Science section of newspaper El Mundo; and Pedro Jordano, Research Professor in the Group of Integrative Ecology at Doñana Biological Station, Spanish National Research Council (CSIC). The Foundation’s Deputy Director Laura Poderoso acted as technical secretary.