The value of nature is astonishing, when you stop and think about it. Marshes protect coastlands. Urban trees clean the air. Forests provide timber. Oceans give us seafood. Snow-capped mountains store drinking water. Some might say nature is priceless.
Not Mark Tercek, the former investment banker at Goldman Sachs who became CEO of The Nature Conservancy in 2008. His new book, Nature’s Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive by Investing in Nature (Basic Books, 2013), argues that nature provides enormous economic benefits to society, business and consumers, and that, if we can figure out how to value and pay for those benefits, we can slow down and even reverse the degradation of nature that threatens our well-being.
It’s an important and potentially controversial argument, as Tercek acknowledges. While the 20th century conservation was all about protecting nature from people, Tercek and some of his allies in the environmental movement would like the future to be about protecting nature for people. If nothing else, he argues, recognizing the economic value of nature will expand the base of the environmentalist beyond the white, college-educated and relatively affluent folk, the backpackers and hikers and birdwatchers at its core.
In his Sunday New York Times column, Tom Friedman writes about the proposed Keystone XL pipeline and includes a reference to Nature’s Fortune.
From Friedman’s column:
“Finally, the president could make up for Keystone by introducing into the public discourse the concept of “natural infrastructure,” argues Mark Tercek, the president and chief executive of The Nature Conservancy, and the co-author of “Nature’s Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive by Investing in Nature.”
“’Forests, wetlands and other ecosystems are nature’s infrastructure for controlling floods, supplying water, and doing other things we need to adapt to climate change,” Tercek wrote in an e-mail. “Before Hurricane Sandy, Cape May, N.J., had the foresight to restore its dunes and wetlands to provide storm protection and wildlife habitat. When Sandy struck, Cape May was spared the damage that neighboring towns suffered.'”
On the day in May 2008 when Mark Tercek, a managing director at Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (GS), got a cell-phone call from a headhunter informing him that he’d likely gotten the job of running the Nature Conservancy, he was so excited that he backed his Jeep Grand Cherokeeinto a tree, shattering the back window. Anxious that gouging a tree might be a bad omen, he jumped out to see how bad it was. To his relief, he’d done far more damage to his vehicle than the tree.
Yes, Ted Turner owns two million acres in North America. Kris and Doug Tompkins have protected more than two million in Chile. But the world’s largest, wealthiest conservation organization, TNC, has preserved some 119 million acres (count ’em!) in more than 30 countries. Since taking the reins in 2008, Mark Tercek, 54, a former Goldman Sachs managing director who headed its Environmental Strategy Group and Center for Environmental Markets, has weathered a recession that saw TNC’s war chest dip by more than $257 million; spearheaded the conservancy’s expansion into Africa; and cut funding from foundering programs in places like Panama and Guatemala to emphasize big-idea initiatives like an international water fund and a program that gives indigenous people a say in local conservation. He also brought discipline to the organization following a 2003 Washington Post investigation that led to an IRS audit. In meetings, he’s known for repeating (and repeating) his mantra, “Focus like a laser.”
Nearly two years ago, Mark Tercek left his job as a managing director at Goldman Sachs to attend to an ecosystem devoted to another kind of green: the Nature Conservancy. TNC, which watches over 119 million acres of land in more than 30 countries, has a significantly different culture from the one he’d dominated on Wall Street. While conducting his first organization-wide online meeting in 2008, Tercek swigged from a Poland Spring water bottle. The next day, he was greeted by half a dozen welcome gifts from colleagues in the form of reusable water containers. “Not so good to be the brand-new head of the biggest conservation organization and drinking out of a plastic water bottle,” he says.