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The Call of the Wild

Mark Tercek

Photography by Ian Allen.

There is an inner environmentalist in us all, poised to burst into bloom. Mark Tercek knows this to be true because he experienced such an awakening himself, late in his career and altogether unexpectedly. A former investment banker, Tercek had an introduction to nature that was nothing short of world changing. It dramatically altered his personal trajectory and outlook, but more than that, it delivered a fresh, dynamic new voice to the conservation movement. The planet is literally a better place because of it.

Tercek is now the celebrated president and chief executive officer of The Nature Conservancy, the world’s largest nonprofit environmental organization. Founded nearly 70 years ago, the Conservancy operates in 69 countries and all 50 U.S. states, where it protects more than 100 million acres of land. Its work ranges from cutting-edge scientific research to collaborations with indigenous communities, and most recently it has set its sights on solving global challenges such as climate change. As renowned Harvard University biologist E. O. Wilson says, “In the U.S. especially, The Nature Conservancy is, acre for acre, the most important and effective conservation organization.”

That a finance guy could add value to an environmental group—not to mention one as prestigious and time-honored as The Nature Conservancy—may at first seem counterintuitive. Tercek is not a scientist; he has no formal training in conservation and no prior experience at an environmental organization. He spent a lot of time outside as a Boy Scout in his youth, but his exposure to nature was limited as a city kid growing up in Cleveland.

Yet, as he discovered, the business world and the conservation world are not so different. Partnerships between the two can bring fantastic mutual benefits—and it was precisely Tercek’s 24 years at Goldman Sachs that allowed him to help the Conservancy unlock those benefits. “Outsiders to the environmental movement can make a powerful difference,” he says, “more than they probably realize.”

A New Perspective

For Tercek, it all started when he became a father. Nature was not something he had paid much attention to, but as a parent, he suddenly sensed that it was an essential element missing from his own childhood. For his four kids, he decided, it would be different. His wife shared these feelings, so they began spending weekends and vacations at nature-oriented destinations. A trip to Costa Rica, where the family roughed it—“We were always in mud and stuff,” Tercek recalls—stands out in particular. “Our guide was an extraordinarily engaging person who helped us appreciate the wonders of Costa Rica’s ecosystems,” Tercek says. “Something really clicked for me there, and I think the same is true for my kids.”

He returned to New York City feeling inspired and hungry to learn more. He started donating to various conservation organizations and reading environmental literature in his free time, including David Quammen’s The Song of the Dodo and Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us. Those works helped to get him up to speed on the complex functioning of ecosystems and the tremendous impact humans exert on them.

Another book, The New Economy of Nature: The Quest to Make Conservation Profitable, struck a more personal chord. Written by Stanford University ecologist Gretchen Daily and journalist Katherine Ellison, it presented ecosystems in terms of the goods and services they provide to humanity—as well as the profits that are to be reaped by protecting them. Tercek was so taken by Daily’s ideas that he later called her to further pick her brain about topics ranging from what return rates an investment in nature can produce to whether conservation, at its core, is really about building natural capital. The more he learned, the more convinced he became that “business and market forces could be harnessed for a variety of social outcomes, including environmental ones.”

Meanwhile, Tercek had begun pondering the possibility of a career change. When Henry M. “Hank” Paulson, the then-CEO of Goldman Sachs, caught wind of this, however, he presented Tercek with an opportunity he could not refuse: to build a new environmental branch for the bank, committed to exploring business opportunities that benefited the company’s bottom line as well as the planet. Tercek spent the next three years encouraging investments in renewable energy companies, collaborating with scientists to show businesses how environmental savvy could boost their returns and corresponding with experts such as Daily.

“My firm belief is that conservation solutions today must involve governments and businesses and nongovernmental organizations all working together,” says Paulson, now chairman of the Paulson Institute, a nonprofit organization that promotes a stronger U.S.-China relationship through sustainable economic growth and environmental protection. “Mark understands this very, very well. He works on a collaborative basis and he has the management skills that are essential for getting things done in this battle to save our planet.”

It was in 2008, though, that Tercek really completed his metamorphosis from banker to environmentalist, when he learned that The Nature Conservancy was hiring a new CEO. “The Nature Conservancy reminded me of my business experience, in that it’s a science-based, pragmatic organization that’s inclusive, centrist and often deal-oriented, and it solves important challenges by bringing people together,” he says. “It seemed like a very good fit.”

He applied and, to his delight, was offered the job.


Green Revolution

Under Tercek’s leadership, The Nature Conservancy has adopted a more businesslike approach, championing its programs in terms of nature as a capital good worthy of investment. Healthy ecosystems provide a myriad of benefits: clean air and water, pollination for crops, protection from storms and floods, pharmaceutical breakthroughs and much more—yet neither companies nor governments tend to acknowledge this on their balance sheets. The Nature Conservancy attempts to amend that oversight by pointing out evidence-based ways that the environment solves problems and helps humanity (or could do so, if properly invested in). “We’re not asking a government or corporation to be philanthropic, but we are asking them to be a little more long-term in their thinking and wiser in terms of incorporating the full range of alternatives,” Tercek says.

A city, for example, may call in the Conservancy to help it analyze the pros and cons of various water management strategies. A forest upstream of the city, the Conservancy may find, mitigates flooding in the wet season, stores water for use in the dry season and filters and cleans it throughout the year. Simply protecting that watershed may turn out to be cheaper than building a bunch of pumps, pipes, ditches and levies—and it also would bring additional recreational and environmental benefits. “A business person is good at asking the types of questions that reveal those answers: What kind of investments yield the best returns? How can we monitor and see where those investments go? Where shouldn’t we invest?” Tercek says. By using science to answer such business-driven questions, the Conservancy reveals high returns that come from investing in natural capital—to the benefit of all.

“Mark has made the business case for investing in conservation to secure vital benefits,” says Daily at Stanford. “He is inspiring a whole new way of thinking and has moved conservation into the 21st century.”

At times, though, the Conservancy has caught flak for what some see as an overly cozy partnership between environmentalists and profit-driven businesses. Critics say that such alliances are “consorting with the enemy,” as Tercek puts it in Nature’s Fortune, a book he published in 2013 with science writer Jonathan Adams, in which he outlines his environmental management philosophy.

Others, however, view such non-traditional partnerships as assets. “Business as usual is no longer an option,” says Jacqueline Novogratz, founder and CEO of Acumen, a nonprofit global venture fund that catalyzes entrepreneurship to tackle the problems of poverty. “When it comes to the environment, the role of corporations is one of the key determinants of the kind of world in which we’ll live.”

Dow Chemical, for example, may not seem like an obvious partner given the company’s large environmental footprint, but that was precisely what attracted Tercek to engaging with it. In 2011, Dow and The Nature Conservancy conducted a series of pilot studies to see if one of the company’s large Freeport, Texas, plants should invest in environmental restoration or in building levies to protect itself from rising sea levels and storms.

Unfortunately, the research revealed that restoring the marsh habitat would not provide substantial benefits because it was too far away. Yet the story didn’t end there. The Nature Conservancy scientists offered to help Dow analyze green means of reducing ozone emissions from a plant expansion the company was undertaking. In this case, the results were encouraging. As the joint research team reported in 2014 in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, restoring about 1,000 acres of forest in the Houston area would remove an estimated 310 tons of ozone, meeting the emissions reductions requirements and sparing Dow the expense of installing additional scrubbers at their plant. “With this strategy, you would save money, benefit biodiversity, sequester carbon and provide recreational opportunities,” Tercek says. “It would be a win-win-win-win.”

Whether Dow is allowed to pursue a green intervention strategy depends on government regulators, but in the meantime, the methods developed for this case study provide a new, globally available tool for assessing green ozone abatement.

While such pragmatic, profit-driven strategies have proven a boon for conservation, Tercek has learned over the years that there is also a second and more important factor for getting people excited about protecting nature: the heart. Discussing environmental investments only in terms of capital returns—even with business partners—usually does not provide sufficient motivation for stepping up green commitments. “You need to inspire people to appreciate the joy that nature can provide,” Tercek says. Convincing individuals of their moral responsibility to preserve the planet for future generations is also part of that equation—a point that others, including businessman and philanthropist Ted Turner, agree on. “Mark and I share a key principle in that we believe it’s humanity’s duty to carefully conserve our lands and water sources for the sake of our planet and all living things,” Turner says.

It’s that passion that has led Tercek and The Nature Conservancy to the ambitious new goal of solving the most pressing environmental challenges of our time, including climate change; river, ocean and land protection; and urban growth. The Conservancy plans to do this through collaboration across all sectors, including with governments, and by implementing science-based solutions. NatureVest, an impact investment unit the Conservancy launched in 2014 with JP Morgan Chase & Co., also will help realize these goals by channeling at least $1 billion into conservation projects with tangible outcomes over the next three years.

As grandiose as these goals sound, Tercek and his 4,000 co-workers at the Conservancy believe they are both achievable and pertinent. “We asked our scientists, can we really have it all?” Tercek says. “Can we really protect what nature needs and also deliver what people need—energy, housing, food and infrastructure?” The initial results of that scientific analysis, which is still ongoing, reveal that a business-as-usual way of doing things will lead to significant suffering for both people and the planet by 2050. Alternatively, they found, if we cooperate globally and implement a series of doable things, we can secure a positive future for all.

Tercek believes these interventions come at a critical time and that we must not waver in our commitment to these goals. While it’s too early to fully know what Congress or the new Trump administration will do in terms of the environment, Tercek is troubled by efforts to weaken environmental regulations and by possible actions to undermine U.S. climate commitments, including the U.N. Paris Agreement. Tercek and The Nature Conservancy say they will be working on many fronts, including aggressive efforts in the states, to press ahead with ambitious clean energy goals. “What we think we’ll be able to show—and are determined to show,” he says, “is that there’s broad support for these things, and that that support makes fundamental common sense.”

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