When Mark Tercek, President and CEO of The Nature Conservancy, took the stage at SXSW Eco, he was full of enthusiasm for his cause and the impact of this fledgling conference. It was a much needed attitude lift for a conference that had dedicated several of its sessions to talking about how the green message was being ignored and trampled by the majority of the general public. As the audience listened to Tercek describe the successes and missteps the agency has taken under his three-year tenure with refreshing honesty, we felt optimistic again. Although, during the Q&A, one of the questioners stood up and pointedly introduced some of the very negativity that we are working to combat, and the very suspicion and mistrust that we are trying to rise above. More on that later…
Tercek began by talking about how he grew up in an urban setting in Cleveland without much exposure to the outdoors, and it was through introducing his children to outdoor activities that he fell in love with nature. Tercek spent several years working on Wall Street for Goldman Sachs, and during his last years there, he spearheaded a successful environmental initiative that put him on the map. Soon after, he assumed the mantle of CEO of The Nature Conservancy.
During his talk about TNC’s work with big companies, Tercek’s hybrid business/NGO background shows through. “It’s not just about saying ‘Isn’t nature wonderful?’ but about saying ‘Isn’t nature valuable?” Tercek says we need to make a business issue to see real change, to get businesses on board. We need to make nature precious, not nonessential.
When Iowa was hit by massive floods, TNC and Tercek came in to help. A large part of Iowa’s economy is dependent on agriculture, so losing thousands of acres of topsoil was extremely damaging. By relating the environment to a business issue, TNC was able to help get a measure passed–during a recession no less–that raised taxes to protect the flood plains.
TNC also worked with BP in several states (although not in the Gulf) to encourage them to drill in areas that caused the least damage to the ecosystem. Drilling was a foregone conclusion, but TNC helped steer BP toward the location that would have the least impact. Although this outcome was the least bad option, TNC endured some criticism after the Gulf disaster even though they had no input in the Gulf operation.
Tercek believes that working with big companies with big footprints will yield the biggest change. Does this strategy come with risks? Tercek acknowledges the potential downside, but says that we “can’t achieve important change without taking some risk.”
Tercek’s speech was a balanced act of success and lessons learned, but overall, it showed someone who was passionate, dedicated, approaching a huge issue in a practical, effective manner and making progress. In a time when the environment is losing ground, Tercek’s successes and willingness to accept suggestions and outside insights was like being served a cold beer on a hot Austin afternoon.
And then came the Q &A. Many stood up and asked relevant, thought-provoking questions. Then, one audience member stood up and accused Tercek of being overpaid and TNC of being irrelevant compared to local and regional NGOs, and their offices of being obnoxiously palatial.
Were we at the same speech? Didn’t Tercek demonstrate the tremendous reach of TNC by its partnership and influence with BP and the state government of Iowa? How many small organizations came exert that type of pressure or even gain an audience with the likes of these behemoth corporations? Not many.
Tercek responded with not a small amount of grace and refuted each charge. He ended on a positive note, but the mood was marred. We were all reminded of the opposition the environmental movement faces every day outside this conference, yet within this group of like-minded professionals, we still can’t inspire graciousness toward each other.