An interview with Mark Tercek, Author of "Natures Fortune"

Mark Tercek, President and CEO of The Nature Conservancy, is the author of the new book Nature’s Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive by Investing in Nature. Tercek will be speaking on the Main Stage at New York City Green Festival on April 20 at 3 p.m.

Q: Why did you write this book?

The environmental movement is fortunate to have a strong base of very passionate, generous supporters. But we need even more people and more resources on our side. Instead of talking about the wonder of nature we also should talk about its value, in order to make nature more relevant to more people. I like to emphasize the opportunity to invest in nature because nature does so much for people. It provides us clean air to breathe, healthy water to drink, fertile soil to grow our food, abundant fish to eat, protection from floods and storms. Writing a book seemed a good way to reach more people with the message that investing in nature makes compelling sense.

Q: Have you always had an environmentalist’s spirit – a natural appreciation and love for nature?

Not exactly. I grew up a city boy in a working class neighborhood of Cleveland. It wasn't until later—as a parent and businessman—that I started to focus on environmental issues. My wife and I went out of our way to get our kids outdoors, and the more we learned about nature, the more enthusiastic we became about protecting it. Likewise, as a banker, I knew that business could be a strong ally of the environmental movement.

Q: How did your experience at Goldman Sachs inform your ideas about how businesses and environmental organizations can work together?

I've always believed that business can be a positive force for social and environmental good. At Goldman Sachs, I was fortunate after a long career as a mainstream banker to be tapped to build the firm's environmental effort. The more we looked for win-win opportunities—investments in nature that produced good business results and good environmental outcomes—the more we found. We learned a lot from our partners, and I think they learned a lot from us too. I was so encouraged by the potential for these types of collaboration that I was thrilled to join The Nature Conservancy when the opportunity arose.

Q: Although it was not always so, most business leaders now understand the importance of sustainability and Corporate Social Responsibility. But you argue that the current approach is not sufficient to meet the upcoming challenges. What is the next big leap that the corporate world has to make in their relationship to the environment?

Most business leaders, and government leaders too, know that investing in nature is the right thing to do. But in my view they need to better understand that it's the smart thing to do—from an economic and business standpoint. Investments in "green infrastructure" can produce very attractive returns. What's more, compared with manmade solutions, natural infrastructure often works better, costs less and appreciates in value over time—all while providing a host of important co-benefits like wildlife habitat, clean water and tourism and recreations opportunities.

Q: What about environmentalists? What needs to change in their community to make room for more collaboration with the business world?

I think environmentalists will achieve more by shifting from telling others what to do (or not do) to listening and problem-solving. We need to better put ourselves in others' shoes—whether those of a Colombian sugar cane grower or a Californian trawl fisher or an executive of a global manufacturing company—and focus on why nature is valuable to them.

This shift in how we talk about nature can have enormous implications. When we enlist those who previously stood on the sidelines of conservation, we can develop powerful new alliances that will allow us to conserve nature at a whole new scale.

Q: Your book highlights a number of win-win stories that produce good results for an organization while also benefiting the environment and the community that relies on it. Is there one particular area that is particularly ripe for this kind of potential?

No. In fact, we're just scratching the surface. Nature does so much for people that there are opportunities nearly everywhere you look—agriculture, energy, mining, infrastructure, fisheries, pharmaceuticals, tourism and recreation, to name just a few. And the list will only get longer the more we learn about the many ways we depend on nature.

Q: What is the one thing you hope readers will take away from your book?

That the environmental world is not black and white. The complex challenges we face force us to reimagine the types of partners and relationships that will be necessary to balance the needs of people and nature. This can be difficult terrain for conservationists. For instance, we’re all aware that companies pollute. Many have huge environmental footprints. But they can also be surprisingly constructive allies when we work together to change their practices. Helping businesses, governments and individuals understand the value of nature has the potential to create big conservation gains.