Mark Tercek might seem an unlikely boss of the Nature Conservancy, a big American green group. He spent little time outdoors in his youth and then a quarter of a century working for an investment bank. He has probably worn sandals from time to time; he is not known to have worn a beard. Yet this is apposite. Mr Tercek is at the forefront of a new, businesslike sort of environmentalism, which is changing the way companies and governments view nature.
It typically involves putting a valuation on the useful things that nature does, such as the provision of clean water by a spring or flood protection provided by a forest. Once the value of such “ecosystem services” is established, it can be included in business plans. Thus, New York City’s planners established that, to address their polluted water supply, they could either spend $8 billion to build a giant water treatment plant or $1.5 billion on planting trees and otherwise improving the Catskills watershed. At a stroke, they had a business case for tree-hugging.
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.