Dumb Question: Is Environmentalism Annoying?

“Is Environmentalism Dead?” This question sent existential despair rippling through the environmental community about nine years ago, when two eco-provocateurs wrote a really, really long essay answering the question. It was really long.

Nearly a decade later few people, if anyone, asks that question. The more apt question today: Is environmentalism annoying?

For an answer, Dumb Question visited with Mark Tercek , president of the Nature Conservancy (TNC) and a former Goldman Sachs investment banker who has embraced "natural capital." It's the concept in environmental economics that natural systems, such as storm-blocking coastal wetlands or water collection, are critical but largely unaccounted for in the industrial economy. Tercek is the author, with Jonathan S. Adams, of the recent book Nature's Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive by Investing in Nature.

DQ: Why do you think Americans don’t like environmentalists?

Mark Tercek: I don't think people like to be told what to do or to be criticized. I know I don't like it. And environmentalists, we kind of preach. Our choir likes it, or they agree with us. And it's not like we're wrong. We're probably often right. But that preachy tone...

I've been talking about natural capital since I joined TNC. The ideas aren't new. They made a lot of sense to me. So I try to make that a more central part of our work. Andrew Liveris [Dow Chemical chairman, chief executive officer and president] became aware. He challenged me. He said, 'Hey, you're right. If businesses like ours depend on natural capital, let's figure it out.'

We agreed we would try to identify how Dow depends on natural capital, or green infrastructure, and what the value of that would be if it were on their balance sheet — and if it was vulnerable, which it always is, what Dow might do about it.

So we sent our scientists to Texas to kick off the project. Our first pilot is their Freeport, Texas, plant. It's a big plant. It's huge. My scientists came back, and they said, 'Eh we don't really want to work on that project. We don't like those Dow engineers. They don't talk like we do. They don't care about the stuff we do. They don't believe in climate change.'

Then I talked to Andrew Liveris and he said, 'Yeah, my engineers — they weren't that impressed. Your scientists are arrogant. They're idealists. They don't care about the realities of business.'

And I had a little a-ha! moment.

In the case of Dow, one of our hypotheses going in was, Dow's plants on coasts — a lot of them are there — they should be concerned about extreme weather, sea-level rise. They are. And so we said we'll have them invest in restoring coastal ecosystems. That'll be a lower cost, resilient defense. The Dow engineers were interested.

But then they were unimpressed. We thought we knew a lot about coastal ecosystems. But we didn't know about it the way an engineer knows about a sea wall. When they make a capital investment, they know what they're doing.

Now fast forward to today. I think the Dow engineers like our scientists and vice versa. It's a slow project. It's not that dramatic. That might be part of the turn-off for environmentalists: It's work!

I came from Cleveland, Ohio. Most people in Cleveland, Ohio, don't like environmentalists. Why? Because it does look like we're troublemakers, or against stuff. We're not realistic. We're insensitive to the need for economic growth and jobs. We lecture. We criticize. Those are not qualities that people like. It's not that obvious that we're helping anyone.

When you talk about natural capital investments it's about getting together and solving problems by being smart about what nature can do. That's quite a different dialog. Now we're putting ourselves in your shoes. It's a very civil, fair, back-and-forth kind of conversation.

I think environmentalists need to do that more often. That's what I think is missing.

Transcript edited for length. Analysis and commentary on The Grid are the views of the author and don't necessarily reflect the views of Bloomberg News.

Visit www.bloomberg.com/sustainability for the latest from Bloomberg News about energy, natural resources and global business.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.