Conservation Trust THConnellI found this profile of Mark Tercek, the former Goldman Sachs managing director who was tapped to head the Nature Conservancy, raises some profound issues concerning the relationship between economics and the environment:

Tercek, 55, didn’t come to the Conservancy to fight financial brush fires. With the help of his board and the input of the Conservancy’s 600 scientists, he wants to remake the face of the American and global environmental movements. He has no quarrel with the current model—largely built on the strategies of confront, litigate, regulate. But by itself, that approach has proven inadequate. “All the things we care about—forests, coral reefs, fish stocks, biodiversity—we have less of instead of more of, despite everyone’s best efforts,” Tercek says.

Environmentalism, he fears, has become too elitist, too white, too partisan, too full of doomsayers, too concerned with saving nature from people instead of for them. He’d like to expand environmentalism to include the world’s largest polluters so that ecologists and corporations can work jointly to preserve nature because it’s the smart economic choice.

That last point is critical. Sustainable and responsible economic growth is based on properly valuing the natural environment. All too often environmental damage and degradation is due to improperly valuing and inadequately appreciating natural resources. In many cases it is because of a lack of well-defined property rights and responsibilities.

To use the language of Acemoglu and Robinson, unsustainable economic activity is extractive rather than inclusive. Consider how Tercek is actively and positively engaging Dow Chemical for an inclusive approach:

Tercek’s biggest bet yet is the Conservancy’s five-year partnership with Dow Chemical (DOW), announced a little more than a year ago. During the project, 20 Conservancy scientists are getting unprecedented access to Dow’s facilities, starting at Dow’s sprawling Freeport (Tex.) plant. The idea is to help the chemical giant do an inventory of its global land and water assets as a way of allowing Dow to put a value on its “natural capital” and to determine how to best protect and enhance it.

“I know there’s a lot of skepticism about these corporate initiatives, but for Dow to agree with us philosophically that it relies on nature for business reasons and to begin to put a business value on its natural assets, that’s huge,” says Tercek.