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What does it mean to be an environmentalist?

by Michael H. Higuera

Environmentalism is commonly thought of as a social movement. Social movements consist of a group of people with a common ideology who try together to achieve certain goals. Broadly speaking, environmentalists try to promote conservation and protection of the environment. I’ve identified myself with this movement since I was about fourteen years old. At some point I began to ask, “How can I best help protect the environment?” If I could wave a wand and get everyone to be an environmentalist, the problem would be a lot closer to being solved. Unfortunately, I have not found that wand yet.

When I was approached with an opportunity to work at The Nature Conservancy (TNC), I quickly realized that the organization’s emphasis on creating win-win solutions and avoiding confrontation was what had helped it become the largest and one of the most effective environmental organizations in the world. A hallmark of the organization has been using market transactions to create tangible results. For example, TNC has purchased conservation easements from ranchers permanently protecting important habitat from development and other threats. Ranchers often use that money to acquire more land allowing the next generation to stay on the ranch which helps agricultural communities remain viable while creating an incentive to protect the land. TNC is now pursuing similar win-win solutions such as coordinating payments from water users to protect important watersheds that are critical to providing clean drinking water.

TNC’s approach is alive and well at PERC’s Enviropreneur Institute this summer which I have been fortunate enough to attend. The participants are bright, ambitious “enviropreneurs” who are trying to create win-win solutions that will benefit the environment. There are some pretty innovative ideas like selling pens created from trees cut to enhance forest health and restoring coral reefs by tapping into the economic interests of people who make a living off of the marine environment. Some will succeed, many will fail, but more importantly a market promoting environmental protection is being developed. By appealing to peoples’ interests and letting them act on these incentives, I’m more hopeful than I’ve been in a long time that we will be able to succeed in protecting and restoring the environment.

Mike Higuera is a 2011 PERC Enviropreneur Institute Fellow and a conservationist at The Nature Conservancy.

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