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The WRI Story: 30 Years of Big Ideas

This history is indeed a "first draft" of WRI's first thirty years.
It is by no means exhaustive or complete, and we wish we could recognize
and acknowledge every person who has made important and valuable contributions to shaping WRI.



Jonathan Lash was worried.

It was June 1996, a little more than three years into his tenure as president of the World Resources Institute. Under the leadership of his predecessor, Gus Speth, who founded the organization in 1982, the Washington-based nonprofit had emerged as a leading voice on global environmental concerns, with a first-rate staff and a reputation for scientific and analytical rigor. But now it was in trouble. Spending cuts loomed after several years of budget deficits and fundraising shortfalls. Even more worrying to Lash, the organization seemed to be losing its way. He wondered whether WRI was living up to its mission.

So he sat down and drafted a seven-page memo to his staff that has since become part of WRI lore. “I think we’ve grown complacent,” he wrote. “We have difficulty describing the impact of our work. Foundations increasingly see us as rich, respectable, and blurry. I think that’s dangerous.” Lash challenged his colleagues to ask themselves whether they were really making a difference: “How often do you really expect to see change as a result of what we do?” Lest anyone miss the point, he recalled the fate of “famous silent film actors who dropped from sight with the advent of the ‘Talkies’ because they couldn’t adapt,” adding, “We don’t want to be the Rudolph Valentino of this era of environmentalists.”

Such fears seem hard to fathom now. On the 30th anniversary of its founding, WRI is thriving, with a staff of 225 and activities in more than 40 countries, including China, where it opened an office in 2008. Defying the economic downturn, its annual budget has climbed from $26 million to $45 million in the last four years.

But growth is just one measure of the organization’s success. Almost from the beginning, WRI has occupied a unique niche, focusing on the environment and development. Moreover, it doesn’t just analyze problems—it works to advance solutions. This multifaceted approach has proven itself time and again: in Mexico City, where a WRI-designed bus system has helped cleanse the air and shorten commutes; in Belize, where a WRI study on the economic benefits of coral reefs—from tourism, fishing, and storm protection—spurred unprecedented government measures to protect them; in Africa, where a collaborative project between WRI and Landesa, a Seattle-based nonprofit, advances the benefits of land rights with a web-based array of maps, data, and narratives.


Senator Tom Carper, William Ruckelshaus, and William Reilly at the WRI "State of the Clean Air Act Roundtable." 2012.

“WRI was one of the first, if not the first organization to recognize that you have to take man into account if you’re going to have any lasting success in dealing with environmental problems,” says Bill Ruckelshaus, former head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and WRI Board chairman emeritus. “You have to harmonize the interests of man and nature in order for either to succeed.”

“People are increasingly connecting the dots between the state of the environment and their well-being,” agrees Janet Ranganathan, WRI’s vice president for science and research. “We need to move from talking about problems with environment ministers to talking about solutions with development ministers, finance ministers, and prime ministers.”

And, she might have added, business executives. Despite skepticism from some, WRI has forged strong partnerships with major multinational corporations such as General Electric and Caterpillar, most notably in building support for action on climate change. Businesses like its evidence-based, non-ideological approach and its openness to market-driven solutions.

They also like saving money: In many cases, WRI researchers and economists have been able to show that environmentally sound management practices—such as reducing energy use and industrial waste—can boost the bottom line. “I think WRI invented and implemented a set of strategies that genuinely moved business behavior,” says Lash, who stepped down last year to take a new job as president of Hampshire College.

The recent naming of his successor, Andrew Steer, opens a new chapter in WRI’s story. A British-born economist and development expert, Steer comes to WRI from the World Bank, where he has served as senior climate envoy. He inherits an organization in robust health, but hardly one to rest on its laurels. Lash’s famous memo is but one example of a culture of introspection and self-criticism—one board member calls it “self-flagellation”—that continues to this day. It also serves as a reminder that WRI’s path to success followed anything but a straight line.

An Office Above a Nightclub


Wallace D. Bowman, Secretary-Treasurer; Gus Speth, President; Jessica T. Mathews, Vice President and Director of Research;
and Andrew Maguire, Vice President for Policy Affairs. 1987.

Speth conceived of WRI while serving in the Carter administration. A Yale-educated attorney from Orangeburg, S.C., he was a veteran of the environmental movement who had co-founded the Natural Resources Defense Council in 1970. The decade that followed was a heady time for environmentalists—the era of Earth Day, the founding of the EPA, and the establishment of the Clean Air Act. But the focus in those days was mostly on domestic concerns, such as smog in Los Angeles or toxic waste in the Cuyahoga River, the famously flammable waterway in northeast Ohio.

Speth gained a new perspective when, in 1977, he left the advocacy world for the Council on Environmental Quality, which advises the president. As his desk began piling up with scientific studies on transnational threats like climate change and ozone loss in the stratosphere, he began to realize that he and his fellow activists had been missing the big picture. “We were building a fool’s paradise,” says Speth, who eventually became chairman of the council. “We seemed to be making real progress on domestic environmental issues during that era, but the large-scale, global issues were not being addressed.”

Toward the end of President Carter’s term, Speth decided to fill that void with a new institute targeting global environmental problems. He shared his idea with the MacArthur Foundation, which liked it enough to provide a $15 million grant. Speth and two vice presidents, Jessica Mathews and Wallace Bowman, moved into a tiny office above a nightclub on Connecticut Avenue. Mathews recalls that she devoted much of the first year deciding among research projects, winnowing the list from 112 to 10. The list was used as a basis for hiring staff, whose numbers grew quickly enough that the institute soon moved to more spacious quarters in the American Institute of Architects building a few blocks away.

From the beginning, Speth and his colleagues were intent on distinguishing the World Resources Institute from other environmental groups. Their vision was closer in spirit to a think tank than a traditional advocacy group in the sense that it would eschew political lobbying and pressure tactics in favor of research and policy analysis. But they also wanted to aggressively push for change. “It is often said that think-tank intellectualizing is not effective—that the real impact comes from groups that lobby and litigate and work for the press,” Speth wrote in notes for one of his first staff meetings. “There is some truth in this. If I thought we’d turn out like many academic think tanks, I’d recommend we give MacArthur its money back.”

“We had a very clear vision that was something called an activist research center,” Mathews recalls. “That is, an institution that didn’t view a published product as 95 percent of the way to completion. We saw that as a very clear, empty niche.”


Russell Train and Robert O. Anderson at the Global Possible Conference, 1984.
(Photo by Rich Reinhard, rich@rickreinhard.com.)

Before they could wield much influence, though, they had to put WRI on the map. They succeeded in May 1984, hosting a three-day international conference in Wye Island, Md., called the Global Possible. Papers presented at the conference and subsequently published as a book amounted to an unusually clear-eyed appraisal of global resources, population, and environmental problems. But the conference also emphasized solutions, striking a tone of qualified optimism that was unusual for such gatherings. The pragmatic, can-do spirit resonated with the media (“`Gloom and Doom’ Environmentalists Air Ways of Shedding Light,” read the headline in the Washington Post) and played an important role in establishing WRI’s identity as a research organization focused on results.

The Global Possible book was followed by the World Resources Report, an authoritative survey of global environmental trends that first came out in 1986 and has been published on a biennial basis ever since. Which is not to say that everyone favored the concept, at least at first. Among other questions, there were doubts about whether governments would share the necessary information, assuming they even bothered to collect it.

But a board member, Robert McNamara, helped tip the balance in favor of the project. The former defense secretary, who also had run the World Bank, reminded his WRI colleagues that when the bank published its annual development report, it dealt with the challenge of missing information by leaving blank spaces—a tactic that sometimes had the effect of shaming governments into acknowledging problems they had previously ignored. “That sort of turned the board around, saying, `Yeah, that’s the way the world works, so let’s go ahead,’” recalled another board member, John Firor, in an in-house interview some years later.

Turning Research into Results


"Despite its massive problems, I believe Africa's situation is not hopeless. New development policies and approaches that respect its unique environmental and cultural setting can prevent grim forecasts from becoming reality." Mohamed El-Ashry, Ph.D., 1987.

As WRI was building a distinct identity, it also was developing a new model of research-backed activism that relied heavily on partnerships with scientists, many affiliated with universities. This could occasionally be frustrating, given the reluctance of some academic researchers to insert themselves into policy battles. “They wanted to stay academic,” recalls Mohamed El-Ashry, a Cairo-born geologist who joined WRI in 1983. “We wanted to stick our necks out.” But as the model was refined, it began to yield impressive results.

In the mid-1980s, for example, El-Ashry and a colleague began gathering material for a report on Western water, consulting a wide range of water managers, scientists, economists, and others. Western governors subsequently announced their own water initiative, convening an experts’ panel to come up with a plan for using water in the Colorado River basin more efficiently. El-Ashry and his colleagues feared that releasing the WRI study would put the governors on the spot. So instead, they discreetly shared their data and policy recommendations with the panel, whose plan, when unveiled by the governors, was largely consistent with their own. WRI released its study soon afterwards to help validate the panel’s work.

WRI published other reports in more conventional fashion, but was no less successful for doing so. For example, a study that drew heavily on groundbreaking work by scientists at the University of California at Berkeley showed that acid rain was not just a problem in the northeastern United States, but was afflicting western states, too. The study helped pave the way for Congressional passage of legislation that established a cap-and-trade system to curb sulfur dioxide emissions from power plants across the country.

Going Global


Kathy Courrier and Tom Fox listen as Center staffers discuss publishing what they learned about participatory rural appraisal, 1991.

Such victories raised WRI’s profile in Washington and helped cement its reputation for professionalism and effectiveness. At the same time, the focus on U.S. concerns seemed inconsistent with Speth’s original vision for the institute. El-Ashry joked in meetings that unlike baseball’s World Series, the “world” in the organization’s name should actually mean something.

WRI took a big step in that direction in 1988 when it agreed to take over the North American branch of a London-based nonprofit, the Institute for International Environment and Development (IIED), a major contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). In absorbing the Washington office and its staff, WRI became an aid contractor with a portfolio of environmental and development projects around the world. “Gus and I argued that there was no reason in the world we can’t have this bifurcated agenda, and actually the two can feed into one another,” El-Ashry recalls. “The stuff that WRI does in its policy research can be disseminated through the work on the ground, and the lessons learned from what they do out there can help inform the work of the policy research. And ultimately that is what happened.”

The effect, in any case, was transformative. An organization that had begun by focusing primarily on research was suddenly thrust into an active, hands-on role in developing countries around the world—helping to start environmental groups in Africa and Asia, acting as consultants to natural-resource ministries, huddling with legislators in various capitals to help shape new environmental laws, and looking out for the interests of indigenous people living off land, water, and wildlife.

The international expansion of WRI’s mission also was reflected in growing partnerships with U.N. agencies and the World Bank. In 1989, for example, WRI completed a U.N.-commissioned study urging the bank to create a new fund for projects that produce environmental benefits. The bank not only followed the advice, but also recruited El-Ashry, who subsequently was named chairman of the fund, called the Global Environment Facility.

Spotlighting Climate Change


"If current trends continue, greenhouse gas emissions will commit the world by 2030 to a more dramatic climate change than any in recorded history. Adopting a wait-and-see attitude presumes that the impacts will be foreseeable and emerge gradually. That's not a safe bet." —Irving Mintzer, Ph.D. "The greenhouse effect is the ultimate environmental problem. It is global in scope, and a solution requires the long-term cooperation of the superpowers." —Rafe Pomerance. 1987.

As WRI embraced its new development agenda, it began to confront the biggest global challenge of all—curbing the greenhouse gas emissions linked to climate change. At the time, the issue barely registered on the public consciousness. That began to change thanks to the work of, among others, Irving Mintzer and Alan Miller, WRI’s energy experts, and Rafe Pomerance, a former president of Friends of the Earth who had been hired in 1985 with the goal of catalyzing action on climate change. In an organization filled mostly with researchers and analysts, “Rafe held a position that was meant to be a little edgy,” recalls Elizabeth Cook, who filled Pomerance’s job after he left WRI in 1994 and is now the vice president for institutional strategy and development.

Pomerance started with congressional staffers, one of whom advised, “You need a horse, a senator who’s really going to go with this,” he recalls. He found one in Sen. John Chafee, the Rhode Island Republican and chair of a key environmental subcommittee. After meeting with Speth and Pomerance, Chafee publicly committed to hold hearings on climate change over two days in June 1986. Pomerance had by then introduced congressional staff to the NASA scientist James Hansen, who joined other climate experts in testifying at Chafee’s hearings. “That really started the process of breaking it loose because it got so much press,” Pomerance says.

The work of Pomerance and his colleagues helped lay the groundwork for the formation of the U.N.-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The panel, in turn, helped create the scientific planking for the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change that emerged from the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The climate treaty marked the first time the international community had acknowledged the role of greenhouse gas emissions in warming the planet and agreed in principle to limit them.

The Rio summit was a watershed for the environmental movement, bringing together more than 100 presidents and prime ministers in the largest U.N. conference in history. WRI was deeply involved in preparing for the event, in part because the chairman of the U.N.-sponsored meeting, Maurice Strong, relied heavily on its experts to complement his own small staff. Besides the climate treaty, the summit also produced the Convention on Biological Diversity, which committed its signatories to protecting biodiversity through sustainable development. The convention drew heavily on principles that WRI had outlined in an earlier report written in collaboration with the U.N. Environment Program and the World Conservation Union.

Warming up to Business


"There are now many opportunities all over the world to modify economic policies to promote resource conservation, reduce environmental damanges, and at the same time raise economic productivity and reduce government deficits. Good resource management is good economics." - Robert Repetto, Ph.D., 1987.

For WRI, the summit also marked a turning point of a different sort. Just a few months after the conference, Speth left to run the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). He was succeeded by Lash, a former Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) attorney who had served most recently as director of the Environmental Law Center at Vermont Law School (he had previously run the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources). Lash quickly sensed that he would face a different set of challenges than his predecessor.

“The Rio Earth Summit was the most broadly participatory international event anyone had ever experienced at that point,” he recalls. “Every world leader had come and given a sustainability speech, and the real challenge was that things weren’t changing. So it seemed like WRI was ready for the next phase, which was how does the agenda get implemented? What are the solutions, the practical ways of moving forward on these global issues, and what role can we play in making them actually happen?”

It was clear that an important part of the answer would center on governance. Based on their growing experience in the field, WRI experts had come to see how failures of transparency, accountability, and justice often contributed to the degradation of resources by depriving local people of a say in their use. Governments had pledged to address those failures in Principal 10 of the Rio Declaration. The commitment gave leverage to WRI as its then-director of institutions and governance, Frances Seymour, sought to integrate governance goals into many aspects of its overseas development work—an effort that would assume more and more importance in the years ahead.

In the meantime, the organization was increasingly focused on business and economics. During Speth’s tenure, Robert Repetto, the director of economic research, had pioneered the use of “natural resources accounting” to illuminate the hidden toll of environmental damage on national accounts. Around the same time, WRI had begun making tentative overtures to the corporate world to explore ways that market forces could be harnessed to protect natural resources—one of the first environmental organizations to do so.

Ranganathan, now the vice president for science and research, was in the forefront of those early efforts. Arriving at WRI in 1992, she was assigned to a new initiative in the relatively untested field of “corporate environmental accounting.” The Green Ledgers project was a collaborative venture with nine companies, including such industrial giants as Dow Chemical and DuPont. Ranganathan combed through the companies’ confidential financial data in search of environmental costs that were not reflected on conventional balance sheets. The companies were surprised to learn how much money they could save by, for example, changing manufacturing processes in ways that reduced hazardous waste. “What we showed was that when you looked at environmental costs, they were a lot larger than companies thought,” she recalls.

For Speth as well as Lash, accustomed to facing corporate adversaries in trials and deposition rooms, the concept of working with business took some getting used to. But each came to believe in the wisdom of the new approach. “The thing about both Gus and Jonathan is that they came from an advocacy background, but they’re very pragmatic in understanding how the world works,” says Walter Reid, a former WRI vice president.

WRI’s engagement with business was somewhat ad hoc at first. But a more formal arrangement developed in 1994 when WRI absorbed the Management Institute for Environment and Business, a nonprofit that had been founded four years earlier by Matthew Arnold, a young Harvard Business School graduate who aimed to promote sustainable business practices. “It seemed like a natural,” Lash says of the merger. “Here they had this group of smart, young MBAs with good business contacts, and we had developed relationships with some companies at the CEO level and had very good analytical skills.”

A few WRI staffers worried that their employer was getting too cozy with business, and they greeted their brash, new colleagues with skepticism. “There was a failure to integrate initially,” recalls Arnold, now the managing director and global head of environmental affairs at J.P. Morgan Chase. “We were probably the first MBAs a lot of our colleagues had ever met. There was cordial distance.”

But they soon found allies among their WRI colleagues. Cook, then in the climate and energy program, had documented the critical role business had played in tackling ozone depletion and was charged with building a team to work with corporations like General Motors and BP in developing business strategies and policy solutions to curb climate change. Drawing on WRI’s corporate accounting and performance-measurement work, the team began generating results that now count among WRI’s signature achievements.

Among them was the Green Power Market Development Group, which helped industrial corporations diversify their energy portfolios and buy renewable energy at cost-competitive prices, with a goal of adding 1,000 megawatts of new, green power capacity to the grid. The goal was met by 2010. Another such initiative was the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, a joint venture with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, led at WRI by Ranganathan. It quickly became the global standard for measuring corporate greenhouse gas emissions.

More generally, businesses “were very supportive of a safe haven for dialogue,” Arnold recalls. Among other things, they welcomed the group’s insights into the relationship between environmental risk and market value—and how the former could often undermine the latter. The engagement also fueled creative ferment at WRI. “It helped us think more effectively about places where markets could be used as effective means to achieve environmental ends, and places where they couldn’t,” says Lash.

Management Gets a Makeover


Janet Ranganathan, wind- and rain-swept on WRI's roof. Photo source & credit: John Elkington.

For all the progress he had made, Lash was nagged by the feeling that WRI was punching below its weight, that it should have more to show for its efforts. At a memorable staff meeting in the late 1990s, he piled a stack of WRI publications on the floor, then stood on top of them to make the point that the institute should be a “do tank” as much as a think tank. “The message was, `These are great, but we need to stand on them to actually do things,’” Lash recalls, adding dryly, “It was not my most successful rhetorical gesture.”

Successful or not, the problems were real. Foundation support was down, as was USAID funding. More broadly, there was a sense within the organization that it was not sufficiently focused. “We all did lots of little things that were unconnected for the most part,” recalls Ranganathan. “Instead of lighting a thousand candles, with each little project being a candle, what we really needed to do if we wanted to be transformative was shine some big spotlights on a few critical issues.”

One problem was that programs were run like independent franchises, sometimes even raising their own funds. Another was that WRI wasn’t doing enough to advertise its work. “The joke was that WRI was one of the most important and best-kept secrets in the environmental movement,” another board member recalls. Its staff members, many with scientific backgrounds, were “constitutionally unable to brag.”

Lash set about fixing the situation. He brought in an executive coach and a consultant who had helped reorganize the Boston Police Department. A software system was installed for the purpose of tracking results from individual programs. A position was created for WRI’s first managing director, Paul Faeth, so that Lash could devote more time to strategic planning, in the manner of a traditional chief executive.

Meanwhile, as part of the new emphasis on “managing for results,” programs were organized into four main areas—climate and energy, people and ecosystems, governance, and markets and enterprises (the latter two categories were conceived as cross-cutting disciplines that would inform the work of the first two).

In a related move, WRI kicked off several high-profile, institute-wide initiatives with clearly defined five-year objectives. One was the Global Forest Watch Initiative, which in 2000 launched a system for mapping 90 percent of the world’s forest using satellite data. The tool has since proved invaluable to government agencies and environmental groups tracking deforestation (it’s due for a major upgrade later this year). In 2000, WRI established the Access Initiative, which has grown into a global network of more than 250 civil society groups in over 50 countries focused on promoting transparency, citizen engagement and accountability in sustainable development decision-making. Its accomplishments include freedom-of-information laws (Uganda, Indonesia), major legal reforms on citizen engagement (Sri Lanka, Chile, India) and environmental tribunals and dispute resolution mechanisms (India, Malawi, Philippines).

In the midst of all this, in 1999 WRI relocated to its current location at 10th and G Streets NE, occupying two floors of airy, sunlit office space that are a showcase of energy-efficient design.

Ending “the Stall”


WRI Board Chairman Jim Harmon and Jonathan Lash, 2005.

The changes initiated by Lash were far more than cosmetic, and they contributed to a sense within the staff that the organization was on the move. But WRI still had a big problem—growth, or more precisely, the lack of it. “We had plateaued,” Lash recalls. “The organization was changing internally, but in terms of our capacity, reach, funding, and visibility, we were pretty stable.” The period would be known retrospectively as “the Stall.”

Jim Harmon, named board chairman in 2004, played a big role in getting the organization unstuck. An investment banker, he had gotten to know WRI while running the Export-Import Bank during the Clinton administration, when he had consulted its experts on whether the bank should help finance sales of U.S.-made equipment for use on a controversial dam project in China. Harmon decided not to support the exports from Caterpillar and other companies, in part because of WRI, whose advice he found “thoughtful” and “non-shrill.” “I could talk to Jonathan Lash and his people here in a very reasoned way,” Harmon recalls.

Harmon began looking closely at WRI’s inner workings. He soon realized that for all its obvious strengths, the organization was failing to live up to its potential, and that “we would have to do some things to take WRI to the next level,” he recalls.

Lash says the insight came naturally to the new chairman. “Since he’s a businessman, growth makes sense to him. Jim pushed very hard on the notion that if you feel strongly about things and if you’re doing innovative dynamic work there should be no difficulty in adding to your capacity and growing.”

His first step was to recruit a couple of rock stars as new board members: former Vice President Al Gore and Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the former president of Brazil. He also reached out to the corporate world, which he believed was underrepresented on the board, in part because of lingering suspicions among the WRI rank-and-file.

His first target was the newly installed chairman of Caterpillar, economist James Owens. “I started to talk to Jim about getting involved with WRI, which of course he had never dreamed of because he was so critical of a lot of the environmentalists,” Harmon says. But he persisted, suggesting that Caterpillar’s foundation make a large donation to WRI’s sustainable transportation initiative, EMBARQ, which, after all, involved construction of new infrastructure. Owens warmed to the idea, but Lash was initially skeptical about taking money from a company whose big, yellow earthmovers were for many environmentalists the symbol of everything they abhorred.

Again, Harmon sought to bridge the divide, suggesting that he, Lash, and Cook travel to company headquarters in Peoria, Ill., to meet with Owens. The Caterpillar chairman reacted incredulously to the idea. “He said, ‘Jim, let me get this straight, you’re telling me that they don’t want to take our money, that we have to pass a test?’ I said, `Yeah, that’s what I’m telling you.’” But Owens passed the test, and WRI not only accepted his donation for EMBARQ, the organization invited him to join the board (he accepted).

The WRI Board evolved to reflect its ecumenical approach to getting things done. It attracted top leaders in science and academia (Diana Wall, Tish Emerson, Chen Jining); business (Doug Oberhelman, Jamshyd Godrej, Steve Ross, Leslie Dach); leaders steeped in both government and business (Dan Doctoroff, Kathleen McGinty, Lee Thomas); and heads of fellow NGOs such as Frances Beinecke of NRDC and Roberto Artavia of VIVA Trust.

Harmon also encouraged some key management changes. Manish Bapna came on board as executive vice president in 2007, and immediately led a multi-year effort to sharpen WRI’s overall strategic thinking – ensuring that every project had a clear sense of outcomes and impact from its very conception. “I want to start our thinking with the right threshold questions – mainly about the change we wanted to see in the world,.” Bapna said when launching the new strategy. An organization-wide conversation ensued, focusing on more potent theories of change and setting realistic yet ambitious expectations.


Tom Friedman and Elizabeth Cook, 2007.

Another key addition to the executive team was Steve Barker, who as chief financial officer has reduced overhead and imposed rigorous fiscal discipline, and the creation of Cook’s position, which pulled a program director into a new role as overseer of fundraising strategy. The changes proved to be a wise move. Corporate support has increased sharply during Cook’s tenure, along with contributions from foundations and European governments, among others. Donors were especially impressed by WRI’s emerging status as a “solutions-based policy research organization” that documented its results in detailed reports.

Nor did it hurt that under Robin Murphy, hired as communications vice president in 2006, the organization became much more adept at telling its own story, cultivating an “everyone’s a communicator” culture and moving aggressively into blogging and social media.

A New Way to Look at Ecosystems


Jonathan Lash (President, WRI); Dr. Jane Lubchenco (Undersecretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere & NOAA Administrator); Lauretta Burke (Senior Associate, WRI and Lead Author of Reefs at Risk Revisted); and Dr. Nancy Knowlton (Sant Chair for Marine Science, Smithsonian Institute). Photo by Michael Oko, World Resources Institute, 2011.

It helped that the organization had a good story to tell. Whatever its difficulties, WRI had not stopped promulgating big ideas or coming up with practical ways to put them to work. One of the most important centered on “ecosystem services,” a concept that had been floating around academic circles and was pushed at WRI by Jane Lubchenco, a marine ecologist who served on the board from 1993 to 2000. It amounted to a new framework for evaluating ecosystems in terms of benefits to people—illuminating the role of wetlands, for example, in flood protection or as nurseries for commercial fisheries. “Bob Repetto, through his green accounting, had already been doing some of that, but it was focused more on goods than on services,” recalls Lubchenco, now the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “WRI turned out to be sort of the perfect venue for understanding the need to make this concept more real, to make it relevant to policy and management decisions.”

The idea culminated in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, the first-ever global audit of ecosystem services. Completed in 2005 in partnership with U.N. agencies and the World Bank, the four-year study drew on the work of more than 1,000 scientists in 70 countries. “Up until the Millennium Assessment, the basic framing was focused just on the environmental side, such as species extinction,” recalls Reid, the former vice president who oversaw the project for WRI. “The Millennium Assessment turned that around. It was looking at what happened to ecosystems through a development lens—what did it mean for people?” Governments now routinely apply the method in managing natural resources, and businesses use it to evaluate threats to supply chains or plants from risks like flooding.

To Ruckelshaus, the emeritus chairman, the project was another example of WRI’s ability to see around corners: “It’s the foresight that recognizes that problems have a way of ripening, and when they are ripe, the intellectual capital stock has to be available for proper policies to be put in place. That’s why WRI is so valuable…a lot of places try to do that, but they’re not so good at it.”

“Pushing Us to Push Ourselves”

Of course, it’s one thing to persuade a business executive to protect shareholders against potential threats to the bottom line. It’s another to get the same executive to do something about the more generalized threats that economists call “externalities.” Climate change is the most glaring example in this category. But here, too, WRI’s painstaking efforts to strengthen ties with business—however halting at first—have paid obvious dividends. One of the biggest breakthroughs came in 2007, when 200 major U.S. corporations joined WRI in throwing their support behind legislation to create a cap-and-trade system for limiting carbon emissions.

The U.S. Climate Action Partnership, or USCAP, grew out of discussions between Lash and General Electric Chairman Jeffrey Immelt, who had previously sought advice from WRI on how to measure its own carbon emissions and the greenhouse gas reduction benefits of its “Ecomagination” product line. “When you lead with your chin and say ‘We’re a green company,’ you better get it right,” recalls Gary Sheffer, GE’s vice president for communications. “And Jonathan and the WRI team helped us get it right. They were continually pushing us to push ourselves.”

Immelt was receptive to Lash’s argument that carbon limits were inevitable given the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change, and that businesses could only benefit from having a say in how those limits were designed. Many of his fellow CEOs agreed. The partnership that emerged was “an incredibly powerful lobbying force,” Lash recalls, and helped propel the cap-and-trade bill through the House of Representatives, one of the environmental movement’s biggest legislative victories.

In the end, of course, the bill died in the Senate, a victim of a faltering economy. And climate change has since faded from the national political agenda even as the scientific case for action has mounted. But WRI is playing a long game. “These are political oscillations,” says Cook. “It will swing back.” In the meantime, the organization still has plenty of cards to play—including, for example, an emphasis on energy-efficiency at the state and regional levels, for which there are compelling arguments even in the absence of national political consensus on climate change.

Looking Abroad, Looking Ahead


Xiaomei Tan at the Sustainable Cities Launch in Beijing, China. 2012.

The stakes in the road ahead for WRI were reflected in the exhaustive ten-month search for a successor to Lash. “It was clear to me that we were not just filling an open position,” says Sue Tierney, the WRI Board member who headed the search committee. “We were acting as guardians of a trust. We had a high bar to clear with two outstanding leaders over 30 years and a job description that encompassed everything but miracle-worker….but as we went through the process, working as always in consultation with WRI staff, it struck me how much this organization has thrived on a culture of cooperation and trust, and this quality was utterly necessary for the next chapter.”

Wrenching global shifts—from the unipolar world of the early 1990s to the multipolar world of today—has informed much of WRI’s planning in recent years, including the opening of its first overseas offices in China in 2008 and, more recently, India and Brazil. WRI’s programs are increasingly focused on developing countries because China, India, and other emerging markets are creating billions of new consumers, with profound implications for the health of the planet.

The organization had previously relied mostly on local partners in carrying out its work overseas. Those partners are still vitally important. At the same time, the explosion of economic and population growth in the developing world demanded “a much deeper, more nuanced understanding of how decisions were taken and the political economy of the issues that we cared about,” recalls Bapna, who has served as acting president following Lash’s departure. “That was extremely difficult to do from Washington or just through partners.”

Bapna describes the overseas expansion as “easy to do, very difficult to get right.” He adds, “All too often these new branch offices are seen as just purely extensions of their headquarters, as opposed to having real authority to set priorities, to set strategy. Or, they drift so far from their headquarters that what binds them together becomes tenuous.”

But WRI seems to have avoided those pitfalls, in part by encouraging the cross-fertilization of ideas. A “sustainable cities” initiative that originated in Beijing, for example, has since become a worldwide program. In India, an offshoot of the EMBARQ transportation program is applying lessons learned in Mexico City to the development of a new bus system in the industrial capital of Ahmedabad. And the Beijing office recently signed a “memorandum of understanding” with China’s ministry of planning, giving WRI experts a seat at the table as China tries to steer its economy onto a more sustainable path. (The agreement was sealed in January 2012 after senior Chinese officials toured renewable energy projects in the United States as guests of WRI.) WRI’s overseas offices are staffed largely with foreign nationals in keeping with its goal of nurturing local talent.

The establishment of these foreign beachheads comes at a critical time. Twenty years after the Earth Summit, “the health of the global environment is arguably more precarious than ever,” says Bapna. “The window for action is closing. We must focus on those solutions that are truly transformative, that are commensurate to the scale of the challenges before us.”


WRI President Andrew Steer, WRI Board Chairman Jim Harmon, and WRI Executive Vice President and Managing Director, Manish Bapna. 2012.

”It’s the make-or-break decade,” echoes Steer, the new president. Though his latest work has centered on climate change, Steer knows that the challenges of his new job will hardly end with greenhouse gases. “There will be nearly one billion more people living in the world’s cities 15 years from now,” he observes. “What kind of cities are those going to be? What will their transportation systems look like? What will be the quality of life? The decisions made this decade will live with us for 100 years.” In a similar vein, “decisions made on agriculture this decade will be profoundly influential on whether or not we succeed in feeding nine billion people.” He could go on.

But if the challenges of the coming years are unprecedented, Steer says, then “so are the opportunities”—and WRI could not be better equipped to take advantage of them. “The value of WRI will never be greater,” he says. “WRI occupies a unique space at the intersection of development and the environment. It’s uniquely qualified to give advice based on sharp-penciled analysis and a deep understanding of institutional governance and social and political issues.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean the organization won’t change under his leadership—a willingness to adapt has been a hallmark of WRI since its founding three decades ago. “Would I expect WRI to look the same five years from now?” Steer asks. “No, I wouldn’t. Does that mean there’s something wrong with WRI today? No, not at all. It’s precisely because WRI is strong that it will be able to adapt and grow and deliver for the special needs of the years ahead.”

And for that he can thank his predecessors and their many talented colleagues. “We’re standing on very tall shoulders,” he says.

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