What the Conservation Movement Can Learn from Martin Luther King, Jr.

Mark Tercek is the president and CEO of The Nature Conservancy and author of Nature’s Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive By Investing in Nature. You can follow Mark on Twitter @MarkTercek.

“Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.”

I’ve been thinking of these words this week, as we mark the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

The milestone is an important reminder of how far we have come—and still have to go—on the road to racial and social equality. It’s also a good time to reflect on the lessons that other movements can learn from Dr. King’s leadership.

I’m reminded of a conference I attended in Memphis a few years back. One of the highlights of the trip was visiting the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, the site of Dr. King’s tragic assassination. It was a moving experience.

Seeing the hotel—exactly as it looked 45 years ago, and still a vivid image in my memory—I couldn’t help but think of all that environmentalists could accomplish if we could generate a similar kind of public passion and conviction that fueled the civil rights movement.

As Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus have pointed out, Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is famous because of its inspiring, positive vision. How would history have turned out had he given an “I Have a Nightmare” speech instead?

What can we do to build a bigger movement for lasting change? One key, I believe, is to put more emphasis on the positive. A focus on possibilities, and not just problems, reveals that there is hope—hope for a healthy, thriving planet where nature makes our lives better, safer and more prosperous. And hope for solutions that meet the needs of people while maintaining a healthy natural world. While there will always be some bad actors, most people—once they understand that their lives and livelihoods depend on healthy natural systems—will choose to protect the environment. And when people do the right thing, nature can be resilient.

This isn’t a call for Pollyannaism. We’re not naïve—the challenges we face are difficult and complex. But the environmental movement needs its own dream around which to rally—one in which nature and people live in balance, and where everyone can realize their right to a healthy and productive environment.

The environmental movement could also learn from Dr. King’s example of seeking common ground on divisive issues. For example, I know from experience that topics like climate change and energy development can bring out the kind of passion that we absolutely need to solve our problems, but also the kind of divisive rhetoric that can get in the way of progress. The challenge in our field is to have calm, respectful conversations with people with whom we do not agree, to understand the basis of those disagreements and to build broad coalitions to move forward. In the words of Dr. King, “We cannot walk alone.”

Of course this week’s anniversary is also an important time to take a hard look at issues of equality and social justice, and our own roles in making Dr. King’s dream a reality. At The Nature Conservancy, for example, we are committed to diversity and valuing differences in everything we do—from hiring the best people to propel our work, to launching projects that meet the needs of diverse communities, to reaching new and diverse audiences to broaden the constituency for conservation. I’ll be the first to admit that we still have a long way to go. But there’s no time for wallowing in the challenges. As Dr. King so eloquently put it, we must recognize the “fierce urgency of now.”

Please click here to view Dr. King’s speech.

[Image: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Washington, DC. Image source: Wikimedia Commons]

If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.


  1. Thank you for the reminder that inspiring others is really the key to getting things done in life. Sometimes I drop back into the trap of wallowing in the problems of the world and need little sparks to reignite the passion. MLK, Jr. is a model for us all.

  2. Excellent post! Mark has touched on a point that we see too infrequently: Positive Organizational Leadership and the kind of Appreciative Inquiry (first formalized by David Cooperrider, Ph.D. at Case Western Reserve University) which focuses on the best of what is or could be.

  3. Great article and I echo my colleague Reve Warefield’s comment – “Thank you for acknowledging the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for JOBS and FREEDOM”! Many people from that day are no longer with us, but people like Rep. John Lewis who joined TNC earlier this summer for a GLOBE (Growing Leaders on Behalf of the Environment) event was able to reflect on that day fifty years ago, with our summer interns and TNC employees. You could hear a pin drop in the room as he told his story. People of all races and genders coming together for the common good!

    This week has been a very emotional and touching week for me. I watched “Independent Lens” on PBS earlier this week and for the first time, I saw myself through the lens of the late great Whitney M. Young Jr. I’m getting emotional just thinking about it.

    Its been a great week with many discussions on race throughout the people in my local government, local community, and between family and friends. Let’s continue to be comfortable with the uncomfortable as we grow to learn from ALL PEOPLE!

  4. Great writing, as usual Mark. You have such a gift for making terrific points, using concise but powerful words, while drawing in some of the most amazing statements from others. I am not so gifted, but would just like to add the phrase that always sums it all up for me: ” Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” I have no idea where the ” Golden Rule” came from, but as simple as it is, it seems to me to be the solution to all of our problems….if we could just get everyone on board. Thank you for all you are doing to help and heal our planet. You rock!

  5. Mark,
    Thank your for this thoughtful reflection.
    The need for hope is so basic for positive human action and survival. In my view, one of the many challenges posed by the current political state of affairs, is that the President holds a very dark and apocalyptic view of the world, while the reaction to him both personally and policy wise is so vitriolic that on all sides we are consumed with negativity. The national wellness factor, if I can call it that, has taken a huge hit.
    Dr. King’s time and work, while rooted in tragic circumstances, was one of creating a better future, and of bringing people together for good. That resonates a lot for me, and your piece here helped me think about that in the context of our work.
    Thank you.

Add a Comment