Three Lessons Environmentalists Can Learn from Martin Luther King, Jr.

Mark Tercek
4 min readJan 18, 2017
© InSapphoWeTrust /Flickr via Creative Commons license

Mark Tercek is the president and CEO of the Nature Conservancy and author of Nature’s Fortune. Follow Mark on Twitter: @MarkTercek.

A day devoted to honoring Martin Luther King, Jr., seems especially appropriate this year.

As pundits reflect on ways to bridge the political divide that has engulfed our country, I took some time yesterday to re-read Dr. King’s brilliant “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

I urge you to do the same. Dr. King’s clearly-reasoned, respectful, inspiring and fierce words on behalf of social justice seem especially relevant today. They are a poignant reminder of how far we’ve come — and still have to go — on the road to racial and social equality.

But “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” also holds important lessons for other movements. I have always thought that environmental leaders like me have much to learn from Dr. King. No one has more eloquently made the case for the kind of bold, urgent — yet collaborative — action that I believe is needed to address the big challenges we face as a society.

Here are three lessons I think the environmental movement can learn from Dr. King’s example.

1) Focus on possibilities, not just problems

Even from the confines of a narrow jail cell, disappointed by the church leadership he expected to defend him, Dr. King remained firm in his optimism. “I have no despair about the future,” he wrote.

What can we do to build a better environmental future? 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.

As environmentalists, I think we can inspire more action by focusing more on solutions and less on the doom and gloom. 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?

2) Seek common ground

In “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King makes legal, political, historical and moral arguments to make his case. He brilliantly draws on historical and religious examples to defend his actions to the clergymen he is addressing.

Likewise, I think environmentalists can make more progress by better tapping into the diverse arguments for protecting nature.

Too many still view environmentalists as tree-huggers bent on protecting nature from people. In my view, we need to make a better case for protecting nature for people.

Why? Well, everyone depends on nature. It provides us with clean air, healthy water, fertile soil, abundant fish to eat, protection from floods and storms and a place for recreation and sport. And further, we can show that protecting nature is consistent with addressing social inequality, improving public health and promoting fair and strong economic progress.

Even in today’s hyper-partisan world, when we focus on these diverse motivations for protecting and investing in nature, we can rise above divisiveness. We can find common ground and inspire diverse groups of people to come together to solve big challenges.

This isn’t a call for Pollyannaism. The challenges the environmental movement faces today are perhaps more difficult and more complex than ever before. And when we pursue a “balanced” approach to environmental and economic progress, that by definition means there will be trade-offs. No one will get everything they want, and there will be some disappointment. But this doesn’t have to mean these issues are deal breakers. It just means we need to get better at working through those trade-offs and recognizing that we don’t need to see eye to eye on every detail in order to make significant progress.

3) Engage in respectful dialogue

In “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King stresses the importance of dialogue and negotiation with those who hold different views. The environmental movement could learn from this advice.

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.”

In re-reading “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” 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 nearly half a decade 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.

Inspired by Dr. King’s leadership, I’m determined to do my best to live up to his example.



Mark Tercek

Former CEO of The Nature Conservancy CEO. “Nature’s Fortune” author. Family man, yogi, ice climber, vegan.