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Alumni Connections: The Forgotten Issue

Before the debate over the election, Iraq, and terrorism, few issues got Americans as worked up as the environment. On the one side are people who are worried about pollution, about the disappearance of wildlife and biodiversity, and humans tinkering with global processes. On the other side are people who consider environmental laws and regulations unnecessary and unfair burden on the economy and on individuals.

Nay-sayers point out that scientists disagree on whether the atmosphere or climate are in trouble. Moreover, nay-sayers doubt the validity of the environmental doomsday scenarios that have proliferated over the last 30 years, arguing that the world hasn’t stopped turning yet, so how much truth can there be in all these dire predictions?

Theodore Roosevelt IV (HBS ’72), the great-grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt, dismisses outright the notion that environmental threats are facetious. Roosevelt IV, a Managing Director at Lehman Brothers and an active environmentalist, is former Chairman of the Board of the League of Conservation Voters and former Co-Chair of the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History. He was also appointed by Governor Pataki to the New York State Recreation and Historic Preservation Commission for the City of New York and the Hudson River Park Trust.

I spoke recently with Roosevelt IV to discuss his position on the environment debate.

Harbus: Why are you an environmentalist?

Teddy Roosevelt IV: I believe people in their nonprofessional work should get involved in things that are important to them. For me the environment is just something that touches me personally. I have always cared strongly about it. As a little kid, I was always happier running around catching frogs, snakes, and turtles then I was playing baseball. So when I got older, it was a very natural progression for me to become involved in the environment. I guess being an environmentalist is just a part of who I am.

Harbus: Did President T. Roosevelt’s passion for the environment have an impact on you?

TR IV: It had some sort of impact in the sense that I had a better platform
then I would have otherwise had. But in terms of actually influencing me, I would say that it didn’t very much because it [passion for the environment] was something already in me. However, I don’t rule out the possibility that my passion could have been passed down through the family unconsciously in the sense that my family liked the outdoors and it was therefore something that I always spent time in.

Harbus: Why are environmentalists sometimes referred to as ‘tree-hugging radicals’?

TR IV: When people accuse environmentalists of being tree-hugging radicals, I think their criticism misses the point. I think the more relevant point is that as a political movement, environmentalists have not reached out and made more allies. For instance, environmentalists have fallen short of understanding that humans are a part of the environment too. Sometimes we have not been as sensitive as we should be to rural Americans, farmers and ranchers who are clearly involved in the environment and whose interests are largely congruent with our interests. Moreover, the environmentalist movement has not been very good at reaching out to minorities to understand their interests. However, if calling environmentalists tree-hugging radicals implies that environmentalists are concerned about issues that are not real, then I think the accuser is simply not informed.

Harbus: What is the most serious environmental issue today?

TR IV: Barring a nuclear holocaust, I think global climate change is the most serious environmental issue we face. The climate is the envelope in which all environmental processes take place, so if we get this wrong the potential damage is immense.

Harbus: Are you a supporter of the Kyoto Protocol (an agreement to limit the emissions of greenhouse gases by developed nations)?

TR IV: I think that the Kyoto Protocol was sort of an idealistic approach and flawed in a number of ways. There was not really any agreement on how to measure greenhouse gas emissions or how to enforce the agreement. Additionally, it didn’t offer a solution to the problem that Brazil, India, and China are going to be major contributors to global warming. I think a more enlightened approach to global climate change involves taking into consideration the environmental issues of countries like Brazil, India, and China, along with developed nations.

Harbus: What is business’ responsibility to the environment?

TR IV: I think business is licensed by society and it has to continuously do things to reaffirm its legitimacy in the eyes of society. If you look at history in the U.S. there were periods where there was not a sense of responsibility about labor, corporate transparency, or competitive markets. The whole effort to bust-up trusts in the U.S. was to ensure that we had fair pricing and that we would not have undue economic concentration or power. The antitrust movement was an example of business sometimes being forcibly told that it has to seek legitimacy in the eyes of society. I think that business has to recognize that the environment is an important issue and that business is responsible to it. I think that over the next 25-30 years many of the environmental issues that we refer to today as externalities will be increasingly incorporated into business decisions, and those decisions will have to be paid for by the consumer or absorbed by businesses. If a company were to state that it is not concerned about environmental issues, I would respond that that company is probably not being run very well.

October 18, 2004
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