Take the Leap: How to Launch Your Own Personal Environmental Game Plan

This is The Instigator, a bi-weekly newsletter that focuses on accelerating environmental problem-solving at scale and in ways that make business sense.  Please share the newsletter with friends and provide me feedback.  Thank you.


The Quick Rundown. 

It’s been a turbulent period of time for all of us recently. One thing seems very clear — leadership matters hugely. The Instigator usually focuses on organizational strategies — how companies, investors, and NGOs can tackle environmental challenges. But personal strategies matter too. To achieve the change we seek, we need more people across society to step up, get outside their silos, think big, and devise personal engagement plans that will work in the real world. The best way to do this is to start now, play to your strengths, and find ways to reinvent yourself. 

Think Big

In 2016, I was speaking in front of a huge audience at the Paris climate convention.  And I’ll let you in on a secret. 

I thought I was killing it. 

At the time, I was the CEO of the Nature Conservancy, and I was speaking on a panel about food, agriculture, and climate change.  Just as I was making what I thought was another absolutely brilliant point about sustainable ranching, another panelist interrupted me.

“Sustainable ranching? That’s like saying you’re in favor of making torture less painful.”  

His line got some laughs from the crowd. Haha. But not from me. Who is this jerk and why is he disagreeing with me?

It turns out that it was Pat Brown of Impossible Foods.  Neither Pat nor his company was well-known at the time.  (Today both are world famous giants in the booming plant-based meat business). 

Onstage in Paris, I tried to defend myself.  I elaborated on my point, ticking off the many benefits and practicalities. To demonstrate my unbiased stance, I even mentioned that I was a vegan.  Pat — quite the showman — didn't miss a beat. He immediately had one of his colleagues bring out a mini Impossible Burger, right there on stage so I could try it before the big crowd. 

I had to admit —  the burger was delicious. 

Long story short, it turns out this guy wasn’t a jerk at all. He was a real leader.

Pat told me his story afterward. An accomplished (and arrogant, as he put it) Stanford professor of chemistry, he was about to take a hard-earned sabbatical a few years earlier.   He thought he should do something very important on his break.  Pat thinks big. He decided he should try to solve one of the world’s biggest challenges. He picked climate change.   

Even Pat recognized it made sense to narrow his focus a bit.  So he set his sights on meat consumption. The global livestock industry produces more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire transportation sector worldwide. Pat understood that if people in China, India, and other economically rising countries chose to eat burgers and steaks like Americans, we were (pardon the pun) cooked.  Pat decided to do something about that.

Where others (like me) focused on the need to improve agricultural practices, Patrick viewed the challenge as diet.  He decided to make a delicious burger entirely from plants for people who love meat. He was certain that consumers would prefer his plant-based meat substitutes —  not for lofty environmental reasons (although he would have no objection to that) but because they would taste better, cost less, and be healthier. 

So how's his little project going? Impossible Burgers are showing up on menus everywhere, from Michelin-starred restaurants in Manhattan to value meals at Burger King. They have raised more than $1.5 billion in equity funding and attracted high-profile investors like Bill Gates, Temasek, Khosla Ventures, Jay-Z, and Serena Williams. (Not me — sigh —  I wasn't smart enough to ask Pat to let me buy some shares back in 2016.)  The company also sells plant-based sausages and soon will offer plant-based chicken and milk too.

I can tell you firsthand that the Impossible Burger lives up to its name: they are impossible to stop eating. I hosted a fundraising event at my house in DC a short time after meeting Pat.  The burgers weren't on the market yet but Pat sent a big supply for my event. Our guests were mostly fancy Washington, D.C. bigwigs. We had planned a lofty conversation about reducing greenhouse gas emissions through better agriculture, ranching, and conservation practices. But we couldn't get guests to focus on our speakers — they were too busy scarfing down their plant-based patties. 

Fast forward to today: Pat’s burgers are a household name. There are many other great meat substitutes widely available, such as Beyond Meat. The alternative protein food business is booming, and no one thinks plant-based foods are weird anymore. Real change can happen faster than we expect and make a very big difference.  All it takes is leadership.

Not everyone can drop everything and take on a completely new and enormous challenge as Pat did. But you don't have to. We need engagement at all levels and in all fields. Further, we can all learn from Pat’s example. Pat thinks big and plays to his strengths. He went from being a prominent, successful, and big-thinking professor of chemistry at Stanford to an iconoclastic businessperson who argued that everything responsible for making a burger taste, feel, and smell like a burger could be recreated with ingredients from the plant world. As a chemist, he was sure he could pull this off.  So he went for it.  What can you do in the same way? 

Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom.

When it comes to a huge challenge like climate change, the more strategies the better. That's why people like Pat — and fortunately there are many of them — make such a huge difference. Long-term projections for climate change rarely include huge unpredictable breakthrough scenarios like transforming diet patterns. 

Examples abound of folks in varied fields who leave their comfort zone and follow their passion toward world progress. In the weeks that follow, we’ll be discussing them (and talking to them!). You’ll meet my friend Jacqueline Novogratz, a banker who wanted to reduce poverty. All she did was create a global leadership development and micro-financing network called Acumen that has now invested some $125 million in 126 companies tackling poverty in 14 countries. (Check out Jacqueline’s great new book Manifesto for a Moral Revolution to learn more).

Podcasting for Progress

Here’s another cool example of bold leadership. When COVID struck last winter, I was stuck at home like many of you and looking for a good podcast to listen to while I worked out. I discovered “My Climate Journey” and was immediately hooked. The podcast is hosted by Jason Jacobs, a former startup guy who was wondering what he could do to address the climate challenge. He decided to learn everything he needed to know by interviewing key players in the climate space. He shares what he learns in real-time, conducting his inquiry over the podcast.  

His program is outstanding for staying current on climate matters and hearing directly from a diverse group of players. Jason talks to clean-tech entrepreneurs, atmospheric science professors, grassroots activists, elected officials, NGO leaders, and various others in the climate world. I’ve been a professional environmentalist for more than 15 years and theoretically know my stuff, but I still learn a lot from every episode.  

One of the really smart things Jason does is acknowledge that there is a lot he doesn't know about how to address the climate challenge. He’s like most of us. So he does the work. He lines up the experts, asks all of the questions we would if we could, and he makes us all much smarter.

It turns out that as a former startup guy, Jason is very good at stepping back and thinking about the big picture, assessing different strategies, and networking so he can talk to all of the right people. He’s not shy or afraid to ask obvious questions. And he is in a hurry.  Just what you would expect.  Note: Jason is playing to his strengths.

Jason’s impact goes way beyond his weekly podcasts. He’s also formed a superb climate-engaged community on Slack for his listeners. I joined the group and right away I started hearing from various people working on promising climate projects.  I've made some great friends and even a few new business partners. The back and forth dialogue between a very diverse group of people all trying to figure out their personal climate engagement plan is really exciting.  Looking back, it seems like an obvious initiative to launch.  But it takes someone like Jason to make these things happen. They don’t get started by themselves.

More recently, Jason has launched a start-up investment fund focused on climate solutions. One good thing leads to another.

All of this is happening because one more person decided to step up, reinvent himself a bit, and engage in a way that would likely make a big difference.  More of us should do the same. 


Start now but know that it's okay to go slow and lay the groundwork. 

Not everyone is ready to make a giant leap like Pat and Jason did, and that’s fine! The truth is, most of the time, it’s only hindsight that makes it look like people made drastic moves to become climate activists. That’s because you’re only seeing the highlights. The reality usually involves much more legwork. 

My own case might be a good example. My resume reads as if I seamlessly transitioned from Goldman Sachs to CEO of The Nature Conservancy. But that's not really what happened. For the prior 15 years, I volunteered with several NGOs, ultimately joining their boards, and even serving as chair of two. These were much smaller organizations than TNC, but size doesn't really matter.  They faced the same kinds of issues and challenges that big non-profits like TNC must confront. I learned a ton. I also went out of my way to make friends in the environmental community. It was fun and —  again — I learned so much, especially about how the different NGOs do their work. I had also been teaching finance courses at NYU’s business school, so I shifted gears and co-taught a semester-long program on environmental strategies for business. These different activities led to me running Goldman’s first environmental initiative, which of course was another extraordinary learning opportunity. I even persuaded my wife Amy and our then school-aged children to go on various environmental-themed and rather geeky vacations with me. And so on. 

When I showed up at TNC in mid-2008, there was still a huge amount that I didn't know (just ask my colleagues). But all of my prior environmental experience helped me make a pretty smooth transition. 

Now obviously, I realize that I was very fortunate to be in a position to do all of these things. But I want to emphasize that one way or another most people can lay a foundation for meaningful action from whatever position they are in.   

Some Ideas:

  1. A number of my friends recently volunteered to be on the front lines of Get Out The Vote efforts in connection with the election. What a great way for them to see how politics works firsthand and really make a difference. It's easy to stay home and criticize politicians with whom you don't agree. But it's so much more effective (and fulfilling) to roll up your sleeves and engage. They all returned home energized and excited about new ideas they now have on doing more going forward.

  2. Many college students are doing a nice job on the climate front too. Often they start by pushing for their colleges to divest of fossil fuel stocks. That, in turn, leads to campus-wide ghg emission reduction campaigns; efforts to add more on climate to the curriculum; and engagement with local communities on renewable energy. All of this activity not only makes a difference in their schools; it positions students to make a real difference after graduation.

  3. Employees of companies can and should push for more ambition on the climate front. The Instigator has already noted how employee leadership made a big difference at Amazon. It's a good idea to keep a close eye on climate leaders in your company’s sector. Encourage your employer to match such efforts. See if you can spark a “race to the top.”

  4. Volunteer for your favorite NGO (like I did). It's fun, you can help the organization a lot, and the learning opportunities are huge.  (Also, please support them financially. All gifts, including small ones, are hugely appreciated.)

  5. Learn as much as you can. It's easier than ever to do so now. Find your favorite podcasts and newsletters.  Look for inspiring role models too and imitate them. See the links below for some suggestions.

There’s a common thread here. 

We need more people to step up and make things happen on the climate front. This might even mean you. Think about how you can make an impact. Don’t feel stuck in a silo. Don’t expect the “experts” to get the job done. Don’t think blaming others is a good substitute for sticking your own neck out.

Maybe that means speaking up at your org, pushing for change as the Amazon folks did. Maybe that means edging up your engagement in your day-to-day life, like many of the folks on the My Climate Journey Slack community. Or maybe it means diving all the way into something new and transformative like Pat Brown or Jason Jacobs did.

You don’t have to figure this out all at once — none of these folks did. Take your time.  Ask for help. Reach out and make new friends. Learn what you need to know. But please, get in the game. It’s up to you. It’s up to all of us.

The Index: (links of the week)

  • Talk about inspiring — here’s an interview with Lisa Jackson, Apple’s brilliant VP of Environment, Policy, and Social Initiatives.  She was also head of the EPA from 2009-13, so she knows her stuff. We can all learn from her example. Go Lisa!

  • Here’s a timely way to do more than just complain about the need for action on the Hill Climate Changemakers is a fast-growing Slack-based community — like My Climate Journey but focused on advocacy.  I just joined myself. Bravo to founders Eliza Nemser and Cody Simms — great leadership.

  • Do you want to really know your stuff when it comes to the thorniest and toughest climate issues?  And do you want to be sure your info comes on very reliable science? Check out the “Energy vs Climate” podcast.  Professors/scientists David Keith and Sara Hastings-Simon, along with environmental leader and entrepreneur Ed Whittingham, wanted to champion climate progress in the smartest way, so they went and launched this excellent podcast.  I linked the episode where they had me on to discuss nature-based climate solutions. Let me know what you think! 

  • One more great climate resource I was lucky enough to participate in Climate Tech VC. Co-founded by Kimberly Zou and Sophie Purdom, this newsletter focuses on innovations in the startup world. It packs a ton of valuable information into every email, including a weekly profile of an inspiring climate leader. (I was very happy to be the interviewee recently). It’s so great to see young professionals just go out and make something important like this happen.  What can you do along these lines?

One Last Thing

If it's the inspiration for reinventing yourself that you seek, look no further than my friend and hero Stewart Brand.  There’s no way you can listen to this great podcast interview of Stewart by writer Rob Reid and not be inspired.  I just listened to it again now, and I’m determined to go out and think big and be bold for the rest of the day.  Thanks, Stewart. (Stewart’s great environmental book, Whole Earth Discipline, also happens to be my favorite.)