Kirk Marckwald

Corporate Evolution

Recorded: January 28, 2013

A story from the former California Under Secretary of Natural Resources, Kirk Marckwald. Kirk talks about his career after leaving that post in the mid-1980s and how he currently works with both corporations and environmentalists. Kirk explains his ideas for corporate responsibility, strategic management, environmental regulatory reform, and how corporations and environmentalists can better work together.

President and Founder of California Environmental Associates, Kirk Marckwald possesses a deep understanding of politics, energy, and environmental regulation initially stemming from his 1980’s work as Under Secretary of California’s Resources Agency, and later as the California Director of Appropriate Technology. Additionally, Kirk has held various positions at the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Mr. Marckwald has led large-scale regulatory reform and strategic planning projects for major manufacturing and transportation companies as well as for trade associations and nonprofits. He has represented individual clients and trade associations before legislative and regulatory agencies in California and Washington D.C.

In 1999, Governor Davis appointed Kirk as a public member of the California Board of Forestry, where he served as the Vice-Chair of the board until 2007. Mr. Marckwald currently serves as the Chairman of the Board of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and on the boards of the Pacific Forest Trust, the Blue Mountain Center and the Point Reyes National Seashore Association.

Kirk Marckwald:    I was an accidental person who focused on environmental issues.  It was, it was by accident but it was also the classic chance favoring the prepared mind.  Because having been exposed to outdoors, having been exposed to teachers, having been exposed to remarkable literature, it thrilled inside of me a vibration about this is meaningful.

Huey Johnson:    I know you’re interested in sailing.

Kirk Marckwald:    Sailing is a fascinating experience, somebody is looking at the wind, the waves, the tide, where you’re trying to go, how the boat is performing and you’re making these constant recalibrations and we’re probably doing that in our life all the time anyway, but when you sail, it’s a little more explicit.  So it helps you get a little more comfortable with the fact things are changing out there all the time and things are unpredictable all the time.

Huey Johnson:    I admire you, you’ve had and interesting background, including professional preparation as a resource manager and environmentalist, and what has been your experience since?

Kirk Marckwald:    Well after working for Jerry Brown and you, I was otherwise not employable so I had to create my own consulting firm.  Businesses or foundations were paying us to do something and yet I was able to talk clearly to governmental officials and find a common way through the thicket.  Environmental change in the corporate context is a very tricky thing to do.  At the worker bee level, at the lower levels, you’ve got true believers.  They are proud of their company, they’re proud of their environmental values and they want to see their company embrace them.  Frequently, at the very top, you will have an enlightened CEO or an enlightened board.  What we have in the middle, which my friend at Toyota called the Great Grey Middle.

They’re not interested in this stuff, so the trick is to create the energy and the insights at the lower level and we have been able to wire around the great grey middle to some success.  But what is really needed is an outside group that is really set up to accelerate corporate environmental decision making by virtue of having a little war room of the smartest kids on energy, on resource conservation, on waste recycling, on green chemistry so that the change agents in the companies could actually draw on them and then bring the information back to make it a little easier for the people at the top to do it.  In my perfect world, you know a foundation would charter that and do that, create that entity so that the services would be provided at no cost to the company.  There’s certain parts of the globe that are way ahead on architectural design, are way ahead on take back requirements on electronics or on other materials.  If you have that conscientious CEO and she says “look, I don’t understand why we’re not doing this.  We have to do it in Finland, why aren’t we doing it here?  We have to do it in the EU, why aren’t we doing it here?”  But you have to equip them with the information.

I really believe that the litigation strategy that many environmental groups are following is misplaced and builds, builds walls rather than bridges.  As soon as the lawsuit’s filed, then everyone just goes in the fox holes and then the lawyers just duke it out and the judge goes this way or he goes that way, but what happens during that period of time, there’s no more dialogue.  And if you don’t, if you don’t know and respect the humanity of your enemy, you’re never going to win.  I mean even if the judge says “Okay you should have to do it this way,” well if they really don’t believe you’re right, they’ll just find a way around the, you know around that.  Everyone’s interest converges around the horizon and you work back from the horizon to see where it begins to diverge and then say “Well let’s state in that point because I really think this and you really think that.  Why do you think that?  What did you read?  Who informed you?  What paper did you see?”

You need to stay there and then kind of work back towards the future.  But if you just say “Well, we don’t like your policy on X or we’re going to sue you,” then the company has no reason to be dynamic and be engaged and be – and evolve.  If one is to be satisfied in their efforts in their career, I think there’s nothing like a deep generalist training experience from different points in the compass but more than anything, a guiding passion about why you’re doing this and why it’s important.