Jonathan Lash, one of America’s most respected environmental leaders, is leaving the World Resources Institute to become president of Hampshire College, a small liberal arts college in western Massachusetts.
Lash, who is 65, has been president of WRI for 18 years. Only two people have led the Washington-based nonprofit: He succeeded Gus Speth, who ran WRI for 10 years.
WRI is often described as an environmental think tank, and, in fact, it is trusted as an independent, nonpartisan, science-based organization. So when General Electric’s Jeff Immelt announced the company’s EcoMagination initiative back in 2005, Lash was by his side.
But WRI also gets involved in the nitty-gritty of environmental problems around the world. Its work on establishing the value of ecosystems helped the nation of Belize protect its coastlines. Its expertise in public transport has helped build bus networks in India and Brazil. It helped developed the protocol used by U.S. government agencies to manage and reduce their emissions. WRI’s got a dozen people in China. This isn’t glamorous work, but it matters.
In an email to staff, Lash wrote:
I will leave WRI with sadness, but with no misgivings about its future. The work you are doing is more innovative and having a greater impact than at any time in WRI’s history.
Before joining WRI in 1993, the Harvard-educated Lash was a Peace Corps volunteer, a federal prosecutor, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council, the director of the environmental law center at Vermont Law School and Vermont’s commissioner of Environmental Conservation.
I was under the impression that he is a native New Englander, but no, he told me when we spoke yesterday. He was born in Greenwich Village but then went off to the Putney School, a progressive boarding school in Vermont which, he joked, is “sort of a Hampshire College on training wheels.”
Hampshire has a reputation as a school that attracts hippies, activists, artists and independent thinkers.
“It’s a natural place for me to go and continue to be a rabble rouser,” he said.
“Apathy drives me crazy, and apathy is nowhere to be found on this campus,” he added.
WRI said that Manish Bapna, WRI’s executive vice president and managing director, will become acting president. The group will start a search for a new president.
WRI’s announcement noted that under his leadership the group’s staff has more than tripled in size to over 300 people spread across eight countries and its budget has expanded fourfold. Last year, WRI received a record $37 million in financial support.
“I feel good about where WRI is, and where it’s going,” Jonathan said.
Lash’s big frustration–and, of course, it’s not his alone–is the failure of the U.S. government to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. WRI was a key part of the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, a group of powerful (but evidently not powerful enough) companies and NGOs that pushed for a cap-and-trade bill to curb GHG pollutants. For now, cap-and-trade is dead.
So it’s back to college for Lash. In his email, he wrote: “I hope that I can help to prepare the kind of engaged, critical thinkers an increasingly unsustainable and unjust world will so desperately need.”
It’s cool, isn’t it, to start something new at what’s seen as retirement age? Said Jonathan: “I think 65 is new 40.”