I sat down with CEO, Zack Parisa, in light of his recent nomination for the Pritzker Emerging Environmental Genius Award.
You’re in the ranks of Clara Pratte, Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, and Miranda Wang, how did you feel when you got the news?
This is a big deal to be on the same roster as folks like this.
I was really honored and really excited when we got the news. Especially because I know so many of the folks that have been nominated in the past, and I respect their work so much. The work of this broader community is amazing, and to be recognized by my peers in this way was moving and humbling.
I believe deeply that a collaborative, multi-pronged effort is what we need to overcome the environmental challenges of today. It’s going to take all of us. And that’s exactly what Pritzker is giving a platform to.
What is unique about your solution to environmental problems that you think earned this nomination?
What I think people found worthy of recognition is that we are actually correcting global market failure – the failure to measure and pay for so much of the value that forests provide.
So much of the climate and environmental challenge we face today stems from the failure of markets to match up with what society actually values. If we want forests to be managed sustainably, for carbon and water storage and wildlife habitat as well as goods like timber, these values need to be internalized into the market. NCX has built a truly revolutionary tool to do exactly this for carbon and for other natural capital.
What inspired you to develop this solution?
An environmental ethic began very early for me. Growing up, I read National Geographic and saw pictures of all these amazing places that I wanted to see, and the most important one for me was the rainforest. As a child, you hear things about the rainforest being cut down, how many football fields are lost every day, and you just want to save the rainforest. And you imagine that to do it, we just have to stop the bad guys. It’s a relatively straightforward situation. But as you get older, you learn that it isn’t so straightforward.
At age 20, I ended up working and doing research in Brazil and I met some of the people that were cutting down trees. And of course it turned out that they weren’t bad or evil or that they hated trees – they were doing it to earn a living. To create products that you and I use as consumers. They were cutting down trees because the market had made cutting down trees their best option. So, when you start trying to put your finger on what’s causing this, it turns out, it’s us.
I was face to face with this devastating situation, while also realizing these people depended on timber harvesting to feed their families. And I started realizing there wasn’t anyone evil there. There wasn’t one bad guy at the end of it. There was just this dysfunctional big loop.
So I was inspired by saving the rainforest, but then I began to be inspired by something a little more complicated: getting the market to care about saving the rainforest – to recognize the value of saving it. There was an obvious failure to value all these really powerful benefits, those beautiful things that you can understand are valuable when you look at a National Geographic or when you stand in a rainforest. I was inspired to find a solution to that. And it turns out that to do this, to save all those beautiful things that you care about, to start making better decisions that take them into account, you have to start measuring them.
I didn’t get into satellite imagery and remote sensing just because I thought they were cool – although they are – I got into it because that was the tool we were missing, the tool we needed to connect the dots for forest values, and bring climate and ecology and communities into forest management decisions.
Whether you were in Brazil or where I grew up in the US South, it turned out it was all the same system. There are forest-dependent communities right now in the United States that need help, people trying to make a better life for themselves and their families, and who don’t have options for revenue beyond cutting down their trees. We’re changing that.
What would you say to students and entrepreneurs who have an idea to solve our climate crisis, but don’t know how to act on it?
First, I would tell them don’t give up. Climate change can be really intimidating, really daunting. It can be hard to look at the problem and think about what change we can realistically make in our lifetimes. But I’d tell them, go for it..
Then, I’d tell them that 90% of their ideas are probably terrible, but there’s also likely 10% that are actually brilliant, and that has the potential to change the world. Starting out, you won’t know which is the 10% and which is the 90%. But you won’t find out until you’re willing to take a risk and try to build something. To tell as many people as you can about it, and listen when they respond. But don’t hold onto those responses too tightly, because a lot of those people just aren’t going to see what you see. Be humble and curious and willing to change your approach to achieve what your actual vision is – not just the how, but also the why.
So what is next for you and NCX?
Right now, NCX is working with landowners across the United States, helping them manage their forests to grow older and more carbon-dense forests. In the next few years, you’re going to see us expand globally as well as expand the number of forest benefits that are recognized and incentivized on the marketplace. You’re also going to see us helping support landowners in that process of decision-making, helping them better understand the trade-offs taking place on their property. We want to make sure that landowners can help create the landscape we all want and need.
That’s the really important thing to understand is that there are trade-offs when it comes to decisions that landowners may make. Many of them are personally motivated by the prospect of creating more wildlife habitat, creating healthier, more resilient systems. So you’re going to see us creating tools, both market tools and analytical tools, to make that happen. NCX will support landowners in the process of making decisions that are good for their families and for the planet. It’s really exciting.