Q&A with Rare CEO on Initiating Change for a Healthier Earth
BY JOSEPH T. O’CONNOR
Brett Jenks tells the story of a popular late ‘60s Peruvian soap opera called Simplemente María about a young uneducated woman who moves from rural Peru to the capital city of Lima. In the show, María buys a Singer sewing machine. What seemed like an innocuous detail in fact had a remarkable effect: the fictional purchase led to a real-life surge in demand for Singer’s products in South America.
The show’s producers wondered if the same approach could be applied to a cause. In one episode, they had María sign up for a literacy course and the pattern repeated: Lima witnessed a surge in literacy based on the soap opera.
The story itself is a case study in inadvertent marketing, but Jenks, CEO of the conservation nonprofit Rare for the last 22 years, saw a parallel in social behavior that his organization has studied and utilized to promote sustainability and responsible behavior on various tropical islands around the globe.
“[Simplemente María] led to a whole body of research about what ended up being a field that’s loosely called ‘edutainment,’ or educational entertainment,” said Jenks, 55 at the time of our conversation. “It has translated into a much greater investment in the actual behavioral science that drives people to adopt new and hopefully sustainable practices.”
That science is part of a triumvirate of Rare’s approach to success: behavioral tendencies, teamwork and storytelling (“There’s nothing more powerful than a story,” Jenks says). And it’s working. Since Jenks took the helm, Rare has seen its allocated budget grow 3,000 percent, from $800,000 to $36 million, and partnered with hundreds of philanthropic groups and governments across the globe to confront some of the most profound environmental challenges on Earth.
In Indonesia and Mozambique, Rare is helping sustain fish populations while maintaining robust economies for fishermen; in Columbia, they’re working with farming communities to implement regenerative and low-carbon agriculture; here in the States, Rare is studying and implementing emission-reduction techniques to combat climate change. Ultimately, the man in Rare’s CEO chair understands the interrelated nature of the shifting environment and our need to do something about it.
Mountain Outlaw caught up with Jenks late last summer to discuss Rare, his work as a former journalist, the saving grace of the Inflation Reduction Act, and why he believes every home that can, should be powered by solar energy.
Mountain Outlaw: Brett, you started with Rare in 2000. Not many people these days can say they’ve worked at one place for more than 20 years. What motivates you to continue this work you’re doing and lead the team at Rare?
Brett Jenks: I never thought I would be at any one place this long. It’s just not the norm anymore. But there’s probably several reasons why I’m still at Rare: one is that there’s something about being on a team. I like the camaraderie and the mutual commitment. And we’ve had a great board and a great staff over the years. The second is that the environment is omnipresent and the challenges facing it are myriad.
Life is what you make of the challenges that you’re thrown and I feel like conservation is essentially addressing the challenges that show up on your doorstep, whether it’s overfishing in the tropics, or the multigenerational despoiling of soil, or climate change. And there are social solutions, economic solutions, technological solutions, policy solutions, cultural solutions. The environment is the mother of all Rubik’s Cubes. You’ve got so many angles, so many shades of problems and so many potential solution sets. But what they all have in common is human nature. Can we do what’s best for the planet and ourselves?
M.O.: You’re talking about challenges. Of all these projects Rare has worked on over the years, what has been the most challenging and sticks out in your mind?
B.J.: Humans are the environmental problem on planet Earth. We have potentially been here for 250,000 years. Humans in the last 50 years have produced 90-plus percent of the additional greenhouse gas emissions that are in the atmosphere and therefore it’s taken two generations of highly sophisticated technology capable of burning lots of fossil fuels to put us in a situation where we can’t count on the weather or water anymore.
Culturally, I think there are people who look at conservationists and think they’re Luddites or they’re anti-growth or anti-wealth or they just want to hold back human development. But philosophically, personally, I’m an entrepreneur and I’m really interested in sustainable solutions and sustainable business models.
M.O.: Considering the massive amount of responsibility humans have to the environment, what separates Rare from other conservation nonprofits?
B.J.: Rare is a little different in that its focus is really on how to meet people where they are: ranchers, fishers, farmers, the average citizen. Rare recognizes that every conservation challenge is about people and human behavior and that we all have a shared interest in a sustainable planet. And leveraging that common ground, our shared interests in a livable planet, lets us think creatively about how to meet people where they are and how to work on the notion that everybody can do a little better.
I have huge respect for the thousands of other environmental organizations out there and I have a non-disparagement rule: I have no interest in discounting the work of other environmentalists because they’re all working their tails off, and they’re not getting rich doing it. They’re doing it because of this belief. The second difference is a real belief in the science of behavior change. There’s been a revolution in the last 20 years in our understanding of how we make decisions, what being rational as a human actually means, and how rational are we? From behavioral economics and social psychology and neuroscience, there’s lots to be learned about how predictably irrational we are.
M.O.: Let’s talk about getting that information to people. You’re a former journalist and filmmaker. Your investigative work at the Hudson Reporter newspaper on the conditions at the Hudson County Jail was picked up by the New York Times and led to the jail being shut down. What does storytelling mean to you and what lessons did you learn from that experience?
B.J.: Storytelling moves people. Our brains are wired to respond to stories, to be captivated by stories and to retell stories. The better the story, the more likely it is to be retold. The question becomes, for us, what are the stories about nature and sustainability that become iconic, that inspire us to be more human by being better to the planet?
As a conservationist, I’m fond of saying there’s no presentation that should ever be given that doesn’t start with a story and somehow build on it. There’s a number of key foundational stories that Rare lives and breathes. One of them is the story of [Rare Godfather] Paul Butler in St. Lucia. I was at walking down the street in Switzerland one day at a big fancy event called Davos, the World Economic Forum, and I saw Adam Grant, who’s a best-selling author and behavioral scientist. He said, ‘When a CEO puts me on stage and says tell us something positive … I tell the story about the St. Lucian parrot because you guys were able to instill a sense of civic pride in nature. I just love that story. I tell it all the time.’ Here’s a best-selling author who gets paid lots of money to do big speeches, and one of the stories he carries around in his satchel is this little story of hope from a little island in the West Indies called St. Lucia. That’s the power of a story.
M.O.: One could find similarities between Rare’s approach and for-profit business models, even social media. How does Rare believe stories and personal habits inform people’s behavior and tendencies to want to be involved with your nonprofit?
B.J.: We’re spending a lot of time and energy right now thinking about that connection between stories, social media, entertainment and our personal habits. This is something that piqued our interest years ago when we began to learn about the work, for example, of Norman Lear in Hollywood, or Miguel Sabido, who produced Simplemente María. We’ve learned that people change for three reasons: because they believe other people they respect expect them to change; because they see other people changing; and because they have the sense that other people are starting to change.
Let’s take climate change right now. The Biden administration [in August] signed into law the Inflation Reduction Act. A big chunk of this [$700 billion] bill is designed to provide economic incentives to put solar panels on your roof and to get people to drive electric vehicles, just to take two of the behaviors that we as conservationists would love every American, if they can afford it, to adopt. Why? Because it creates a ton of jobs, it’s creating new science [and] technology, and it’s going to dramatically reduce your cost of living long term and your greenhouse gas emissions because I drive an electric vehicle at home now and I charge it with solar panels. The technology is here. The incentives are now there.
M.O.: But electric and solar are not new. You’ve seen the documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car?” What’s changed? What’s different now?
B.J.: You’re right. There’s nothing new about an electric vehicle. Thomas Edison teamed up with Henry Ford, and the original Ford, which built the car industry globally, was supposed to be electric. At one point they had agreed to a handshake deal and Thomas Edison said, ‘I will bring you all the batteries.’ What’s different is that 100 years later we’ve got better batteries. The technology has changed, the cost curves are tremendous when you think about just how much innovation has taken place. Solar is now cheaper than gas. And wind is cheaper than gas, and geothermal is cheaper than gas.
The argument I always hear that I find funny is they say yeah, but it’s only 4 percent. Well, that’s because it’s brand new. No one told Steve Jobs iPhones are never going to sell because only 1 percent of Americans have bought them. Well, that’s because it was year one, it was month one. Look at us today. This is what solar is going to be like.
M.O.: Let’s talk about success and growth. Under your leadership, Rare has grown 3,000 percent since 2000. You’ve forged partnerships with hundreds of businesses and nonprofits over the years. How important is collaboration in a successful organizational model today?
B.J.: It’s one of the most important things we can do. And I think we have to get really good at it. Once we develop solutions that are proven effective, the question is how do you scale them? And the way we’re going to do that is through partnerships. Today, Rare has more than 300 partnerships all over the world, and those partnerships are with governments and nonprofits and for-profits. The telling of certain stories in certain ways can be much more effective on a streaming service, for example, and Rare is never going to own a streaming service, so there’s no way we’re going to get those messages out unless we partner with Hollywood. The same is true of social media providers and leveraging the breadth of Meta, or Instagram or Facebook or eventually Tik Tok or Nextdoor.
M.O.: Let’s talk about scale here because I’m interested in the size, the breadth of some of these projects that Rare is working on internationally. For an issue as complex as farmers in Colombia or depleted fisheries in Guatemala, how do you break down a solution so it’s effective and achievable?
B.J.: Basically, it comes down to creating minimum viable products. Working on something like fisheries, step one was to really understand the problem. For three generations, we’ve seen a decline in catch-per-unit effort. Fishermen work harder, they work longer and they catch less. So, you have this declining value proposition for the ocean. You can look ahead and say, ‘Well, geez, we’re not just talking about a few poor fishermen along the coast. We’re talking about an existential crisis for a billion people.’
Each one of these communities has maybe 1,000 fishers but there’s 30 to 50 million coastal fishers around the world. How do we design something to change your economic incentive or a social incentive for fishing that’s going to recover those fish populations and make sure they stay protected and growing, while fishers are hopefully making more money from the surplus from the growth? That gets really complicated, so you have to break that down to what it looks like in one community and you start to develop a series of pilots. In one community, can we get a couple hundred fishers to agree that they’re not going to fish in the spawning areas so that the fish have a chance to grow up and mature?
To your point earlier about the value of the narrative, the story goes from, ‘Well, these liberal do-gooder environmentalists are asking us to sacrifice this year’s fish catch.’ In reality, these partners are enabling local fishers to be forward looking and protect their lifestyle and the economic future and sustainability of the habitats on which those economics depend. That doesn’t happen with a slogan or a couple of posters and billboards. It comes from trust building and meaningful engagement day in and day out such that a local fishing group eventually feels like they did it themselves. Then scale becomes a question of driving down the per-unit cost just like any business.
M.O.: Where does organizational responsibility end and personal responsibility begin?
B.J.: Our organizational responsibility is to make these tools and these insights and the data and the science and the stories widely available. Then I think individual responsibility is self-imposed. We’re not making anybody do anything. The question is, what’s the responsibility we feel to each other? I feel responsible for reducing my use of fossil fuels not because I hate Exxon but because I really enjoy … a stable climate. And we have just begun to understand what the ripple effects of a changing climate are going to be. Ten percent of Americans produce 50 percent of our greenhouse gases. I fly a lot and I’m relatively well to do [so] I feel very lucky by comparison. But that means I have a higher carbon footprint than most people. Putting solar on my roof, driving an electric vehicle, investing in lots of projects around the world to offset my flying is the best way that I know.
M.O.: Leaders and mentors to each of us play significant roles in our lives. Who comes to mind when you think of the influence they’ve had on your life and career?
B.J.: My first hero was Pele, the soccer player. I would have loved to be a professional magician on the soccer field like Pele was. But what was even more impressive about Pele was that he was such a humanist. He spent time visiting war-torn Central America. He was so famous and so popular that he could stop a battle for 24 hours or 48 hours by just going to both sides and signing autographs and kicking around the ball.
Then my mom and my dad are probably the most influential because my mom is very empathetic and very attuned to human suffering, very attuned to racial justice. My dad traveled and worked a lot so it was hard for her to have a career other than through volunteering. So, she volunteered. And that became a norm within our household that when you had a little time, or when you were feeling a little sad, doing something for someone else was the best way to feel better. I’m not afraid of self-interest. It feels good to do good work. People ask, ‘What are you going to do when you retire?’ I’d probably be doing something like this even if I wasn’t paid. This is what the world needs, and I like doing it.
M.O.: You live in Arlington, Virginia, and we first met at a July event in Big Sky, Montana. Where do you believe leaders in Montana and the American West should primarily focus their attention?
B.J.: I was so struck by the opportunity that the people of Montana have in the West to leverage their pride in place and leverage their pride in cultural identity to have an extremely positive impact on the rest of the planet. Look, the cowboy ranching tradition of the planet was invented in the American West. The movies, the stories, the books, the songs.
If the ranchers of the West can adopt the next-generation practices of land care, of water care, of river restoration, of soil carbon, of climate-smart beef and bison, if they can be the leaders that adopt the Ford F 150 E, and solar panels to charge their trucks, I think there’s a revolution in the making because there’s so much sun and so much wind and so much land that whether it’s the soil or the energy we use to live on that soil, there is a vision that could be powerful for the whole planet.
Joseph T. O’Connor is managing editor for the public-interest journalism nonprofit Mountain Journal. He’s the former editor-in-chief for Mountain Outlaw.