Mongabay Features

Esri co-founder Jack Dangermond: ‘People and planet are inextricably linked’

Today, maps are a critical part of nearly all place-based conservation efforts. Maps enable scientists and conservation practitioners to identify where they operate, allocate resources, organize and present data, and communicate the results of their work. It’s hard to imagine modern-day conservation without maps.

Before the age of computers, map-making was typically the domain of specialists. But as computers became more mainstream in the 1980s and 1990s, map-making became more accessible, driving a sharp increase in the creation and use of maps as platforms for presenting an ever-growing array of data.

TNC's map showing forest loss in Borneo. Presented on Esri's ARCGIS story map platform.
TNC’s map showing forest loss in Borneo. Presented on Esri’s ARCGIS story map platform.

A great enabling factor in the acceleration of map-making was the development of geographic information systems (GIS), frameworks for capturing, storing, managing, and analyzing spatial data. And no company has been a bigger player in the GIS space than Redlands, California-based Esri.

Founded in 1969 as the Environmental Systems Research Institute, Esri products like ArcGIS have been the basis for countless applications across numerous industries. In the conservation realm, ArcGIS has been used to manage and present data for an enormous array of applications, from mapping wildlife habitat to understanding the impact of climate change to demarcating protected areas on land and in oceans.

Esri was founded by Jack and Laura Dangermond, who committed the privately held company to “sustainable growth” from its early days. In practice, this has meant investing heavily in research and development, eschewing outside investment to allow it to focus on long-term goals rather than immediate financial returns, and providing discounted and free use of its software to nonprofits working to understand and monitor the environment.

“Esri is a successful company today because we work hard to serve our users,” Jack Dangermond told Mongabay during an October 2020 interview. “This symbiotic relationship between Esri and our users has resulted in a stable and resilient company where we can remain focused on our mission to integrate environmental and geographic thinking into the way governments, businesses, and NGOs work in a more sustainable way.”

Esri products are widely used by groups working on environmental issues: the company’s database of story maps is a who’s who of NGOs from World Resources Institute to the Natural Resources Defense Council to Greenpeace.

Union of Concerned Scientists map showing projected extreme heat days. Presented on Esri's story map platform.
Union of Concerned Scientists map showing projected extreme heat days. Presented on Esri’s ARCGIS story map platform.

Dangermond’s philosophy on how he runs his business extends to how he views our relationship with the environment. In 2017, he and his wife donated $165 million to The Nature Conservancy to establish the Jack and Laura Dangermond Preserve in central California. The Dangermonds have also signed The Giving Pledge, committing to giving away the majority of their wealth to charitable causes.

“We rely on natural places and the biodiversity they harbor,” Dangermond told Mongabay. “So our survival, and in turn, our economic prosperity is tied to our being good stewards of the environment.”

Accordingly, Dangermond calls climate change and biodiversity loss “existential threats” that urgently need to be addressed no matter where someone sits on the political spectrum. And he believes Esri’s tools can play a role in contributing toward solutions.

Coast oak woodlands along a ridge overlooking rolling hills that descend to the Pacific Ocean on the Dangermond Preserve. © Bill Marr/TNC
Coast oak woodlands along a ridge overlooking rolling hills that descend to the Pacific Ocean on the Dangermond Preserve. © Bill Marr/TNC

“We don’t really dwell on the divisions but rather how we can encourage understanding to help mitigate challenges and encourage informed decision-making,” he said. “We are at a point where there are no simple solutions. What is needed are millions of decisions and actions at all levels of society and within organizations to understand, adapt, and improve the circumstances around us. In that sense we try to focus as a company on how we can move forward towards more sustainable outcomes informed by accurate data and based on rational thinking.”

Dangermond spoke about these issues and more during an October 2020 conversation with Mongabay founder and CEO Rhett A. Butler.


By Rhett Ayers Butler

Rhett Ayers Butler is the Founder and CEO of Mongabay, a non-profit conservation and environmental science news platform. He started Mongabay in 1999 with the mission of raising interest in and appreciation of wild lands and wildlife.