Duke University Alumni Magazine

Environmental Entrepreneur

Around the bloc: Kaufman in Mongolia during his first trip to the Soviet Union in 1989
n an increasingly specialized world, Wallace Kaufman'61 has persevered, and succeeded, as a generalist. In the past thirty- five years, his titles have included Marshall Scholar at Oxford, scientific writer and author, conservationist, international development consultant, and world traveler, An entrepreneur who started his first bootstrap ventures while an assistant professor in English literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Kaufman decided to pack in his academic career in 1974 after being denied tenure. Students protested but were given the official explanation that he wasn't a literary specialist, and the department didn't need generalists.

     "All in all I don't dispute their decision," he says. "My main duty was teaching writing, and I had not published a novel or a book of poems, though I had published a fair amount of poetry and fiction in journals and magazines. By the time I left academia, I had supervised a couple of successful real-estate projects and had begun to leam appraisal work. I had at least two other offers at other universities. But I had begun to think I could make it outside the universities. I did, but I missed teaching, and still do."

     Although an everyday subject as familiar to Americans as backyard barbecues, real estate has been for Kaufman a means for achieving dreams, as well as earning profits. More than twenty years ago, he began building environmentally-friendly housing communities in Chapel Hill. Inspired in part by the "back to the land" ethos of the period, his real-estate company, Saralyn Inc., has built several developments in Orange and Chatham counties that are environmental -- and financial -- successes. These include the 770-acre Redbud, which borders 500 acres of Duke Forest. in Chatham County, and Saralyn, the 2,000-acre Chatham spread where Kaufman lives. His developments seem to have taken a page from Walden Pond: Large lot sizes and commons retain huge tracts of undeveloped land; roads are gravel; stream buffers exceed county ordinances; and covenants protect the land, abundant wildlife, and peace of the neighborhoods. The woods almost come up to Kaufman's doorstep.

     He says his love of nature can be traced to a childhood spent in Queens, New York, where his father, a first-generation American whose parents immigrated from Germany, worked a series of low-paying factory jobs. In particular, he remembers visits to an uncle who lived in rural New Hampshire and a picture book about animals that made him dream of one day living in a house in a forest and owning his own farm.

     He turned to nature once again as a teenager on Long Island. "I was a moody, misfit kid- poet, and I went to the beach to be alone and fish, or simply to walk and look at fossils in the rocks, letting my mind travel out to sea or back to the Pleistocene. Even when religion was of no interest to me, I still thought if I could know nature well enough, I might discover some purpose for life, even my own life."

     From this early personal connection arose a lifelong commitment to environmentalism. Over the years, he has served as president of the Conservation Council of North Carolina and the North Carolina Land Trustees of America, and he was a founding member of the Triangle Land Conservancy. A recipient in 1989 of a fellowship in science writing at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, he wrote, with Duke geology professor Orrin Pilkey, The Beaches Are Moving, a book examining beach erosion and land-use policies on the North Carolina Outer Banks. He has also published work in The New York Times and International Wildlife, among other national publications, and for several years wrote a syndicated weekly newspaper column for The Chatham Herald, garnering a North Carolina Press Award in 1982.

     In his latest book, No Turning Back: Dismantling the Fantasies of Environmental Thinking, published by HarperCollins in 1994, he asserts that in pursuing often over-reaching policy goals inspired by a utopian vision of nature, the environmental movement has turned a blind eye to basic scientific truths that conflict with its political agenda.

     "People believe that business is the main enemy of the environment, but if you have ever traveled in the former Communist world, it's obvious that the effects of a centralized economy have been disastrous for the environment," he says. "Terrible mistakes are made when a centralized authority of a few tries to dictate to the many."

     Kaufman's work in international development started in the 1980s, when he consulted on environmental and small-business issues for several projects in Central America. He made his initial trip to the Soviet Union in 1989 -- during the heyday of peristroika and glasnost -- as a participant in the first joint ham-radio expedition between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., an event held in the far reaches of the Siberian Arctic. The experience spurred his interest in learning Russian, in which he is now conversant. In 1991, he consulted on a World Bank project that surveyed newly privatized businesses in Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia -- and in July 1993 returned to the former Soviet bloc to direct a development project in Kazakstan sponsored by the International City/County Management Association. Funded by the U.S, Agency for International Development, the program is aiding efforts to create a fully functioning, private real- estate market in the country. More recently, Kaufman worked in Tuzla, Bosnia, conducting research for a World Bank project that is establishing a micro-credit lending program for small businesses in the war-torn country.

     While critics of capitalism see an inherent conflict between self-interest and community, Kaufman uses his own background in real estate as an example of how business and a common good such as environmentalism can coexist. "I believe that individualism, on which free markets are based, is not the opposite of community. There is nothing contradictory about a community of individuals."

-- William Sasser

Sasser is a freelance writer living in Chapel Hill.

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