The founders of the World Resources Institute (WRI) were aware of the urgent need for research and solutions to the many serious global environmental, resource, population and development problems around the world. The most serious of the world's environmental threats --deforestation, desertification, and global climate change must head any list -- are not the problems to which the United States and other industrial countries turned priority attention when environmental concerns emerged forcefully in the 1960s and 1970s. While these serious threats have been recognized for some time, they represent new policy and political challenges for the United States and many other countries, challenges that are more global in scope and international in implication. In this sense they are, indeed, a new agenda.
To address these issues, WRI's founders saw the need for an institution that would be independent and broadly credible, not as an activist environmental membership organization, and that would carry out policy research and analysis on global environmental and resource issues and their relationship to population and development goals. That research and analysis had to be both scientifically sound and politically practical. It had to command the respect of the scientific community and the attention of the key decision-makers in both the public and private sectors, in this country and abroad. The institution would not duplicate, but draw on the expertise already in place in academic and other centers here and abroad. Yet it would produce work that policy-makers would find useful and realistic, and it would lead the way in trying to build the constituencies -- both public and private -- required to act on its analyses and recommendations.
The Institute was launched June 3, 1982 when the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation of Chicago announced it ' will provide $15 million to help finance the first five years of operation of a newly created not-for-profit organization,'…the World Resources Institute, 'a major center for policy research and analysis addressed to global resource and environmental issues.' It was organized as a nonprofit Delaware corporation that could receive tax-deductible gifts and contributions under the U.S. Internal Revenue Code.
The Institute's first president was James Gustave Speth, former chairman of the U.S. Council on Environmental Quality and later professor of law at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. He held this position until January 1993. Jonathan Lash, senior staff attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) from 1978 to 1985, is the current president.