The relationships that I have formed with fellow Scholars, connecting around our shared experiences and shared hopes—that is the legacy of the Henry David Thoreau Foundation.
High schoolAmherst Regional High School, Amherst, MA, 2007
Graduate EducationOxford University, M.Sc. Public Policy in Latin America, 2013
Social entrepreneur. Rhodes Scholar. Truman Scholar. World Economic Forum Global Shaper. Even among Thoreau Scholars, David Poritz stands out.
Hailing from bucolic Amherst, Massachusetts, a college town nestled amidst the gently sloping hills and pastoral beauty of the Pioneer Valley, David could easily have developed a casual appreciation for the environment and left it at that. But a seventh grade lesson on biodiversity and oil contamination in Ecuador set him on a path from which he has scarcely had time to look back.
Learning about decades of oil pollution in the verdant Amazon rainforest left David determined to do something to stop it. In a twist of fate that would shape his adult life, David’s seventh grade English teacher was the daughter of lawyer Cristobal Bonifaz, who was litigating a class action lawsuit against Texaco on behalf of 30,000 Ecuadorians harmed by oil pollution. After talking his way into an introduction to Mr. Bonifaz, David began working as a legal assistant and researcher on the Texaco case, which led to his first trip to Ecuador. On this trip, at the age of 15, David experienced firsthand the devastating toll that irresponsible oil extraction had wreaked on the people and environment of the Ecuadorian Amazon. “Seeing the inherent contrast between the black oil and the green jungle…witnessing the injustices heaped on the Ecuadorian people, left its mark on me,” recalls David. “After five years in the legal world, however, I decided that I wanted to engage with communities in the Amazon in a way that had a more direct impact.” In 2005 David founded Esperanza International, which both funneled humanitarian aid to affected peoples and advocated for stronger regulation of the oil industry. All of this before he had even graduated high school.
Not content to consider the case closed, David continued to wrestle with what he could do tip the scales in a more positive direction. “I realized that we needed a tool to engage the oil and gas industry in a scalable way that created incentives akin to the fair trade movement.” And so in 2009, while a sophomore at Brown, David launched his latest venture, Equitable Origin, which has developed the first independent, quantifiable certification system for recognizing and rewarding oil and gas companies that meet a strict set of environmental and social standards. David’s vision is to catalyze a new, economically viable norm for extractive industries that protects the environment and ensures that local communities share in the social and economic benefits of production.
“Being selected as a Thoreau Scholar was hugely important to me at the time, and remains so to this day,” recounts David. “For me, the relationships that I have formed with fellow Scholars, connecting around our shared experiences and shared hopes—that is the legacy of the Henry David Thoreau Foundation.”
Initial response to Equitable Origin’s new certification standard has been promising. David’s work also received a welcome boost as the subject of a 2014 documentary, Oil & Water, which aired on PBS and received accolades on the film festival circuit. And although much work remains to be done, what began for David in a seventh grade classroom now has the potential to reshape the extractive industries in a way that is more sustainable and more just. We think Henry David Thoreau would approve.
Photo credit: Tom Sullivan.
David inspects an Ecuadorian oil field on a visit by Equitable Origin.