Bounty: Worth Counting
One number—absent from mainstream economics for some unknown reason—could inform us of the health of the economy, our ecosystem, even our future.
December 6, 2017
Jeffery J. Smith
"Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please.” — Mark Twain, humorist, author, proto-geonomist

Got it all. Beauty. Wealth. Intelligence. That’s our planet, Earth. A model for calendars, like a pinup. And worth so many trillions, how could anyone count them all?

Why would anyone—outside of idle curiosity—count them? For a few very good reasons. The worth of Earth in America is a statistic you could put to excellent use.

First, to know the total value of a territory, you must know the value of sub-sectors. Knowing those lesser values of regions, you can compare them, see the value of where pollution is high versus where it is low. Noting the difference, you have another way to tell how much wrecking the ecosystem is costing you, and how big the payoff would be to produce goods and services cleanly, efficiently.

Second, Earth’s worth can indicate the economy’s health. Our overall spending for parts of nature—locations primarily—is a surplus. The bigger the surplus, the better the economy is performing, like a field in bloom.

That surplus (were popular attitudes to shift) could be redirected into universally beneficial projects. For instance, Alaska uses a portion of oil revenue to pay residents a dividend; anyone have bills to pay? Aspen CO uses a slice to make housing affordable; otherwise, even doctors can not afford to live in that ritzy ski resort (see Ch 40).

Third, besides a snapshot of the value of land and resources, a series of shots shows us the rise then fall of the total. By tracking, you can tell where the economy is headed. Naturally, savers and investors (just about all of us) find that sort of information useful. Indeed, while no big-name economist predicted the most recent recession, several who focus on the value of land (and resources)—“geonomists”—did (see Ch 28).

Taboo Tabulation

Given the insights that a figure for the worth of Earth can yield, why is it not already known? Or easily found? Or the stuff of ballads?

Lovers of nature, the outdoors, wildlife, natural sciences and science in general consider Earth to be priceless. Those folk don’t want to see land as a commodity. Yet beware of what you wish for. Where land lacks a price tag, people take more than they need and use that recklessly, as in the Brazilian rainforest.

Others are quite comfortable having nature in the market, even if indifferent to knowing land’s aggregate value. Why do public agencies who calculate everything else—GDP, unemployment, inflation, etc—not tabulate the money we spend for the nature we use? Why do economists not demand a number or at least use the concept in their theories?

Consider this: When we pay for some Earth, we do something differently than when we pay for goods and services that somebody produced. Paying for someone’s product, we reward them for producing. But paying for land, we don’t reward any human’s effort. Nobody you know made the land (unless you’re really, really old or very well connected).

Yet economies are systems of rewards—just like training pets. Reward producers, they’re likely to produce more. Reward owners, they can’t create more Earth. Thus the worth of Earth is something for nothing—for no labor nor any capital. Because measuring the value of land and resources draws attention to someone’s unproductive behavior, do they hinder the counting of natural surplus? Absentee owners often do lobby, speculate, and exploit to good effect (for them).

But What It’s Done For Us Lately?

Seeking to know land value does have an honorable lineage. Long ago, measuring the annual output—i.e., value—of one’s territory paid off hugely for all humanity. In the agrarian society of ancient Sumer in the Fertile Crescent, rulers wanted to assign the best lands to the best farmers, or to rotate the families so everyone got a shot at the most fertile fields. And later, to take a cut. So they counted their harvests.

For humanity, the payoff from keeping those first accounts was huge. People learned to turn their little pictures into letters and eventually became literate. Further, their accurate accounts of output enabled them to create and exchange tokens of value; they invented money. Money and literacy went on to shape much of civilization as we know it. Once again, may knowing the worth of Earth pay off big.

We’re off on an intellectual quest, going where economists fear to tread. We’ll wade into the torrential flow of payments for locations like those in Manhattan and into the crawling creek of payments for land as in the Nevada desert. Like Carl Sagan said, “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”

This article is Part 0 of a series highlighting the forthcoming book, “Bounty Hunter: a gadfly’s quest to know the worth of Earth”, by Jeffery J. Smith. To date, the experts have not risen to meet the challenge. Indeed, some have even stood in the way. Yet the payoff for knowing this datum is huge.

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Jeffery J. Smith

JEFFERY J. SMITH published The Geonomist, which won a California GreenLight Award, has appeared in both the popular press (e.g.,TruthOut) and academic journals (e.g., USC's “Planning and Markets”), been interviewed on radio and TV, lobbied officials, testified before the Russian Duma, conducted research (e.g., for Portland's mass transit agency), and recruited activists and academics to A member of the International Society for Ecological Economics and of Mensa, he lives in Mexico. Jeffery formerly was Chief Editor at