Call in the Cavalry—the Moneybags
Good data costs big bucks. Who’s willing to spend their money to make public the worth of Earth?
October 16, 2016
Jeffery J. Smith

Turning to an Expert

If you want something done right, do it yourself. Versus: Do something like represent yourself in court and be ready to lose, even to be hauled off to jail for contempt of court. Yet amateur astronomers have greatly helped NASA identify the landscape of the moon and Mars. Vs: Do your own sleuthing into spending by, say, a family-run charity and mistakenly slander an innocent trustee. When is DIY the right strategy, and when is it the right call to hire an expert?

Having done everything possible by a lone researcher on a skimpy budget to ferret out the worth of Earth, and having not found an answer more precise than ballpark figures, the time to pay an expert for the data is now.

There are a few firms that offer to sell the well-cloaked total amount of US residential real estate value, and property values in general, firms like CoStar and Case-Shiller. They may be able to calculate just the land portion of real estate. And they may be able to add on the value of land used for purposes other than residential or commercial or industrial; i.e., agricultural, pastural, sylvan, mineral, and spectral (the airwaves), and other resources, such as water. One could approach such firms, once one has the money in hand to purchase the tallies.

Raising Needed Funds

Asking a lone researcher to foot the bill is asking too much. Doing individual research is a labor of love, costing blood, sweat, and tears. But requiring the researcher to spend thousands of dollars on fancy figures compiled by well-connected and well-heeled companies is an out-of-pocket expense from not-so-deep pockets.

Fortunately, there are other sources of funds—dues-paying members of activist groups and the trust funds of those nonprofit foundations set up to benefit the public by enabling the necessary research that no one else is doing.

However, winning funding ain’t easy. The quest of measuring the worth of Earth seems to most people—even people trying to make a difference—to be esoteric and not overly useful. Meanwhile, foundations frequently want the recipients of their largesse to have conventional credentials. Yet the scholars who’ve conformed sufficiently to garner degrees in economics are not the same scholars who wonder about such things as how much money society spends on the nature it uses. So while foundations do make grants, typically it’s on programs that address symptoms rather than correct the system

Money, the Master

What’s needed is a funder who specializes in all things geonomic (Earth-focused economics). And given the millions of human minds and the diversity of human interests, there actually are such foundations and activist groups. Common Ground USA comes to mind as do the New York-based Henry George School and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation—tantalizing potentialities.

Yet bear in mind, research and education foundations are tax-exempt because they’re supposed to spend their assets in ways to benefit the public. They’re not supposed to sit on their assets—which unfortunately goes against the human nature of many who enjoy the management of said assets. Rather than perpetuate themselves for years, even decades, foundations are supposed to spend all their assets accomplishing their mission, then, exhausted of funds, go out of existence.

But, just as some pharmaceuticals prefer to have diseases to cure rather than wipe them out, and some police want to have crimes to justify strict law enforcement rather eradicate inequality, most foundations pride themselves on growing their assets—just like a for-profit corporation—regardless of whether they move any closer to accomplishing their mission.

Rather than seek out the agents of change who, if endowed, could accomplish a foundation’s mission, many foundation trustees force such an agent to petition them, hat in hand, begging for the necessary wherewithal to realize the good work. It’s a dynamic not conducive to regarding foundation assets as venture capital. So little of the available funds gets spent, often on fellow insiders belonging to the same network as the trustees.

Manager Mentality

The situation is not 100% bleak. Even this writer has on occasion been funded to do research into rents (the money we spend on the nature we use). However, the funding is not enough to be life-sustaining, not even enough to complete the entire project. And the results are not incorporated into a larger strategy. How are the results disseminated? Who are the target audiences? How can the newly motivated be mobilized to put the astounding facts to good use? Where’s a good business plan when a nonbusiness organization needs it?

While those with power do discourage those with ideals, it’s understandable. Trustees began as idealists, too, but as they rose higher in foundations, closer to the assets, acquiring the life-and-death power to spend the money, such power changes one, makes one value keeping monies intact over solving the world’s problems. Lord Acton nailed it about the influence of power, and money is power.

Almost all funding decisions are made without and knowledge of or regard for the principles of social change. In recent years, researchers into how paradigms shift and how people change their minds have discovered astounding insights, and while for-profit businesses may put the discoveries to profitable use, the wannabe do-gooders do not. They want to change the world but do not want to know how the world changes. It’s a typical feature of the ideological mind while curiosity about influencing behavior (so customers will spend money) is a typical feature of the business brain. Thus the most powerful engine of social change—the market—is left in the hands of those who generally oppose many beneficial changes, such as pollution control or a shorter workweek or eliminating corporate welfare or reigning in perpetual warfare or you name it. Despite it all, society is changing.

Social Media Sources

Who needs the penny-pinchers? Where there’s a will there’s a way. Now in the imminent post-carbon silicon era, there are not only fundraising appeals to members of like-minded groups and applications to foundations for sustainable or temporarily liberating grants, there is also crowdfunding. The text of a letter to activists or of a proposal to a foundation can be edited and formatted to appear in Kickstarter, Indiegogo, GoFundMe, et al.

There are challenges. At some of these sites, it takes money to make money—they charge fees. At all of them, it takes time to learn the ropes. Yet if succeeding, it’d be time well spent, freeing up the time needed to conduct the research. And success would raise funds applicable to hiring expert assistance, the strategy of this final push.

Once the websites’s procedures are mastered, then comes the highest hurdle—convincing ordinary donors. Can the curious be attracted, their brains be titillated? Can the dramatic impact of rents on our lives be made so clear that a pitch to tally up their total be made irresistibly compelling? Then would enough people want to know the worth of Earth badly enough to give money to a stranger to find it out? Would a critical mass want to know how much they and all their fellow citizens spend to own or use a location or natural resource or government-granted privilege? And, if mimicking the Alaska model, how much does the grand sum work out to be per capita? Only one way to find out.

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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