When to Preserve? When to Develop?
Powerful people with limited values tell us losing pristine nature is good for us. How can we tell when it’s not?
April 17, 2016
Jeffery J. Smith

All of us, whether we want our species to leave some nature alone or don’t give a hoot about nature, live and work on nature that has already been altered. So, if everyone got to benefit from altering nature before, why can’t those who’re coming of age benefit from altering nature now? Why? There is the reality of limits, of enough.

Why Preserve

Even setting side the interests of nature, if our species succeeds at altering everything, could we survive? No more discoveries of cures in jungles. No more cleansing of water by swamps. No more lumber. No more pollination of food plants. No more fresh oxygen! This doomsday scenario could be our fate if we remain on the path of eco-ploitation.

Even if that’s not our fate, we do benefit from leaving some nature alone. We have a place to go to when our souls cry out to feel their roots. If you need a psychologist’s study to tell you, you can read about outings letting adults find peace, kids, too, convicts find purpose, etc.

If we were to spare some nature not for ourselves but for nature’s sake, that’d still benefit us. It’d be an act of compassion. It’d expand the scope of our morality from species-centrism to species-pluralism. And bigger ethics sure beats little ethics any day. As they say, you can judge a society’s morality by how it treats its weakest members.

How to Preserve

By temperament, I want to spare nature as much as humanly possible. There are several ways to do that, parks and refuges and wilderness trusts being the most obvious. Less obvious ways, however, are probably more powerful than NIMBY or “just say no” to development.

One is to curb human population growth. The win/win way to do that is to let everyone prosper. Comfortable families have fewer kids; generally, the poor have more, the middle class has less.

Another way is to trade. That is, to reclaim some developed land here and develop some pristine land there. Metro regions could benefit immensely from having rivers cleaned, streams day-lighted, riparian areas turned into wildlife corridors with hiking trails and bike paths, bottom land into urban gardens, flood plains into refuges. The result is a city not supplanting nature but complementing her, as a functional part of the total ecosystem. That’s my kind of vision.

The third way is to let the market decide. Not the market as now constituted, with all its governmental policies biased toward business (limited liability, corporate welfare, tax loopholes, etc). But a truly free and responsible market, free of interference by both government and bad business, in which everyone’s rights are defended.

That is, if government is to green-light a project, or to pursue a project on its own, either way, the project would have to “geonomize”, to raise surrounding land values by an amount greater the project’s costs—all the costs.

Let a Puerto Rican Market Decide

Take the recent case with Puerto Rico (a US Territory). A Republican congressman from Utah (no lack of Mormons worshipping development) introduced a bill to handover a US wildlife refuge (an ex US bombing range) to Puerto Rican politicians to sell off to insider developers (from Utah?). The cover usually given by politicians for handing over a public asset to a private interest is twofold: help the government get out of debt, and let the people of prosper.

OK, so how much money could Puerto Rico make by selling versus leasing? And compared to how much the wannabe developers would rake in? You don’t see politicians recommending that individual owners sell of their land.

What you see instead is that the most valuable locations—downtowns—are largely claimed by absentee owners / investors. They know which side of the bread is buttered. If the smart money prefers to own and lease out land, then dumb governments should learn that trick and hang on to public property. Lease it out forever. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

Next, is development even the most profitable human use of the wetlands? Could both government and people make more money off eco-tourism, hunting, foundation research, harvesting bio-cures, etc? And not just directly, but indirectly, too, off of any rise in value of bordering parcels?

Finally, if Puerto Rico is in debt now, would more money mean they’d be out of debt later? Does more food mean a glutton is going to be less obese later? Does more alcohol mean a drunk is going to be more sober later? As a rule, governments stay in debt forever, partly due to waste, partly due to corruption. Only a fraction of public debt is explained by the bonds sold to finance something useful and desired, say, a new bridge, one to somewhere.

Actions Have Consequences

The market can decide where to develop and where not, when the market is made responsible—and liability is not limited as a freebie from the state. Instead, those who try to profit by altering nature would be made accountable for their actions. If something goes wrong, they pay; they’d compensate those whom their decisions impacted.

Knowing they're on the hook, investors in stocks and buyers of bonds would think twice. They’d look beyond the old bottom line. They’d consider the impact on nature. Back to Puerto Rico. If developing the refuge makes a valuable species go extinct, and the nature lovers sue, and win, investors are out of luck and a boatload of bucks.

So to win over potential investors, or buyers of bonds, developers would have to show the impact on nature would be minimal, within the carrying capacity of that area. What a change in business outlook! If they can’t make a persuasive case, they can’t raise the funds, and that ecosystem wins a reprieve. Anyone who still wants to derive income from that acreage would need to turn to the non-demolishing means to profit (eco-tourism, etc).

Using Feedback Positively

Public recovery of land value—geonomics—can go beyond merely paying off public bonds to finance a project. The rise in site value, once the bonds are paid off, could be disbursed to residents as a dividend, a la Alaska and Singapore. Then citizens would be the ones to have a financial interest in land, not just developers.

Different from developers, however, is that the public need not develop to profit. The public can profit from non-development, from the eco-tourism and all the rest. Instead of supporting the rich developers who lord over them with promises of jobs (promises often not fulfilled), the residents would support the nature lovers who do deliver preserved land, higher land values, and the fatter dividends that go with them.

Thus a feedback loop is forged, one linking the well-being of nature to the well-being of the human populace. All of us would get to benefit not just from altering nature but from not altering nature, too. Such feedback may be the only way to kick us off the path to e-collapse, onto the trail toward eco-librium.

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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 Progress.org. A member of the International Society for Ecological Economics and of Mensa, he lives in Mexico. Jeffery formerly was Chief Editor at Progress.org.