Conservation, Markets, Ethics

While we strive to craft new approaches to conservation and environmental protection, with the goal of reconciling personal liberty, property rights, and economic efficiency with concern for human health and the natural world, we need to recognize that any market-based mechanisms will have to be grounded on ethics or values of the individual relative to clean air, water and nature broadly defined.  In other words, he or she must believe that America’s bountiful resources are worth protecting or at least managing with a view to the long-term.

In other words, individuals will need to be self-motivated to participate in environmental markets based on values beyond mere utilitarianism or monetary gain.  Why else would a landowner grant an easement to a land trust rather than a developer?  Is it really worth the time and effort to shift away from low-value to high-value crops which are more water efficient despite years of growing the former rather than the latter?  And why should an owner care about wildlife or biodiversity in the first place?

Wilhelm Röpke, sometimes called the architect of the successful economic policy of West Germany after World War II, wrote A Humane Economy (1962), an influential book, in which he declared, forcefully, “economic life naturally does not go on in a moral vacuum.  It is constantly in danger of straying from the ethical middle level unless it is buttressed by strong moral supports.”  “The market, competition, and the play of supply and demand do not create these ethical reserves; they presuppose them and consume them.”

Röpke continues:

Self-discipline, a sense of justice, honesty, fairness, chivalry, moderation, public spirit, respect for human dignity, firm ethical norms—all of these are things which people must possess before they go to market and compete with one another. These are the indispensable supports which preserve both market and competition from degeneration.  Family, church, genuine communities, and tradition are their sources.

Röpke described this social order as “bourgeois,” but one “which fosters individual independence and responsibility as much as the public spirit which connects the individual with the community and limits its greed.”

It is not hard to see that conservation or ecological values are also not inherent in the functioning of the market which is agnostic as to personal preferences.  A person has to bring those values to the marketplace, having learned them from some other source in civil society.

One could attempt to justify market-based or property-rights approaches to environmental conservation on strictly utilitarian grounds or enlightened self-interest, but often enlightenment suffers at the expense of short-term thinking.  Without something like a conservation or land ethic, a sacramental regard for creation, a concern for future generations beyond one’s own short span on this planet, or some other moral and ethical North Star to guide and motivate citizens, farmers, ranchers, wood lot owners, and other actors, I am not optimistic that we can succeed on the basis of strictly free-market principles alone.

Aldo Leopold’s ethical instincts, intuitions, and his moral sentiment (this latter phrase favored by Adam Smith) were mostly correct.  In his famous chapter, “The Land Ethic,” in a A Sand County Almanac And Sketches Here and There (1949, 1987), he succinctly articulates the limits of an exclusively economic perspective:

To sum up: a system of conservation based solely on economic self-interest is hopelessly lopsided.  It tends to ignore, and thus eventually to eliminate, many elements in the land community that lack commercial value, but that are (as far as we know) essential to its healthy functioning.  It assumes, falsely, I think, that economic parts of the biotic clock will function without the uneconomic parts.  It tends to relegate to government many functions eventually too large, too complex, too widely dispersed to be performed by government.

An ethical obligation on the part of the private owner is the only viable remedy for these situations.

Conceding “that economic feasibility limits the tether of what can or cannot be done for the land,” Leopold, nevertheless, aims to “cast off” what he calls “the fallacy the economic determinists have tied around our collective neck” which is “the belief that economics determines all land use. This is simply not true.  An innumerable host of actions and attitudes, comprising the bulk of all land relations, is determined by the land-users’ tastes and predilections, rather than his purse.”

“The bulk of all land relations hinges on investments of time, forethought, skill, and faith rather than on investments of cash. As a land-user thinketh, so is he,” says Leopold.

I  am privileged to serve on the board of a land trust and watershed organization, the Potomac Conservancy, which holds conservation easements on over 13,000 acres in the watershed throughout Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland.  There are certainly tax benefits for landowners who donate easements.  We do not actually buy many easements, outright, these days.  Most of the landowners we encounter are committed to preserving the agricultural character of the land while protecting water quality.  Their motives, indeed, are a mix of economic, cultural, familial, and other elements.  Many could easily sell their property to real estate developers but now appreciate the option of saving their piece of Paradise or family tradition.  At the margin, it is hard to say to what degree money or the non-monetary values come into play.  No doubt, it differs from landowner to landowner.  But economics is only part of the calculation.

The late Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who, in an October 1988 speech to the Conservative Party Conference in Brighton, summed it up nicely: “No generation has a freehold on this earth.  All we have is a life tenancy-with full repairing lease.”