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Earth Day Logic: a Sine Qua Non *

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You know the joke about a stranger asking directions from a New England farmer: "You can't get there from here." Sometimes he's right: you can't green the planet from our current system of making money. Like another New Englander said, Henry David Thoreau, "for every thousand hacking at the branches of evil, one hacks at the root." And what did another venerable voice call the root of evil?


Making money is not evil. But it matters how it's done. Even something for nothing is OK. We inhale air without paying for it (yet), nor should we have to. What matters is this: when there is something for nothing -- like the electromagnetic spectrum, which to use, advertisers pay billions each year -- then that value should not collect in just a few pockets but be shared by everybody.


Valuable airwaves are the tip of the iceberg. Many features of the natural world command very high price tags. Each year, humans pay boatloads of cold cash for land, resources, spectrum, and ecosystem services. Check out any nation's GDP; the biggest sector is spending for Earth. Look at the family budget; at the top is paying for "housing" (actually, the site beneath the house), plus food and energy. Whenever you spend money for anything, part of it goes to who owns part of nature.


Letting those trillions for Earth settle in just a few pockets creates problems: Undue fortunes. Undeserved poverty. Undue political clout. Undeserved bad governance. Who're the biggest contributors to local campaigns? Developers and the rest of the growth machine. Globally, who's the biggest influence on foreign policy? The "oiligarchy". The people who oppose conserving the earth are empowered by everyone's spending to use the earth; environmentalists provide their opponents with the money used to oppose them. How's that for irony?


The problems don't stop there. When you pay just a few for Earth, you create class, hierarchy, inequality, inferiority complexes. You reward speculators, who create bubbles that end badly. During hard times, people make tough choices, and Mother Earth often loses. The environment often loses in boom times, too. Presently, the main way to profit from nature is to develop land, usefully or not.


Problems don't go away when idealists beautify a street, designate a bike path, de-pave a playground, or daylight a stream. Then they make a neighborhood more livable. More desirable. More in demand. Congratulations. Now their town is more expensive to live in. Many of the people who started the process have to start all over somewhere else.


Unless they geonomize. Unless they recycle local land values. That is, residents would pay land dues (or land taxes) into the public treasury -- as they do to some degree in a dozen or so towns in Pennsylvania -- and get back "rent" dividends, a la Alaska's oil dividend. Then one would not profit from merely owning some land. Owners and non-owners alike would profit from the value of all the land and resources in the region.


The higher the location's value, the bigger one's dues. One would pay for what they take. So they'd take less and use what they take more wisely.


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Jeffery J. Smith has been published in the academic and popular press, in The New York Times and in The Sustainability Review ("Plugging the Leaks in Local Economies"), and others. He edits The Progress Report. His nonprofit organization, the Forum (more...)
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