Conservation Currents: Conservation as wealth creation

 

Connecting the Super Bowl, the Final Four and conservation with economics

By Amos G. Baehr | Contributor

The Super Bowl, the Final Four, Bruce Springsteen concerts all create opportunities for scalping tickets. Economists call this market—reselling something you just bought—the secondary market. Super Bowl tickets, for example, real of counterfeit, have a face value of $1,500 but can bring in from $3,150 to $15,000.

So what does this have to do with conservation?

This Super Bowl resale market is a crass example of rent-seeking behavior—another economic term—and our current economic institutions are dominated by it. Now to be sure, printing tickets is fraud, and fraud is illegal. Reselling, however, is trade, and there is nothing illegal about trading my Final Four ticket to pay for a new fishing boat. Where the ethics get murky and institutions get corrupted is in speculation—the practice of owning something for no reason other than to resell. And a quick look at American history shows that the legacy of land-use policy in the United States preeminently supports land speculation.

George Washington said, “Land is the most permanent estate and the one most likely to increase in value.” Just as land satisfied the American citizen, it also secured the American state. The original rival land speculators were the crowned heads of Europe. To a large extent our revolutionary war was fought to secure our self-determination in the contest for land. Nowhere is the history of transition from crown land grants to self-determination more colorful than here in Vermont. The Allen brothers, wholesale land speculators themselves, were fighting over property rights well before 1776.

But there is another legacy of the land in America, and my own ancestry is representative. On my mother’s side my people were farmers—first in the northern lowlands of Europe and finally in the rolling prairie lands of Iowa. I’ve read the letters between brothers who immigrated, and a very loose paraphrasing would be: “Brother, you are not going to believe this but we have bought all the crop land we can manage and a couple of extra cows to let run on the open range! Yes, open range! Get your ass over here…” (The actual letter is six pages long.)

Their primal orientation to the land was as a means of production. But they learned quickly that land can also be just boundaries drawn on a map.  Soon they were into land speculation.

I heard stories of a full section (640 acres) lost in the panic of 1893. I hunted pheasant on a quarter section they had farmed for 100 years. So these two legacies of land—speculation and stewardship—are entwined in my roots as they are in the roots of the nation and many of you.

Conservation, I suggest, is the elevation of stewardship over speculation, the elevation of industry over rent seeking. This is conservation in economic terms. This is conservation that recognizes, in an institutional and policy sense, that the frontier has closed and that economic prosperity and social equity are no longer served by patterns of development that pushed our forefathers from sea to shining sea. This is conservation that recognizes ecology as the wellspring of economy.

This is no easy task. More than half, maybe 80 percent, of you reading this article have land speculation built into your retirement plans. That our homes would increase in value and support us in our old age is part of the “American Dream.” Look carefully and you see that dream turning into a fantasy for future generations.

More of the old policy will not create wealth; it will only concentrate it. If you search your soul you may find what I have found, that the wealth created in our future cannot be based on a system that perpetuates the view of land as boundary lines. The economy must shift to a view of land as a living community.

Many of us share this dual heritage of land as property and land as a living means of production. In Charlotte and in most of Vermont, with its many thousands of acres of public and private lands, the soil community is a familiar story. What is unappreciated is that attitudes and institutions built upon conditions 100 and 200 years ago are undermining rational wealth-building today. The twin perspectives of speculation and stewardship that cohabited in the land of plenty for so long have to be reconstituted with a priority built around stewardship.

Here’s how Wendell Berry puts it in Our Only World: “All of us who are living owe our lives directly to our connection to the land. … the connection that we make economically, by work, by living, by making a living. This connection, as we see every day, is going to be either familiar, affectionate and saving or distant, uncaring and destructive.”

 

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