People and the environment deserve better – ecoRI News
By NICO PERUGINI
There are arguably few things more American than the public lands that make up our system of national parks and protect a spectacular array of wildlife. These vast wilderness reserves were entrusted to us more than a century ago for the common pleasure of the spectacular landscapes and the recreational possibilities they offer. Given the popularity of protecting these lands, it is shocking that states have sold about 70 percent of the public lands historically allotted to them.
How do markets, legislation, and power imbalances influence how often public land is sold? There are clear trends in prioritizing the short-term economic interests of businesses and governments over the welfare of the public and the environment. With inappropriate and insufficient legislation to protect our natural resources, current and future generations of Americans are deprived of the rich natural capital and essential ecosystem services that the natural world provides.
While some natural resources are not rival – anyone can benefit without eliminating someone else’s access – other provisions of nature are rival and excludable, with a limited amount subject to the will of the Marlet. These include earth, wood, water and minerals.
Natural capital stocks can be classified as resources that do not have public control but have public benefits. These resources are often extremely valuable but finite in nature and are both rival and excludable when extracted by companies. Markets have been relatively efficient in allocating these types of resources, but do not properly account for intangible public goods such as carbon sequestration or flood regulation.
In the traditional economy and current business practices, pollution is seen simply as an inevitable externality of production. Thus, the externalities, or costs, of private operations often spill over to the public sector, which must shoulder the burden of environmental destruction and remediation.
For example, due to decades of largely unregulated private mining in Montana, taxpayers are grappling with billions of dollars in cleanup costs incurred by missing mining companies. Irresponsible and environmentally responsible business practices were hugely profitable for a handful of business executives, but for the general public the buried fortune was rather miserable. Situations like this are shockingly common – and often result from the sale or lease of public land to corporations for economic activity that leaves pristine environments in shambles and incurs huge long-term costs.
Selling public land to private entities raises the question of whether the bottom line actually outweighs the insurmountable costs of mining and development.
The answer to this question depends on the value of the land in terms of the goods and services assessed. Again, in the mainstream theory, there is no mechanism to explain the long-term degradation of ecosystem services and it is almost impossible to put a price on public goods such as access to clean air.
Therefore, an old growth forest will not be assessed on its waste absorption capacity, its ability to provide clean air or its role as a sanctuary for a multitude of organisms rich in biodiversity. Instead, it can be valued using the market price of timber and sold for pennies on the dollar of the true value the ecosystem holds. At our current scale of resource extraction and consumption, the ability of ecosystems to regenerate naturally is threatened, and those of little conventional monetary value are ignored and eradicated.
A modernization of land ownership is needed in the form of a system capable of accounting for the value of natural resources and of entrusting them to the public today and to future generations. One of these systems is a Common asset trust (CAT), which uses the concept of common assets to fundamentally assert the ownership rights of natural capital to all, and implements a trust, which is an adaptable legal mechanism designed to manage assets and protect them for their beneficiaries.
Working together, a CAT is a set of agreements, institutions and funds that aim to sustainably manage natural capital assets, so that we do not deplete them. CAT controls are enforced through the cooperative efforts of society and government, which ultimately ensures that the agreements of a property rights regime are maintained.
There are a few existing trusts, which are very effective and can serve as a framework for more comprehensive efforts in the future. An example here in the United States is the Alaska Permanent Fund, a managed trust for all residents of Alaska, including future residents, that exists separately from the public treasury. It receives 25% of the oil revenue, which is then invested, and half of this revenue is used to develop schools, highways and other public goods. The other half is distributed equally to residents of Alaska, where in 2021, residents receive a dividend of $ 1,114 – their reimbursement from oil companies operating on state lands.
In order to ensure the protection and sustainable use of our natural resources so that future generations of Americans can enjoy the same benefits that we do today, concepts such as CAT must be popularized and formalized. The belief that common resources should belong in part to the general public is fundamentally shared by many Americans, although no current legislation affirms it.
We have a unique opportunity to end the flawed system that exists today and install a new cannon that truly values people and is committed to creating a future where generations to come can enjoy the fruits of the natural world. If you care about this issue and want to be a voice for change, please consider calling or emailing your elected officials.
Nico Perugini, a 2019 graduate of Barrington High School (RI), is a student at the University of Vermont.