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Can We Harness Greed for Good?

Sustainable Land Development Initiative | Sunday September 5th, 2010 | 1 Comment

Terry Mock, SLDI Co-founder

By Terry Mock
Follow Terry on Twitter: @SustainLandDev

September 2009

Until the deal fell through, the recent eBay auction of the file-drawer sized tomb above Marilyn Monroe for $4.6 Million appeared to be ready to set new records for excessive self-indulgence anywhere on the planet. Evidently, the high bidder had second thoughts about the true value of the crypt’s unique location when he finally realized that no greater fools could be found to flip the deal to, and he would have to be dead to occupy the coveted space. Viewing this bizarre spectacle, along with other recent examples of excessive self-interest on Wall Street and elsewhere, we are reminded of how difficult it is to regulate human nature.

Greed—self interest on steroids—is everywhere. This fact is usually a bearable consequence, if not a potent driver, of a free market system that has given us unparalleled wealth and prosperity in recent history. However, numerous reports of impending system-wide failures, along with lessons from historical declines in ancient civilizations, should inform us that there are limits to how much greed we can handle and still be sustainable as a society.

Nowhere is society’s debate over fairness more important than when we discuss a region’s biological carrying capacity. A ground-breaking final report on local population and the environment, funded in part by local governments, was released last month by the group, Advocates for a Sustainable Albemarle Population. The report is entitled, Estimating Impacts of Population Growth on Ecosystem Services for the Community of Albemarle County and Charlottesville, VA, and it indicates that as growth occurs, fields and forests disappear and impervious surfaces and pollution occur, which then impair ecosystem services so that the community will not be locally sustainable.

Emergence of the Market for Ecosystem Services

In order to sustain civilization with a high quality of life, landowners whose properties generate essential ecosystem services should be rewarded for preserving those services – but that requires agreement on what those services are and how they should be measured. The State of Oregon has embarked on a two-year program designed to reach that agreement. Payments for ecosystem services can help improve the environment while expediting development in appropriate areas. They can also provide revenue to struggling rural areas by paying cash-strapped landowners to act as guardians of the ecosystem. To achieve their potential, however, these schemes must not only be properly structured and managed, but they must follow a clear set of rules that everyone agrees on.

The Oregon program is supported by a host of diverse stakeholders including the Oregon Homebuilders Association, The Nature Conservancy, the Oregon Forest Industries Council, the Oregon Business Council, Ecotrust, Sustainable Northwest, and the City of Portland. You can read about a SLDI ecosystem services initiative in our featured articles below.

Your participation and comments are welcome.

Additional Ecosystem Services Resources

Estimating Impacts of Population Growth on Ecosystem Services for the Community of Albemarle County and Charlottesville, VA

Ecosystem Services Defined –
The Oregon bill defines ecosystem services as “benefits that human communities enjoy as a result of natural processes and biological diversity.” It defines ecological values as “clean air, clean and abundant water, fish and wildlife habitat and other values that are generally considered public goods.” An ecosystem services market is defined as “a system in which providers of ecosystem services can access financing to protect, restore and maintain ecological values, including the full spectrum of regulatory, quasi-regulatory, and voluntary markets.” A payment for ecosystem services is defined as “an arrangement through which the beneficiaries of ecosystem services pay back the providers of ecosystem services.”


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  • http://www.historyrevealedmedia.com Richard Thornton

    I admire the leaders in a few parts of the nation that you mentioned. At lease some people, somewhere, in some governments, are giving some thought sustainability.

    The problem permeates so deeply through our society . . . like the transluscent tenacles of a fungus that rots structural wood from within. The question is, “How do you persuade individuals in our society to change their attitudes – change their lifestyles – without resorting to an authoritarian society, which would crush what little is left of our nation’s creativity?