Posted by on Oct 12, 2013 in Food For Thought |

Where’s Aldo? –


The tide of talk – and action – related to the emerging markets for ecosystem services is rising. As a person who looks after forest land, I bump into some aspect of the topic of monetizing the public values of private lands daily.  With each encounter, my enthusiasm is tempered by a dilemma that the prospect of ecosystem service compensation raises for me.  Because it is a dilemma that goes to the heart of what it means to care for a piece of working land, I find I cannot ignore it.  Instead I am moved to put pen to paper in hopes of seeing whether others share my dilemma, and might want to join forces in resolving it.


“The Oldest Task”:

“We end, I think, at what might be called the standard paradox of the twentieth century: our tools are better than we are, and grow better faster than we do.  They suffice to crack the atom, to command the tides.  But they do not suffice for the oldest task in human history: to live on a piece of land without spoiling it.


In the years since Aldo Leopold penned these words in 1938, many smart, committed, and good hearted people have worked hard to develop and implement strategies that will accomplish “the task”.  The combination of the pressures of rising human populations and levels of consumption, and declining productivity of the systems we depend on challenge us to be more creative than ever before in finding and using strategies that allow us to use without using up.  I see three main strategies being used and my dilemma concerns the interrelationship between two of these strategies.


Strategy A – The Club: The oldest and most familiar of the strategies is the reliance on government to create and enforce laws and regulations to prevent individuals from unreasonably harming the common good.  Whether it is as simple as the signs along Washington State highways reminding motorists: “Litter and it Will Hurt”, or as complex as the most convoluted pollution litigation cases and state forest practices acts, this strategy has proven its effectiveness over millennia.  But because it alone is not enough, other strategies have been developed.


Strategy B – The Conscience:   Fortunately the power of force is not the only motivator of human action.  Because history proves that some of us can look beyond  the question of what we can and can’t do to be motivated by considerations of what we should and shouldn’t do, some progress has been made, and continues to be made using strategies driven by ethical responsibility.

This strategy may be best articulated by Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic that is summed up by his observation:

“We abuse land because we regard  it as a commodity belonging to us.  When we see it as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

 In his Land Ethic essay and elsewhere, Leopold made the case for the role of the development of an ecological conscience, or land ethic, as an essential strategy for accomplishing his “task”.

A companion to this statement is John Muir’s observation that “nothing dollarable is safe, however guarded..”.  With this strategy, landownership is as much about responsibilities as it is about rights and the shaping of healthy communities (human and more than human) hinges on a population as focused on, in Leopold’s words: “doing their bit as getting their share”.  Responsibility lies with me, the individual, to build the conservation value of our lands, instead of responsibility lying beyond me with government to motivate me to do it. Idealistic?  Definitely.  Effective?  Most would argue that it is, but as with strategy A, not effective enough.


Strategy C – The Carrot:

In recent years and months we’ve seen a rising amount of attention being paid to the strategy of  compensating landowners for the ecosystem services that their lands provide.  The theory is that if the landowner voluntarily manages their lands in ways that provide public benefits, it is reasonable and desirable for the landowner to be compensated in some way for doing this.  Examples are many, but those currently gaining the greatest traction include carbon sequestration, wetland banking, reducing water temperatures through expanding streamside buffers, or providing scarce habitat.  If a landowner goes out of their way to manage in ways that create values from which the public benefits, it is unfair to assume that the landowner will continue to provide these benefits without being compensated.  Similarly, it is assumed that as incentives for providing public benefits emerge it will encourage landowners to manage in ways that provide benefits that they would not choose to provide if the incentives were not in place.  With this strategy, responsibility lies with the public to create conditions that motivate the landowner to improve or maintain land health – as well as with the landowner to take advantage of the opportunities.



My dilemma concerns the relationship between the final two strategies – the conscience and the carrot.  My sense is that there is general agreement that Strategy A, the club, is here to stay as a necessary, but not sufficient, piece in the puzzle.  Though I see validity in both strategies – the conscience and the carrot – , I fear that neither of these approaches pursued on its own takes us to places that our grand children will thank us for going.  As I participate in work related to emerging markets for ecosystem services, I’m  troubled that essentially no one appears to be recognizing, or working to address, the dilemma.  Among the many questions raised by the dilemma, these four stand out:

  1. What is the relationship between the two strategies –      conscience and carrot?  Are they      antithetical, easily compatible, or compatible with effort?
  2. If we pursue Strategy B without C, where would it      take us?
  3. If we pursue Strategy C without B, where would it      take us?
  4. If there is validity in both, is it possible to      pursue them both in combination?


The Carrot, Alone – The many strengths of the ecosystems services, market-based approach are reflected in the rate at which the markets are emerging and growing.  Using the tension between supply and demand and driven by the foundation of legislation such as the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and legislation designed to cap, and eventually reduce the emission of greenhouse gasses, this approach provides concrete incentives for landowners to maintain and/or increase the public benefits of private lands.  Offsetting this approach’s strengths is something that I see to be a serious limitation of shifting responsibility for land stewardship away from the landowner and toward others.  In its worse case, it seems that this approach to lead us to a situation where landowners would only choose to take conservation actions above and beyond what the law requires if government, or some other outside body, compensates them for doing it.  To me this sounds like a community of landowners preoccupied by “getting their share” at the expense of looking for ways to, in Leopold’s words,  “do their bit”.


The Conscience, Alone – In the more than half century since Leopold first advocated for the role of ethical responsibility as a basis for landowner action, it seems clear that the reasoning and actions of many landowners have changed in ways that validate and reflect his philosophy.  In the same way that relationships between our fellow humans have evolved from being based on what we can do toward what we should do, an increasing number of people have been moved to view land they are responsible for more as a community, within which they have ethical responsibility, than as a commodity with which they can do as they please.  At the same time, it seems clear that this strategy is not powerful enough to bring about the change that is needed in the time required.  The choice to pursue a conscience-based strategy alone appears to put too much faith in our ability to influence the evolution of our fellow humans’ ethical reasoning, while under recognizing the number of people on the planet for whom this approach is not an option because their most basic needs are not being met.


Tentative Conclusions:

Though my purposes here are to try to articulate the dilemma, raise questions related to it, and encourage communication, it seems fair and appropriate to share my tentative conclusions:

  1. None of the strategies alone will lead us toward the      results that our circumstances demand.
  2. It is possible and desirable to use all three      strategies in combination.
  3. If we are not careful strategy C, the carrot, will      negate the effectiveness of strategy B, the conscience; it is important      that we not let this happen.
  4. Using all three strategies successfully in      combination will require a sophisticated approach that acknowledges the      dilemma and carefully blends the three strategies.  Successfully done, responsibility would      rest with both the individual landowner and with the public.


I expect – and hope – that the development of effective markets for ecosystem services will continue to gain momentum.  I also hope that amidst the eager energy to turn this strategy from a concept into tangible realities that will directly benefit the average landowner in meaningful ways, we will not forget or ignore the foresightful encouragement articulated by Leopold in his Land Ethic.  Before beginning any conversation about compensation of landowners for ecosystem services, let’s ask ourselves: “where’s Aldo?” and be sure to keep him as a wise advisor at our side.