Hiring Mother Earth To Do Her Thing

Are capitalists the new conservationists?


| September-October 2008


This article is part of a package brushing off the gloom and doom with good green news. Also included are:
Tomorrowland : An eco-smart urban design competition turns “what ifs” into “what is”
Green All the Lawyers : Legal expert Mary Wood on how Lady Justice could tip the scales
In Praise Of Economic Pain : The threat of recession could lead to an environmental boon
Environmental Innovations to Give You Hope
Special Online Project: Mother Earth’s Big Comeback

If you started at scenic Bethany Beach on the Delaware shore and drove due west on Route 26 for 10 miles, you’d hit the town of Dagsboro. Pass through town, drive a few more miles west, and you’re in Cypress Swamp Forest Legacy Area. Last year, the land’s owner, a timber company, sought to sell the property. Normally, it would have been snapped up by a developer looking to pave it over with housing subdivisions. This, after all, is one of the fastest-growing regions of the state, and housing developments bring in more money than timber. Instead, the land was purchased by a Maryland-based group of investors who plan to turn a tidy profit another way: by doing nothing.

Actually, “nothing” is an oversimplification. First they are going to restore the land—which has been ditched, drained, and leveled by its timber masters—to its original swampy glory. Then they’re going to leave it be. For their pains, these new-style businesspeople expect to reap the same kind of financial returns as if they had invested their millions on Wall Street.

Since Adam Smith wrote his famous tract, capitalism has maintained that land has no value until it is put to use by humans, which is why wetlands, prairies, and forests have been drained, paved over, and cut down in favor of shopping malls, office parks, and suburban homes. Now, thanks to an emerging field called “ecosystem services,” it’s beginning to look like there might actually be a buck to be made by letting pieces of land—or, more specifically, the ecosystems they contain—remain pristine.

Ecosystems, say proponents of the new thinking, perform real work that has bottom-line value to human economies, like filtering drinking water, pollinating crops, and controlling climate. In many cases, they say, nature can do these tasks more cheaply than any human-made system can. In light of this new understanding, a ground-level shift is taking place. Instead of ignoring nature or, worse, paving it over or polluting it, some communities and businesses are realizing that it’s sometimes in their interest to conserve nature—so they can turn around and “hire” it to perform certain much-needed services.