Our Natural Capital

The Stick is Failing Us, Let’s Try the Carrot.

Under the current administration we’re regressing into old but persistent racial and xenophobic resentments that, under great and unifying leaders, lie more or less dormant. We’ve become narcotized by rising market indices that benefit the few who can afford equities, by apparent full-employment at pay levels that diminish family and community well-being and ignore the bloom of suicides of despair, and by our willful ignorance about the savaging of our planetary home.

This administration is giving voice and stature to our worst angels while providing sustenance to a form of extreme and unregulated capitalism that enhances the divide between those who have and those who don’t. The astonishing disparity of wealth we’re seeing has historically signaled a civilization’s decline and descent into chaos. Three American men own as much as the bottom half of all the rest of us.

But change is not out of reach and with courageous leadership, Vermont could lead the nation by example. Although, we’re often more adept at protest than effecting change, we have pioneered in redefining some civil rights but have been more constrained in forging economic change, the practical constraints of which are our links to an international monetary system and our fears of competition.

Now is the time, however, to be bold within the freedoms that a federalist architecture allows. We can start by reimagining what capital is. For now, at least, it’s defined by the value of the U.S. dollar. Imagine if we forged our future instead on the value of our natural capital – the health and quality of our air, water, flora, fauna, soils, and people. As our competitors’ natural capital deteriorates and they expend the last of their extractive assets like coal, oil, minerals, and gas, Vermont’s natural capital increases significantly in value if we design an economic valuation system to protect and enhance it.

The governance structure for protecting our natural capital has traditionally been regulatory and punitive, creating an adversarial relationship between our monetary capital and our natural capital – business vs. the environment.

What if Vermont were to formally acknowledge the increasing value of its natural capital and deploy both cap and trade and carbon pricing. As a wise old Vermonter once said to me, “When you’ve wrecked the natural elements that supply us with food and become very rich doing so, try eating your money.”

If we treated our shared natural capital as a monetary system and rewarded good stewardship and frugality we could incent its growth in value and reduce the deteriorating effects of over-exploitation.

By way of a cap and trade example, if each household were allotted 25 gallons of clean water daily  and one household used only 15 gallons, under this system they could sell their unused 10 gallons into the marketplace, while another family could use thirty gallons and pay into the market for their choice to do so. Similar systems could be deployed across many forms of natural resource stewardship, fuel, emissions, septic and wastewater discharge, and use of natural soil amendments vs. chemical additives.

Those of us in the latter half of our lives will not see planetary “end times,” but today’s life-threatening weather extremes, deteriorating water quality, death of the oceans, melting of glaciers and ice caps, poisoning of our soils, and economic mass migration will all threaten the well-being, if not the lives, of our children and grandchildren. Only when we understand our natural capital as the real measure of economic value can we deploy currencies that incent good stewardship of the natural systems on which we depend. Strategic regulation has fallen victim to monied politics and is failing us.

Vermont should forge ahead and lead in deploying both cap and trade systems and extraction and consumption taxes on natural assets necessary to our mutual survival: water, wood, stone, and imported fossil fuels.

As long as we stay bound to the tired paradigms of wealth being purely monetary and the imperative to de-regulate capitalism in the service of mythical free-market competition, we’ll continue to degrade the systems on which we depend for our lives and further impoverish today’s majority and future populations in wealth and wellness.

Quality of life and community are supplanting the accretion of great wealth as life goals for many of our young. What if we were to make Vermont the best state in the country in which to live, breath, recreate, earn a living, and raise children?