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What’s Wrong with the Chesapeake Bay Program and How to Fix It Part II

In an earlier commentary I described how society is confused about the optimum roles of the public and private sector in restoring the health of our environmental commons – the natural capital owned entirely by no one providing us vital services we need for basic survival. I concluded by saying that the Bay Program needed an overhaul, to move from a punitive to an incentives based system. The reason I say this is because by and large we’re accelerating destruction of natural capital and the only reason we don’t see commensurate impact on our quality of life is because we’re burning (literally) through a slug of seemingly cheap fossil energy capital from dinosaurs past. This cheap energy masks the increasing costs of machine-provided-environmental services for water filtration and nitrogen and carbon cycling that our bounty of natural capital has historically provided us at no cost.

Restoring this capital can’t be done exclusively through a command and control government system. Government has to be involved and is the only human enterprise for western economies I am aware of that must set the scale and quality of natural capital and environmental services we need to survive, but the private sector through the market economy is the only system that can deliver at scale an infinite variety of solutions via a competitive cost model that could possibly make this massive restoration concept possibly affordable.

So, how would such a thing work? I mean, if government were to say we need X tons of healthy soil in the Chesapeake Bay region to properly cycle nitrogen how could the private sector be involved? The Center runs three natural capital services, Streamsweepers, Soilkeepers, and Rapidan Wildlife Habitat Cooperative. Each of these has a unique blend of fee/philanthropy funding streams. Having founded and worked in for profit businesses, I can tell you it’s not easy to do what we do but it is informative and I think we are demonstrating a way forward.

What do we do exactly? We add philanthropy to make up for the increased unit cost of our business services that also restore the environmental commons. For instance, our landscape organic fertilization service unit cost is generally slightly above what the market will bear. In other words, the market will not bear the full cost of creating yards with enough organic matter and soil organisms to fertilize turf and plants without synthetic fertilization inputs. So, we blend a little bit of philanthropy to get our costs in line with revenue allowing us to operate at break even.

There are countess mom and pop landscape companies in the Ches. Bay region – if even a small percentage of these did what SoilKeepers does a massive impact could be created. Well, how could the government compel companies to add restoration of environmental commons to delivery of their products and services? Well, create a 1:1 tax credit for every unit of environmental common restored. A for profit company can’t avail itself of donor support to make up for the cost of environmental commons service delivery but a tax credit could do the same thing.

I think humanity is in a race. We’re partying our way down a mineshaft and with every step a few more of the partygoers realize they’re burning through air reserves and if the group doesn’t turn around soon things won’t end pleasantly. Seems to me about half of the public really gets the situation we’re in. If a few more of us can get serious about the need for natural capital restoration, then maybe politicians could find a bipartisan path to incentivize millions of private companies to do well and do good particularly for the benefit of future generations.

I am politically independent and talk routinely to all kinds of folks and find truth in diverse views – spanning Ann Rand to Rachel Carson. I get that there is a perspective that taking care of me is the best path forward for everyone so pleas about the future don’t resonate as well as some think it should. But when considering children I think there is a universal principle that we do owe them. Perhaps it is so that we really don’t owe other adults but we do owe our children because we brought them into the world and they can’t take care of themselves. For our kids we have an ethical obligation to leave them a land at least as bountiful as we found it. We can do better if we don’t give in to greed – to cannibalizing in one generation all the gifts we have been given. We can stop eating our seed corn. If we can send a human to the moon, we can do this. We can. We can.

Michael Collins

Executive Director

Center for Natural Capital

Note: the comments expressed herein are solely those of Michael Collins and do not necessarily represent perspectives of other staff or Directors of the Center.



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