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Who owns America?

Betsy Burdett

Conservation Corner


19 years ago, I went to a lecture in Asheville, along with folks from the Polk County Soil and Water Conservation District and Pacolet Area Conservancy, and I have never forgotten it. The speaker was John Ikerd, and the lecture was about land use planning and sustainability.

Mr Ikerd is a professor of agriculture at U. of Mississippi. Much of his talk revolved around sustainable agriculture. I recommend that you look him up on your computer and listen to him online or read his books. You will not be disappointed!

As with most of you, Covid-19 has inspired me to look through old files and throw out lots of un-needed stuff. One of the treasures that I found in the “miscellaneous” file was a copy of that lecture of 19 years ago. I’ve spent the past week reading the document over and over, trying to reduce ten pages to 800 words for this column. It’s not working, so I’ll stay with this subject of sustainability for several columns. Maybe if environmental sustainability were easy, we’d be doing it now. But, sadly, we’re not.

Let’s start by asking the question “Who owns America?” We presume that America is owned by the people of America, and we also presume that land use decisions are appropriately made by us, but that is not true.

In our country, private landowners can do pretty much whatever they want on their land, so long as it does not pollute someone else’s land. If the actions of one landowner damages another person’s land, the courts may award damages to the harmed party, but those ‘damages’ are calculated in monetary terms. The ground is still poisoned, and the silt from the river still rests in the bay downstream.

With relatively few exceptions, land use decisions are determined by the economics of the marketplace. Economic considerations commonly dominate planning and zoning decisions; unfortunately, communities rarely use the tools of planning and zoning to ensure the long run ecological and social well being of the community as a whole. Let me insert this little bit of information to keep in mind. Our property taxes are based upon “highest and best use”, which relates only to the economic potential of the property for residential or commercial development, with absolutely no consideration of ecological sustainability. Free market (highest and best use) economics makes no provision for future generations, other than those reflected in the self interests of current decision makers. In short, economics drives land use decisions in America.

Mr. Ikerd points out that the three cornerstones of sustainability are ecological soundness, economic viability and social justice. A) Any system of development that is not ecologically sound will eventually diminish or destroy the foundation for its productivity and thus, is not sustainable (example: a residential development on unstable land, such as Chocolate Drop Mountain). B) Any system that is not economically viable will not be able to maintain control over the use of its resources (i.e. a small family farm in a high land tax district) and thus is not sustainable. C) Lastly, any system of development that does not meet the needs and expectations of society will not be supported by society, and thus, is not sustainable (i.e. a compost facility near a residential area).

These three are not separate objectives or goals but are three separate dimensions of the same whole – as with the dimensions of a box: height, length and width. Any object lacking and one of these three dimensions is simply not a box. Any system of development that is not ecologically sound AND economically viable AND socially just quite simply is not sustainable over time. All are necessary, and none alone or any pair is sufficient to ensure sustainability.

Sustainability requires that we look beyond the economics of short-run, self interest to the broader set of issues affecting quality of life or human well-being over time. This requires that we look past short-run self interest to consider the long run health and productivity of the natural ecosystem, not simply what we can get out of the land now. Sustainability also requires that we look beyond self interest to consider the well being of the community or society as a whole. The economics of self-interest is an important dimension of sustainability, but it is one among three. Things ecological, social, and economic must be considered as complimenting dimensions of the same whole, not as competing interests that can be pursued separately.

My assignment for you is to start thinking about these components of long-term sustainability and try to come up with examples. I found it easiest to come up with examples of what has proven sustainable, and what has not, by first looking at different farming techniques. Just be thinking….

I’ll get back to you with my thoughts soon, I promise!