Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Forests and Philanthropy

Word from the Wired Science Blog is that a group of professors have taken some important steps toward figuring out what it would cost to pay tropical landowners NOT to cut down their forests.

The professors, economists and ecologists, figure there's real value in preventing deforestation. And they figure that one practical way to prevent it is to pay "rent" on standing forests.

According to their numbers (which seem optimistic to me, given that they don't include oversight and enforcement costs), a USD 30 billion investment over 20 years would cut world tropical deforestation in half, a carbon sink equivalent of eliminating 1/3 of total US greenhouse gas emissions.

The question of who should and who does recognize that value comes up of course, and the professors that did the calculations figure that "a carbon market based on internationally accepted pollution constraints" ought to do the trick. Failing that, they reckon "members of international climate treaties could fund the projects directly."

I 100% agree that there's huge value in preventing deforestation. Carbon sink value. Biodiversity value. Weather pattern stabilization value. Economic botany value. Tourism value. Beauty value. Peace of mind value. Etc.

I recognize the weirdness of paying someone not to do something. I think it would probably be more economically honest to charge loggers or landowners for damage they do to public resources (the atmosphere, the planet's biodiversity, etc.). But I acknowledge the practicality of the "rent" solution, so, regardless of weirdness, I fully support it.

When we come to the question of who should pay, however, I'd rather not rely on international carbon markets or semi-independently acting governments. Not right away at least.

That's partly because I don't understand carbon economics well enough to have confidence in the responsible disbursement of the money the markets collect. It's party because I don't think enough people know enough or care enough (yet) to motivate democratically elected politicians to allocate billions of dollars to something as distant from this month's rent bill as deforestation prevention. And it's partly because I've grown (over the past 8 years, the first 8 years I've ever paid more than fleeting attention) to expect constant, heavy doses of dishonesty and incompetence from governments.

So, instead of relying on the public sector to protect our forests, I think it might be worth seeing what the philanthropic sector can do.

Obviously, it's crazy to ask nonprofits to come up with USD 30 billion, and, granted, nonprofits have their own problems with efficiency and transparency. But I think they have an essential advantage over government in this situation.

Nonprofits, by nature, take a much more long term view of things than elected politicians. Nonprofits answer only to small groups of wealthy donors that have the luxury of not fretting about the short term. They operate independently of the instant gratification instincts of the general electorate (think knee jerk desires for government mitigation of rising energy prices). And, thus, they can innovate. They can get ahead of the curve. They can invest in the future without being blamed for ignoring the present.

Suggesting that we push important work into the fickle philanthropic world makes me feel like my grandfather the Rockefeller Republican, and it does give me pause to associate myself with a dying government ideology, but in a world in which have George Soros, Warren Buffett, and a Gates Foundation, I think we ought to at least try to get this ball rolling without government involvement.

So I say forget the USD 30 billion for now. Find some fancy donors that are ready to throw down a few million, and deploy that capital immediately. Choose a high risk forest. Pay some landowners to stop deforesting. Take responsibility for protecting the space. And hire someone to keep an eye on things.*

It's certainly not an optimal solution, but why wait for governments to try to get their acts together? Go run some pilot projects and learn some lessons. And then go to the governments, and convince them to hire you and your successful track record to run some more projects.

Maybe this is happening already. Or, if not, maybe something similar is. I know the Tompkins, Patagonia founder Kris and her husband North Face founder Doug are working on something not dissimilar down in Chile and Argentina, but maybe there's more.

Anyone heard of anything? Have any opinions on which organizations would be best suited to doing this? Want to explain to me why I everything I just wrote is totally wrong?

*Note: Here's where this idea really takes a turn for the ridiculous, but might this be a good use for Blackwater-type private armies? I mean wouldn't it be kind of cool to, by paying them the big bucks, turn the world's mercenary thugs into the keepers of our most valuable natural resources? Hmmm. Probably not my best idea ever, but you never know...


steve goodman said...

Not long ago at all, the US government paid farmers not to farm so as to keep domestically grown food prices (somewhat) high and supply down. Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz eliminated this policy in 1973, but there's certainly precedent to pay people not to do things.

I think you've stumbled upon the ultimate dream of G. Gordon Liddy and other anti-government extremists - privatize the whole world. It makes sense within the culture of capitalism, because then someone is responsible/invested in all aspects of the material world.

Right now, the US government plays that role for public land and resources, but the government is both slower and more fluid than private interests. The entire direction of the government can shift in a day, but once a particular decision is made, like opening up offshore drilling, it takes a relatively long time to reverse. In comparison, private equity should be much more agile and dedicated to a vision.

The real question is who has the capital, the Sierra Club, or Kingsford Charcoal? Should that be left up to market forces?

Jake de Grazia said...

I guess it's fair to say that I'm doing a little Liddy-leaning here, but I can't imagine myself falling in close with main stream anti-gov extremists.

I've always felt a sneaky insincerity from those folks. They just don't seem to be in search of a meaningfully better world. They reckon a world with minimal government is a reasonably good one and one in which they can find a pocket of abundance and settle down comfortably, so they don't extend their creativity beyond achieving that. They don't seek to continually improve things. They easily accept a lot of inevitability, easily accept a lot of good for bad tradeoffs, and that's a worry to me.

But maybe that's unfair of me. Maybe there do exist highly idealistic libertarians. And maybe they're more main stream than I know. They certainly aren't telling much of a utopian story at the moment, however.

Not that main stream big gov people are either. Hmmm.

And, as for who has the capital, no question about it the philanthropic sector is comparatively poor, but we shouldn't forget that we are living in the Gates Foundation era, and there do exist some generously liquid capitalists out there, people that might get inspired to do crazy things like hire private armies to protect vulnerable forests.