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LVT, the Key to Conservation Biology?

“The Earth is our home. Unless we preserve the rest of life, as a sacred duty, we will be endangering ourselves by destroying the home in which we evolved, and on which we completely depend.” ― E. O. Wilson

A mass extinction is underway, we know this. 60% of vertebrate populations have been lost since 1970. American biologist E.O. Wilson argued half of Earth needs to be set aside to avoid mass species extinction, including humans. 

OK, nature needs half, so where are we at now? Well, presently 17% of land is protected. At the COP 15 Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), 196 countries pledged to conserve 30 percent of lands and oceans by 2030. 

Conservation Biology: The rewilding of extensive core protected areas interconnected by wildlife corridors to allow life to continue at an evolutionary scale. 

Historically, parks were easily established using land with little or no commercial or residential value, but this low hanging fruit is gone. These days, when hippy freaks try to save some land, a high-pitched battle usually ensues. Preserving nature is now invariably a messy, expensive, political power-play. 

Parks: New parks are still being created but only where support is high and opposition low. Residents and lease holders are expropriated and compensated. Neighboring landowners are often in favor; they know new parks raise local land values rewarding them with unearned, tax-free windfalls. The economics goes like this: distant taxpayers are tapped to finance the park, but Christmas comes early for the local landed gentry.

Land Trusts: Land is preserved by donation or purchase supported by generous government tax breaks. While less politically charged than establishing new parks, land trusts require substantial financial support from governments, philanthropic organizations and individuals. The process is haphazard, slow and expensive.

New parks and land trust accumulations, though significant, will come up far short of E. O. Wilson’s minimum requirement of leaving half of Earth for nature. A quantum leap is needed, and the key to this leap is land value taxation. 

Land Value Taxation: Land taxes lower the cost of purchasing land. Under LVT, in lieu of servicing a bank mortgage (capital plus interest), the new owner is charged only the rental value. Like leasing a car, the upfront cost of land is replaced by monthly payments, but without interest. When the full rental value of land is collected by governments, the upfront cost of land drops to near zero. 

Land is often underused because the upfront purchase system doesn’t incentivize land efficiency. The elegance of LVT is that it captures the rental value of land (ignoring buildings), while rewarding continual optimization plus disincentivizing land banking.

Suburban Sprawl: LVT socializes speculative gains, removing the incentive to hold land for future gains. The tax man ignores buildings incenting landowners to build more housing on less land. Both mechanisms shrink cities and towns, making extensive swaths of land available to be set aside for nature.

Retail and Industrial Sprawl: Industries and retailers presently have little incentive to use land efficiently. Since LVT assesses only the rental value of land, commercial landowners will quickly sell unnecessary holdings. Additionally, LVT includes shifting income and business taxes onto land rendering owning underused land prohibitively expensive. Nature wins again.

Agricultural Sprawl: The absence of incentives to use farm land up to its full potential results in farmland sprawl. Rental value capture eliminates farmland speculation, reduces pressure to drain wetlands and remove hedgerows and woodlots, and encourages releasing marginal land back to nature. By untaxing jobs and improvements, LVT would bias towards land-efficient, labor-intensive, value-added farming, allowing for the rewilding of vast tracts of marginal farmland.

Mining Sprawl: Natural resources are gifts of nature owned by all citizens. Capturing the rental value of resources (to finance government programs in lieu of taxes on jobs, businesses and sales) would eliminate monopoly super profits and incent reuse, recycling, repair, repurposing, allowing redundant mines and quarries to revert to wildlife habitat.

Water, air and the fecundity of the land sustains us and all other life forms. While it is self-evident that we hold the Earth in common, it is not yet self-evident that we must share generously with other species. 

Our economic traditions unfairly allow individuals, institutions and businesses to monopolize aspects of the Global Commons, in effect privatizing public wealth. This plundering of common wealth results in the degradation and the destruction of the habitat of fellow creatures.

The remedy is to move the source of government revenue off jobs, sales and businesses and instead, finance government programs by collecting the unearned income that accrues to desirable commodities like oil, minerals, water, fish, clean air, trees, land, the EM spectrum and public infrastructure; the wealth that economists call “economic rent”.

Taxes should be on the use and abuse of nature. LVT will dramatically reduce the human footprint on the earth. After LVT is applied, land trusts will readily be able to re-wild vast amounts of land, and governments can forgive payments on ecological reserves. LVT will put planetary conservation biology within reach.

Land and natural resources are held in common by the citizenry but also belong to future generations and other species. When the community grants ownership to land or exclusive access of resources to a business or individual, the community should be recompensed. 

The wealth of the Earth can and should be shared equitably. Land and water is our birthright, but also the birthright of other species. LVT is a market mechanism that would result in economic equity, re-invigorated economies, and the conservation and preservation of our heritage: the Global Commons.

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