A question of ownership?

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Mar 6, 2015 Comments Off Ken Bell


“Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well-informed just to be undecided about them”

(Conklin 2006)


Almost a decade ago, I sat on the board of Stewardship Kent, a dedicated group of environmentally minded farmers, landowners and communicators. The group had an organized structure and, most importantly, a paid coordinator, Don Hector who worked tirelessly at writing grants, co-developing projects, arranging meetings and planning new initiatives. Don, now retired, was an MNR civil servant and his position was created and funded by the Province of Ontario. Sadly, that funding has disappeared.


These stewardship groups were formed across the province, each with a paid coordinator and focused on recreating and maintaining things like Tallgrass Prairie, buffer strips, woodlands, riparian features, wetland habitat and natural shoreline stabilization. Since the defunding of the Ontario Stewardship initiative, local Conservation Authorities, like the Lower Thames and some independent groups have taken up some of the work.

During my time with Stewardship Kent, Don introduced us to the concept of Ecological Goods and Services (EG&S) as practiced in Ontario under the ALUS (Alternative Land Use Service) program adopted by Dave Reid, another Stewardship coordinator in Norfolk County.


EG&S is practiced in many countries, under various modes. Through private enterprise and national direction in Madagascar and Kenya, provincial funding in Prince Edward Island  and through Corporate sponsorship in Norfolk and Bayham and Grey Bruce Counties  A National resource  gives a clearer view of the national scope.


EG&S has two main components. The first being the identification and valuation of specific things in the environment that help us either directly or indirectly, maintain our culture and our lives. Things like, fresh air, clean water, food, fiber genetic diversity are referred to as “Goods” that are produced by ecological “Services”, like climate stabilization, water and air purification, erosion control, pest control and pollination.


An ecological assessment, identifies pre-existing Goods and Services and threats like, disruption of natural cycles, invasive species, habitat loss, and pollution.

The central idea of EG&S, is that; when we replace disrupted ecological services, what is the cost?


“They’re making more people every day, but they ain’t making’ any more dirt.”


The second, and admittedly wicked component of EG&S is; Who pays? We all benefit from ecosystem goods and the services that create them, and yet, we enjoy a quality of life that allows the very introspection required for a critique of the costs of that quality. It places us, in the unenviable position of being both beneficiaries and victims of ecological collapse. A number of solutions to the quandary are informed by regional culture and values.


In a 2006 paper, “Clumsy Solutions for a Complex World: The Case of Climate Change” Marco Verweij, et. al. discuss four primary ways of organizing, perceiving, and justifying social relations:

(1) egalitarianism, whereby benefits from ecological goods and services need to be equitably distributed, and the precautionary principle employed;

(2) hierarchy, in which nature has limits that require experts (e.g., scientists and managers) to discover and promote regulatory activity to keep society within these limits;

(3) individualism, whereby solutions to social problems lie in self-organization and unfettered markets; and

(4) fatalism, in which actors tend to have a “not-my-problem” view toward solving dilemmas and will defect in commons situations because of a lack of mutual responsibility, trust, and faith in proposed solutions .


Here, in Southern Ontario many rural landowners tend towards individualistic pragmatism, with a tendency towards fatalism, when facing the realities of ecological damage, or collapse. There is however a persistent growing movement to establish, or perhaps re-establish a “Land Ethic” that combines the best elements of individualism and pragmatism within a “Stewardship” context.

To preserve a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise. Aldo Leopold.

Through the necessity of developing public policy, based on measurement, we need to first identify who benefits from EG&S and who has compromised those benefits, and by how much.


A Modest Proposal


In a recent Blackburn News Article:

writer Simon Crouch, identifies areas of decreased snow drifting where trees or woodlands line the road, then he makes a “Modest Proposal”. Rather than “…take away landowner rights to their property and force them to keep the trees...” we could, “…all compensate farmers for growing trees along roads if they are willing to...”

Ethics aside, this is in fact, one of the things Kent County used to do, on its own road allowance. So questions comes to mind, How much? and for How Long? What about places with abundant forest cover or traditional prairie, like Dover? But, it seems the question being begged here is, is snow removal on rural roads the responsibility of landowners or drivers? There are economic problems associated with long term payments for things people presently, in other areas of the world, and formerly, get for free.


Nemo dat quod non habet

“no one gives what he doesn’t have”

 The first part of EG&S, assessment and valuation is a complex, but fairly a strait forward technical process that scientists and managers can conduct to order and value the restoration requirements of damaged ecological infrastructure. The second part, establishing the appropriate social relations to the damage presents political and structural complexity that is often afforded by some perspective. So, perhaps an analogy can illustrate and simplify a similar problem.

Imagine a European city of the early 19th century, where everyone had their washed clothing and bedsheets air dried, outside on a clothesline. One day, a new coal powered factory was built and provided gainful employment for 10% of the residents, tax revenue for the city fathers and handsome profits for the factory owners. Over time, people all across the city begin to notice their clothes getting darker and smelling of coal tar. The many laundry houses began to lose profits, as the more affluent sent their dirty clothes to neighboring villages, by the wagonload.

A council was convened to examine the problem and possible solutions were presented, including a new, but expensive method of scrubbing the coal soot from the factory stacks. Some of the solutions included, ignoring the clothing problem, raising everyone’s taxes and buying the new scrubber for the factory, imposing a clothesline tax to pay for the scrubber, requiring the factory to install a scrubber at its own cost, through legislation, and legislating a scrubber plus lowering the factories taxes to cover the costs.

After long hours of discussion and testimonies from laundry owner, factory owners and commoners who remembered the cleaner air, a city accountant, a man with 30 years of service who lived through two wars, reminded everyone of similar discussions after the damage caused by the revolution. He went on to explain how, without reparations, their city would have been crippled for decades. When challenged with the word “duty”, he replied:

“Yes, we gave the blood of our sons, but the loss of our city took the livelihoods of their families. Was it their duty to starve?”

After some discussion, it became clear to most that the people shouldn’t have to pay for what they already had and that those who do damage, are responsible for its repair. The people need clean air, just as they need the freedom to decide their own future.

It was decided, though not unanimously, that the factory was required to undo its air pollution, at its own cost. For a while, the prices of its products rose and the wages of the 10% lowered, but over time, as other cities adopted similar laws, wages and prices stabilized, the air remained clean and the ladies bonnets remained white as new snow.

What this simple analogy demonstrates is the concept of pre-existing ownership of a common good. When, like with stolen property, that good disappears, the social ownership relations remain intact. In the instance of a particular good, like a shirt, or a 2 by 4, the chain of ownership is clear up to the point of the support infrastructure that provided the initial log or the summer rains that water the cotton. So, what is it that we actually own? The air, the water, the trees? No!

What each human being owns is a relationship to the environment and to each other and when that relationship is diminished or damaged, by another human being we own the common right of reparation and restitution. We won’t get that by asking.

So, for you, who like me, may occasionally wonder why we persist in pushing against “Tradition” or someone else’s definition of “Progress” I’d like to pass along another quote from Aldo Leopold , “Nonconformity is the highest evolutionary attainment of social animals“- “A Sand County Almanac”.


Ken Bell


Ken Bell