Take a look at these pictures of soil erosion that I took right here this week in relatively-progressive Vermont. I’ll just sprinkle them in liberally here…
It’s quite the string of pictures. These farmers plowed last fall, as they do every year. Since then it has rained enough times, and hard enough, to cause this. Tons and tons of fertile soil are GONE. Then, this coming year, I’m guessing these fields will get plowed (or disked) and harrowed again, and the remaining soil will be spread around so that these gullies are filled in, and… then the same erosion will happen again, a year from now. Year after year after year, more topsoil washing away. The loss will probably even accelerate—the plowing reduces the carbon content of the soil, and soil with less carbon holds less water, and that causes yet more runoff and erosion (more details about this process in this post from last year, “The Promise of Permaculture Part One“.)
Worse, I see this exact same thing ALL THE TIME, all over the country. Now, the farmers aren’t bad people, they’re just trying to make a living as best they can, and would surely like to stop this washing-away-of-the-soil, and it probably makes them heartsick to see scenes like these. But perhaps they don’t have the systems, knowledge, or equipment to do things differently, so such damage just becomes a price that they pay.
So let’s take a short side trip, and discuss some economic principles involved in these situations. I would call this erosion a “negative externality”, but it’s not a typical example that you might see in an economics textbook. The typical externality works like this—two parties agree to a voluntary trade, and they both benefit from it (or they wouldn’t have both agreed to the trade). As an example, let’s say the two parties are a copper mine and a computer company, and the computer company buys copper from the mine, and they’re both happy with their transaction. But the copper mine does damage as it operates—maybe it happens to pile up tailings, and rainwater runs through them, and this pollutes a stream and local groundwater, and people who live nearby are impacted in a negative way, with their health, with their property values, or because the fish are dead in the stream and they can’t fish any more. So what has happened here is that the copper mine has externalized some of its costs. They have bills that they aren’t going to pay, so to speak. Because of this, the price of the copper they sell is lower than it should be, as it doesn’t reflect the true costs. The computer company buying the copper pays part of the total cost, and local people, external to this transaction, pay the rest.
Externalities like this that cause harm (and these are the most common type) are called “negative” externalities for this reason. They are a form of market failure, and here’s why—if the mining company decided to do the thing that would protect the environment, and installed holding ponds and wastewater treatment equipment so that they could quit polluting local waters, then they would have to increase the cost of their product. If they did this, their buyers would likely buy copper from other mines that did pollute, but that had cheaper prices. So it’s a market failure, because normal market pressures, which normally result in a lot of really good things for everyone (cheaper prices, more availability of goods, higher quality goods, better customer service, etc.), in this case make things worse. There is an incentive, perhaps even an imperative, for the copper mining company to do the thing that is bad for society.
Now, the best solution to negative externalities is nearly always government regulation. In this case, legislators could pass a law that says that you can’t operate a mine with open tailings without installing holding ponds and wastewater treatment equipment. Bingo—no more pollution, no more market advantage from doing the wrong thing. In fact, with proper fines and enforcement, regulation can result in huge pressures for companies to do the RIGHT thing (and, once forced, they usually get their PR companies involved and play up how “green” they are).
Now—back to soil erosion. Soil erosion has all the making of a negative externality, but with a slight twist. Two parties make a voluntary transaction (the farmer sells a crop in return for money from, say, a food distributor). Both parties are happy, but a third party—in this case people in the future, are going to pay a price. A big price. Market pressures make it difficult for farmers to do things differently—food crops are a commodity—#2 yellow-dent corn is #2 yellow-dent corn—regardless of which farm grows it. So if the farmer spends money to use methods that conserve the soil, especially if those methods are slightly less efficient, then the market will force him out. He will be bankrupt.
But this brings up a question. The farmers are making money, despite the erosion. They could probably farm in ways that degrade the soil for decades before the soil was damaged to the point that crops wouldn’t grow. They own the land, so it’s their soil, right? And we live in a free country? So if they want to cash in their soil for temporary profits, they should be able to?
I say no. The problem isn’t that it’s a few farms ruining their soil, it’s that ALL the farms, all over the world, use methods that will eventually ruin their soil, which will undermine our very existence. At some point in the not-too-distant future, humanity (and all the life on the planet) will need the soil, and we just won’t have enough of it. Soil can sometimes be improved, but it is virtually impossible to make from scratch on a large scale.
Because of this, farming in ways that cause soil erosion should be, literally and figuratively, a crime. And I’m not ACTUALLY suggesting that we outlaw soil erosion, because it’s only one of a million things that we humans are doing that will harm future generations, but I do think that it is something that we need to think about much more than we do today.
Perhaps, rather than trying to write legislation, we should somehow provide incentives to help farmers shift to farming methods like intensive silvopasture. Or, to fund research for carbon farming methods in general. These methods involve trees, tree crops, grazing, perennials, forage, biomass to be harvested—all at the same time soil fertility GROWS. No plowing required.
As we used to say in the Marine Corps– fight smarter, not harder.