Taken in Mar de Cortez, Baja California Sur, Mexico. —Cecilia Simon, 2014 Fellow


Resources about the practice of market-based conservation.

In a four-part series, James G. Workman explains the three paradoxes that obstruct water conservation: value, efficiency, and monopoly. Water efficiency credits can become a conservation currency with a simple, self-interested, formula for success: Earn + Own + Trade = Restore.

In April 2001, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney famously trashed the idea of doing more with less: “Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue,” he said, “but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy.”

It pains my conscience to admit it, but more than a decade later it seems he’s right. To save water and energy and build deep-seated resilience from the grassroots level up, cities need to start tapping into a far deeper human instinct: avarice.

Yes, yes. I know that sounds rather crass, even for me, but hear me out.

We can agree that climate mitigation demands clean energy; likewise climate adaptation demands efficient water use. Building on that, we all know that water and energy conservation remains by far the fairest, fastest, cheapest and cleanest route to global security. It restores a resilient society, a stable climate, an autonomous foreign policy and a robust economy while avoiding political land mines of regulations, carbon taxes or cap-and-trade treaties.

The only drawback to conservation is that it requires sacrifice from the richest and most powerful citizens, businesses, and political interest groups. Arguing for more virtue from these elites simply won’t do the trick, as Aldo Leopold warned in 1948 and as we have seen for the past few decades (or for that matter, millennia).

The good news is that today, technology promises to deliver the same result based on a radical form of conservation that leverages their (and, yes, our own) inner greed.

Why? Because in any democracy, urban conservation must reach beyond Prius-hybrid-carpooling-farmers’-market-hemp-bag-toting-vegan-cardigan-sweater-wearing pillars of society.

It needs at least 51 percent. That includes flawed people (including yours truly) who blast air-conditioning and take long hot showers.

This not-so-moral majority consumes more water and energy than it needs to. It feels vaguely guilty. Still, it could take comfort in a dirty little secret long known by insiders and now more widely recognized by the public: virtue-driven conservation is economically unsustainable.

Wait. As humans save resources, we lower bills, reduce effect and avoid sanctions, right? Not necessarily –thanks to the absolute natural monopoly that is our local water and energy utility.

But as we have seen in the case of urban water, it turns out utilities’ conservation directors showcase conservation programs touting conservation rebates, but quietly pray like hell that no one will conserve.

Instead, like any enterprise, a utility’s operating income depends on mass consumption. The more combined water and energy people waste, the more money utilities have to work with.

So people cut consumption by half, monopoly utilities must unilaterally double rates per gallon or kilowatt-hour to balance operating costs. After a dip, monthly utility bills rise back, higher than ever.

Happily, new information technologies may lead us out of this destructive and dangerous spiral of perverse incentives. The Internet can unlock authentic, sustainable, comprehensive conservation policies that eluded Cheney. How? By borrowing from the Xaro system of the Bushmen; from successful “catch shares” programs in recovering fisheries; and from a national idea used back in the 1990s to cut acid rain causing sulfur dioxide emissions that were killing lakes and forests: tradable credits.

Here’s how some say it could work to encourage real, meaningful conservation:

  1. First, encourage monopoly utilities to convert messy physical water or energy into cleanly defined virtual credits.
  2. Next allocate equal incentives for online conservation of metered assets – direct or proportional rewards earned for keeping below their historic thresholds —to every residential, commercial and industrial account.
  3. Then let us trade whatever we don’t consume to those who want more.

These online platforms could unlock virtual urban water markets within natural monopolies, working to reward voluntary frugality, efficiency and innovation.

The trick is not trying to improve on human nature, or make everyone extra virtuous, but to leverage our innate sin. If one person consumed less, she could sell unused shares to another, to businesses or to the utility for a cash profit.

Under this defined rule of transparent governance, greed makes green. Pride in higher wealth and status would compel me to use even less just to keep up –a benevolent consequence of envy.

This approach unlocks a truly durable and sustainable path, and does so by going beyond virtue.

Indeed, to unlock a robust water conservation policy, water districts need only tap our inner vice.

About the Author

James G. Workman (2005 Fellow) is a leader in the design and execution of natural resource conservation markets for water, fisheries, forest and energy. He is author of Heart of Dryness: How the Last Bushmen Can Help Us Endure the Coming Age of Permanent Drought, which won the prestigious Rachel Carson Award for best book of the year from the Society of Environmental Journalists, and co-author with Amanda Leland of the forthcoming The Quiet Sea Change: How America’s Hunter Gatherers Are Transforming the Rules of the Wild. He has been a visiting professor at Whitman Colleague and Wesleyan University’s College of the Environment, and co-founded AquaJust, an online utility-based platform that unlocks equitable water markets for cities using the system that has sustained the Kalahari’s indigenous people for 30,000 years. James is a Kinship Conservation Faculty member.

" ... a utility’s operating income depends on mass consumption. The more combined water and energy people waste, the more money utilities have to work with."