For centuries, technology has allowed people to make spectacular strides in doing more with less. The ultimate resource is human ingenuity, according to economist Julian Simon, and it’s renewable to boot. For centuries, doomsayers have predicted catastrophe based on overpopulation. Yet, time and again, the predictions have fallen flat thanks in large part to technological innovation.
The Washington Policy Center’s Todd Myers has coined the phrase “smartphone environmentalism” to describe how technology that we all carry around every day will enable us to dramatically improve environmental outcomes. Smartphones have dramatically lowered the price of gathering, accessing, and interpreting information. And they’ve empowered everyone to act on that new, nearly free information to make better choices for themselves and the environment. Cell phones enable us to access the internet anywhere, anytime, letting us be better informed consumers. They also can be used to measure air quality in Utah, track bird migration to coordinate the timing of popup wetlands, and create new opportunities for outdoor recreation.
Smartphones can help us make important environmental strides in the developed world, but they’re even more revolutionary in the developing world, where one of the most pressing environmental problems is the lack of secure property rights. In much of the developed world, many people live and work on land that is government owned. They rely on informal rights. People use public lands because they always have. Lands subject to open access, making these informal rights fragile, enforced through tribal, communal, or other informal means.
When governments don’t recognize and embrace the benefits of clear private property rights, they leave people in limbo about what they have and their rights going forward. This makes it more difficult to plan for the future and shift incentives towards shorter term benefits and away from the longer term. Insecure property rights also make it more difficult for some of the world’s poorest people to get access to credit, which is vital to accessing new technology that can dramatically increase their productivity and incomes.
Suppose you’re a farmer without clear title to the land that you’ve traditionally worked. You’d like to use a new seed technology or farming technique that will increase your productivity and allow you to forego razing forest to convert it to farmland. But those innovations require a substantial cost up front for a larger payoff in the future. If you’re not certain you’ll be able to capture those long-term benefits, you’ll be hesitant to take that risk. But you won’t get that far if you can’t raise the capital to make the investment in the first place. But to get access to capital, you need some form of collateral.
At Learn Liberty, Karol Boudreaux describes a company called LandMapp that uses the GPS devices in smartphones to help Ghanian farmers map and document their customary rights to land. The company provides documentation of these rights that can be used to provide increased certainty about the future and potential access to capital markets. The company demonstrates the incredible potential for entrepreneurs to use the technology we all carry to develop private solutions to government failure, including by securing property rights.
The individual people taking advantage of these new opportunities will not be the only beneficiaries. We all benefit in countless indirect and difficult-to-measure ways from innovation, including through improved environmental outcomes.