The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sponsored this institute and it was spearheaded by none other than former Vice President Al Gore.
It was during that period that I read his book Earth in the Balance. Another book also shared my bedside table at that time--the cult classic Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams. The book was Adams' account of the adventures of a hapless Englishman who escapes the demolition of Earth by bureaucratic aliens.
The book dissected the absurdity of our civilization through the eyes of aliens. Believe it or not, both books had a lot in common. They both required the reader to take a healthy, honest and humble step back and take a good look at our planet--our landlord and kind host.
Our landlord is currently hosting 6.7 billion of us--51 percent are boys and 49 percent are girls. Every year, we celebrate 80 million new birthdays and, sadly, we attend 55 million funerals. This planet is 71 percent water and 29 percent land--that's 37 billion acres of real estate, less than 2 percent of which one can grow food on.
We seem to continually debate as to whether, as tenants, we have the most stellar maintenance record: pollution, soil degradation, mineral depletion and animal and plant species extinction being among our many faults. Some data suggest that at minimum 25 million acres of our arable land is being eaten up annually.
Based on my rough math, when Adams wrote his book in 1979, three earthlings could be fed by one acre of this farmland. When I actually read the book in 1993, we were up to five earthlings.Today, 10 people are depending on that same acre. In 20 years, 45 inhabitants of this planet will be beholden to that same single acre.
I wonder what Adams would write now? It is impossible not to argue that the land-use issue could be the mother of all global risks. We know it and we see it every time we drive by that expansive new mall that sprouted overnight. Do we feel we can outrun this problem?
I believe that the residents of Earth are essentially good and obedient creatures. We follow rules and we trust they are correct. But let's ask ourselves, if living capital shrinks and the population that depends on it continues to grow ...?
Economies are fueled by growth and a belief that a system of free markets is an efficient way to run an economy, that is, if all the prices are right. But are we pricing the use of our natural capital fairly?
Something appears to be amiss. According to the macroeconomists William J. Baumol and Alan S. Blinder, "When a firm pollutes a river, it uses some of society's resources just as surely as when it burns coal. However, if the firm pays for coal but not for the use of clean water, management will be economical in its use of coal and wasteful in its use of water."
The classic adage is if you get something for free, you tend to waste it.
In terms of our landlord's assets, the free markets don't seem to price it right. We need to quickly adjust the rules and price indices so we can create life-serving economies that serve and are accountable to people, not the reverse. It is only fair to our landlord and incredibly prudent for us earthlings.
the former risk manager for a global energy company, is a specialist in Enterprise Risk Management methods and implementation techniques for ERM Quickstart.
May 1, 2009
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