originally published Nov. 22, 2010. The environment as metaphor for the economy
With the economy so out of balance, with more and more people making do with less and less, with what looks like very few people exploiting everyone else, some of us have begun wondering if it's time to start channeling Che.
Actually, I think it might be time to start channeling Rachel Carson.
Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, probably the single piece of writing most responsible for launching the environmentalist movement. She introduced us to the concept that we now know of as Ecology, the idea that forcing nature out of balance can have very serious consequences. The title refers to a projected future where there were no birds left to sing when Spring came.
Are you familiar with Easter Island? It's an isolated island with enormous ancient stone heads gazing out to sea. Given that they were not quarried nearby, to get them to their current site would have taken enormous manpower, but the island is very sparsely populated. How the heads could have gotten there was a mystery until recently. What archeologists figured out is that the island once had a large population but the people who lived there chopped down trees for fuel and building materials without replanting, or at least replanting at the same rate as harvesting. Eventually the island's resources could no longer support its population, so most of the people had to leave if they had any hope of surviving. When you exploit limited resources without replenishing them, that's what happens.
How did the business community react to environmental concerns? That depends. Initially, many business people didn't believe what they heard about the environment because it was more convenient and less expensive in the short term to believe such concerns were either exaggerated or an outright hoax. As time went on and the science behind such concerns gained credibility, more business people came on board. Some used environmental compliance to enhance public relations; some made money on developing, selling, and deploying environmentally friendly products and solutions; and some just used the inherent efficiencies of environmentally friendly solutions to save money. Environmental concerns went from being a business liability to a business asset.
Now we face a situation where our financial environment presents problems similar to those of our physical environment, with analogous consequences. Many of those who are in a position to strip its resources are doing so without bothering to replenish them - they view those resources as inexhaustable, just like we used to view natural resources. Unfortunately, neither is inexhaustable. As our middle class runs out of disposable income, our businesses will run out of customers. If what I wrote in my last post is true, that most Americans have at least three past due bills at any given time, we're far closer to the tipping point than we'd like to acknowledge. We're also not doing enough to insure our future. The percentage of high school students going on to college is shrinking and with it opportunities for them to make more money when they finish school, not to mention that we're wasting talent at a time when we need it.
There's one huge difference between the consequences of Easter Island and our own budding disaster: The Easter Island migration didn't affect all that much of the rest of the world, while a drop-off of demand from American consumers would do enormous damage to the world economy. We still buy more than anyone.
Businesses aren't as cute as baby seals or even whales but they're still awfully important. We need to save the financial environment and we need business allies. We need their help to grow the pie; what's in it for them is they can bring in more of the green and keep their piece of the pie. And so, at least initially, I'd call the movement
and say that we should all become financial environmentalists, experts in the budding field of Moneycology.
I don't know about you, but I want to leave a national legacy more impressive than a bunch of mysterious stone heads on a beach.
Save the jobs. Save the small businesses. Save the benefits. Save the scholarships. Save the customers.
Save our country.