The spectacular collapse of the $100 billion energy company Enron at the beginning of the 21st century offers a chilling illustration of our capacity for ignoring evidence in favor of comfortable self-delusion. The smartest financial analysts in the world’s most successful economy believed Enron’s managers’ wildly inflated valuations because they profited from that belief. In spite of abundant evidence to the contrary, Wall Street believed Enron represented $68 billion in assets because that belief temporarily benefited everyone – management, bankers and investors. For a time, skepticism profited no one. When those assets were finally called upon to generate cash, however, $68 billion in market value evaporated in just a few weeks.
It is not popular to suggest that our planetary assets are not sufficient to cover our long-term needs. No one is making a profit from skepticism. For that very reason, the value of those assets is likely being exaggerated. In fact, you can bet on it. In his 2009 book, Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, Lester Brown asserts that humanity is already consuming its “asset base,” and setting the stage for our global pyramid scheme to collapse around us. He points, in particular, to agriculture’s dependence on groundwater supplies. Our current levels of agricultural production are dependent on water pulled from aquifers that recharge very slowly, like the Ogallala aquifer under North America’s central plains. It’s economical – even cheap – to pump groundwater and create food until the aquifer is drained and our asset base is consumed. Then our fertile farms are suddenly barren. The pyramid collapses.
Comparisons between our exploitation of natural resources and Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme are popping everywhere these days.
So far, technology has accommodated and augmented population growth. We’ve seen our “green revolution” spread across the globe and feed the multitudes. The globe remains, however, a finite resource.
If we could create a planetary biological machine that would support an unlimited human population, eternal growth, then our current economic theories would equip us to create permanent human prosperity. But that mythical machine – effectively a perpetual-motion machine – is an impossible fantasy.
In the imagination, space travel offers a longer-term solution. One attraction of science fiction is its ability to extend the human frontier to the limits of the human imagination. Star Trek’s famed mission statement declaimed our potential to “explore strange new worlds and boldly go where no one has gone before.” If that were possible then our current economic theories and philosophies might carry us on, uninterrupted, to flourish across the universe. Unfortunately, right now our manned spacecraft can fly no farther than our own small, sterile moon.
At this point it looks as if our economic tools may become obsolete before we perfect intergalactic space travel. For the time being, good stewardship and economic invention are probably higher priorities than building a better spaceship.