The Arab state of Qatar is an example of resource extremes: while they have been able to tap extensive fossil fuel stores to create extreme economic wealth, they are a desert nation without water reserves or the capacity for domestic food production. Their need to import as much as 95% of their food makes food security a central priority. As a result, Qatari officials announced during a press conference at the Clinton Global Initiative's Annual Meeting in New York City last week, they have committed to increase domestic production by earmarking 2.8% of their GDP to develop solutions to increase water access and improve productivity of dry lands.
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The pursuit of a working invisibility cloak - like Harry Potter's - is underway in real life. Scientists have created a small invisibility cloak that uses metamaterials to divert light and another that uses optical camouflage technology. But we muggles (for anyone who slept through the last decade, that's Harry Potter's word for ordinary humans) don't really need to make more things invisible - the largest threats we face today are already invisible. So are the benefits in life. Modern life is rife with invisible threats. One way we have managed these threats (in other words, how we have adapted) has been to make them visible. For example, we have buoys floating in the deep ocean that can alert San Francisco or Los Angeles about a coming tsunami. Now we need similar innovations to help us perceive invisible economic benefits. Because when it comes to our economy and to measurement, we are often better at paying attention to what's visible.
Our economic activity is essentially about survival, about being able to manage risks, stay healthy, and find ways to renew our minds and spirits (recreate). These are the ends of economic activity, the goals. But our most important economic indicator, GDP, focuses on the means. It's easier to measure the monetary value of a car than the benefits that car provides.
If you have a car, it's probably because it's a tool you can use to get to work, to the doctor's office, to the grocery store, and to your favorite activities. The value in that car is not in its price tag, it's in its use as a tool for managing risk, maintaining health, and for recreation. We do need to consider the visible, tangible aspect of the car, but not in the way we are now. We need to measure its mass. And then we need to consider the invisible, intangible benefits of that car. Finally, we need to understand the relationship between the visible and the invisible - between the mass of the tools we use (cars, houses, electronics) and the benefits those tools provide. Our aim should be to create the most benefit possible with the least mass possible.
There are several organizations working to illuminate the invisible aspects of our economy and to develop alternative indicators (you can find links to some of them here and here), and more nations are exploring ways to measure well-being. But we're not quite there. We need to make the connection between a measure of benefits and an indication of the resources (mass) used to create those benefits.
Trying to locate the economy, even in a simple, conceptual way, sheds a lot of light on what's important and why we struggle with major problems. Being lost, even just for a few minutes, can be anxiety-inducing and disorienting. People generally like to know where they are. Actually, we kind of like knowing where everything is. The first thing explorers do is make maps. Today, we have Google Earth and GPS devices so we can pinpoint the location of anything, even ourselves.
Knowing where something is located is useful if you want to make money, or spend money, or make a trade, or find a resource. Everything and everyone has a location. Those of us who work in cyberspace even have an "address."
But, on a grander scale, where is all of this activity - working, exchanging, spending money, mining - happening? In other words, where is our economy located?
Going by what I learned in economics, I would say... Well, I wouldn't be able to answer the question. The economy just is. It exists. Somewhere. Does it really matter?
As it turns out, it does matter. In fact, trying to locate the economy, even in a simple, conceptual way, sheds a lot of light on what's important and why we struggle with major problems.
Everything (with the possible exception of the universe itself) fits into something larger. We refer to this "something" as environment. Whether you're trying to understand cells, complex organizations, entire species, automobile engines, human behavior, or geology, you have to understand that thing's environment.
Economies are no different. They must be understood in relation to their environment. Unfortunately, we have a tendency to think of economy and environment separately. This leaves economies to seemingly exist in a vacuum.
The fact is that human activity takes place within and depends on the biosphere, a complex system that determines climate and weather, controls and manages the chemical composition of the air we breathe, cleans, desalinates, and distributes the water we need, manufactures soil and fossil fuels, and filters cosmic radiation so we can live safely. In order to create wealth, we "use" resources from the biosphere. When we use resources, we generate waste, which returns to the biosphere. How can we make good decisions about resources and waste when our basic economic model essentially ignores the foundation on which everything depends?
The answer is we can't make good decisions over the long term if we think that economies exist independent of our environment. Viewing human industry as distinct and separate from natural systems has led us to believe that the laws governing the behavior of and determining the success and failure of all living systems do not apply to economic systems. The underlying assumption has been anything goes.
When there were fewer people and seemingly limitless resources, we got by. But we're discovering that we need a better way to think about these things. In fact, with a different perspective, we're discovering new opportunities.