The State of the Planet? Dismal

As I mentioned on Thursday, I attended the State of the Planet conference, hosted by The Earth Institute and The Economist magazine at Columbia University in New York.

I will try to give you some tidbits of information from the conference without making you run out and commit suicide immediately, just to save the world from over-population. According to some experts, it is too late for that anyway.

On poverty

As I mentioned in this blog last week, Kofi Annan opened the conference. To really get things going, he summarized the state of the planet as “dismal.” Among other things, Annan mentioned that even though the Millennium Villages program has been doing a great job, there are still 200 million people in Africa who go to sleep hungry every night.

On that note, Erik Reinert, author of the book How Rich Countries Get Rich and Why Poor Countries Stay Poor, said that the problem with hunger in Africa is there is too much focus on agriculture and food production. I liked the paradox he used: “Famine occurs in those places in the world that specialize in producing food.” The most efficient farmers are actually in places where industry is much more prevalent and where people tend to die of overeating (US, Europe). At the same time, Europe and the US need state subsidies for agriculture. Same paradox applies to countries low in natural resources. They are usually the ones that get rich.

The two main reasons for conflict in the world are scarcity of local resources and scarcity of global resources. Mineral-dependent countries are the ones most prone to conflict (think Sierra Leone, Middle East…). For example, in Peru, one in every two people live on $2/day. However, in the “rich” mining areas, most people live on less than $1/day. The poor allocation of resources is what they call the ‘resource curse.’

Reinert also argued that we are not helping Africa much by “simply giving.” Giving water to the people “who say they need water” is one of the least effective ways to give. He said we need to learn how to teach them how to prevent these problems in the future, not just trying to fix the symptoms of those problems. Which brings me to my next point…

Climate Change

Africa’s landscape and climate has already been affected by global warming. Plants that used to grow in some regions no longer grow there because some areas have simply become too dry or mineral depleted. Different types of fish have already migrated north.

Experts, however, remain optimistic on climate change. At least those who believe that progress and innovation are the cure for everything. “One hundred years ago, the problem in Manhattan was horse crap,” said one of the panelists. Apparently, so many people used horses, there was literally horse droppings everywhere (not just all around Central Park as now). Back then, the alarmists used to say that the planet would end because it would be buried in horse crap. It didn’t. Instead, people invented a car.

The point being, of course, that now we are at the stage where we fear the car is the source of our imminent doom. Instead, we need to encourage innovation and let R&D experts come up with better alternatives to the car. Here, I especially enjoyed the not-so-popular argument of Vinod Khosla, founder of Sun Microsystems and, hence, a billionaire, who said the US is going to solve the world’s climate change problem. “Who else is going to do it?” he said. “The UN in useless. Europe is even more useless.” Ouch.

Jeffrey Sachs, economist and head of the Earth Institute, closed the conference by saying that the world has changed to the point that America can no longer put its national interests ahead of international interests. That could be a problem. As Sachs said, “Part of America’s founding principles is that you don’t have to love your neighbor.” If we want to get anywhere in the next few years, that attitude will apparently have to change.

You can watch video of the entire event here.

Photos: Courtesy of The Earth Institute.