Friday, June 11, 2010

The Poverty of Nations and the Visible Hand...of?

Boarding the plane in Dalanzadgad for our return flight to Ulaanbaatar, I ascended the stairs behind an Australian who was sporting more corporate logos than entirely necessary. On his shirt was the logo for Mitsui Coal, on his coat, Hitachi and on his carry-on, a mining company.

“Whatcha doin’ here?” he asked.

“Working with the local camel herding communities to understand their connection to the regional and global market and ecosystem, and the local groups that are working to deal with desertification on the Gobi by re-planting Gobi trees,” I responded.

“Ha,” he scoffed. “We’re just here diggin’ holes like we do everywhere. We’re not much worried about trees.”

I settled into 8C on the Saab prop plane for the 500km flight back to Ulaanbaatar and watched out the window as we taxied down the runway and lifted off into the setting sun. Looking out of my window, I saw the horses, the spring and lake where Batbayar (“Baidi”) and his wife Jaagaa are planting 20,000 Gobi trees and the endless steppe (see the Heritable Innovation Trust Post from today). I saw the horses pasturing in the lush green of the water that dots the vastness and I reflected on my first trip to this amazing land.

To the rest of the world, South Gobi is a land of untapped potential. Coking coal, gold, copper and other metals are the generous legacy of the once forested land where trees, dinosaurs and vast seabeds once covered the land. Out in the Sand Mountain region to the west of Dalanzadgad, the plain is broken with huge cliffs and canyons where you cannot help but step on fossil after fossil – each footstep a decision between one piece of coral still layered in the fossil record and one that was washed out with the last rain. Every now and then you find yourself encountering lava and evidence of the volcanism which brought huge mineral deposits near the surface.

In this land - quite similar to Utah or parts of Colorado - humanity is replaying its predictable, tired addiction. A land of “natural resources” has evoked the Adam Smith impulse to see the value of this place by the sum of its subtraction. President Elbegdorj has seen countless other countries fall into the Resources Trap (referred to in an earlier post from Paul Collier’s work) and has chosen to take a different path that includes more domestic benefit for the country’s resources. I wonder if the Parliament and the President of Mongolia are willing to take an even bolder step. I wonder if they would have the willingness to lead the world into a new capital system where people actually live without extracting the last ounce of gold and ton of coal.

What we know is that the story of BP in the Gulf of Mexico – now day 50 – is the unifying story of the last 234 years. As I type this post, CNN International stated that BP is considering all options to cap the hemorrhage of oil – including the nuclear option. And we, the willing, gullible consumers of 24 hour news are supposed to sit by and accept as we are hypnotized into the belief that somehow or another bombing the seabed is an option? And whether it’s a nuke on the seafloor or the growing use of cyanide and heavy metals to feed the gold addiction that is now toxifying some of the most scarce water resources on the planet in the Gobi desert, we rush on.

For the record, the two volume publication of Adam Smith’s work in 1776 was titled, “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.” His “invisible hand” was a reflection of the state of moral philosophy which gave rise to revolution in the Americas and the challenge to monarchists in Europe. His work was social commentary – not a declaration of truth. And so for us to respond to the Pavlovian glockenspiel in seeing Mongolia as the place where mining companies and their technological minions (like Caterpillar, Hitachi, Mitsui, and others) supply the last syringes in the crack house of our addictions are the winners is fitting on a day where we also see a tactical nuke on the seabed as an acceptable option for containment of an oil disaster in the gulf!

Are we better than this? Are we willing to stop wringing our hands in Washington D.C. and Louisiana about oil slicks and actually do something? Like, stop all BP equities trading so that the company knows that it must apply all of its efforts and resources to stop the leak and, until then, it’s quarantined? Like identify every deep water well or extractor and immediately require retrofits to insure that this cannot happen elsewhere? Like requiring all stock exchanges to list only those companies in compliance with International Council for the Exploration of the Sea guidelines and have sanctions, including full financial liability and profit disgorgement, for those who are in violation BEFORE they toxify the seas?

See, if we actually priced in the cost of the consequences of actions – like the cost of water extinction in the Gobi desert – we’d realize that Adam Smith was wrong. Sanctimoniously calling “greed” the “invisible hand” doesn’t make it better. It just makes it palatable for a moment. We are better than this. We can transition to another reality – not through activism but accountability. I can’t wait to see the first mine that actually honestly reports all costs, discloses all benefits, and spends as much time thinking about the extinction of the resource as it does about quarterly profits. And I can’t wait to see a commodity market in which trading premiums flow to those products sourced from Accountable Commodity suppliers. Transparency is the first step and action is its corollary. And rather than waiting, we’re going to see if it can be done. More on that later.

When I’m back from the remote western regions of Mongolia, you’ll hear from me again. In the meantime, share this and last week’s post with those you know and let’s start moving to another future. The hole has been dug deep enough! Let’s start planting new seeds.



  1. I could go for some gardening. Safe travels, Dave.

  2. I'm sure you're absolutely thrilled about this:


Thank you for your comment. I look forward to considering this in the expanding dialogue. Dave