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07/11/08 Being Right

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Over the past year there have been any number of people who have written and spoken about the depth and breadth of the financial crisis that we are currently suffering through. The unwinding of the derivatives that have driven the increase in wealth without any underlying value was as predictable as the bubble. The collateral effects of the decisions not to invest in our infrastructure, healthcare system and schools have also been well documented. The global demand for fossil fuel shouldn’t have come as any surprise either; US companies have been increasingly making their profits in emerging economies and the rise in living standards has had a predictable effect on the demand for energy. All this has taken place while our political class has been as moribund as ever.

Those of us who predicted these problems were right. Almost everything we said would happen has happened. Being right, however, is highly overrated. One only needs to be in a vertical position, have a pulse and pay attention to have seen what was coming. So no trophies or blue ribbons for prescience; just a chastened sense that we aren’t as crazy as some people wanted to think we were.

As with any unpleasant experience everyone wants to know if it is going to be over soon. The answer is clearly “no”. At this writing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are no longer viable and on the verge of collapse, GE has had it’s second quarterly loss in its history, oil is flirting with $150 a barrel, Citibank is selling assets hand over fist, Lehman is rumored to be the next investment bank to go bust and the New York Post announced on its front page this morning that Con Edison bills are expected to go up 22%. The end is not near and it is unclear as to whether we are at the end of the beginning.

The floods in the Midwest that have caused billions in damage are at least in part a result of the failure to address the identified levee issues after a similar flood in 1993. The fires that rage in California began just weeks after the state declared a drought emergency. Nature’s wrath and the consequences of human folly seem to be converging, not only in the US but around the world. It is likely to be our reality for some time to come. We are going to have to live through it and in doing so will create a new reality. It can either be based on a combination of fear and a grasping at what used to be or it can be based on hope and a new way of thinking about possibilities that, until now, have seemed too futuristic to contemplate.

Energy and water are the two commodities that lie at the heart of any turn in our fortunes.

Fossil fuel is finite, dirty and increasingly difficult to come by. The technology for clean energy is already here. There are cars that exist in Australia and France that run on compressed air and get 200 miles to the tank. GM’s Chevy Volt, which does not exist, will only get 40 miles per electric charge and is a hybrid; it will still require gasoline. We fiddle with a hybrid concept that Toyota introduced 11 years ago.

The two year drought in California is but the latest evidence that the water crisis in the Western and South Western United States is persistent. On the other hand, there are 7,500 desalination plants throughout the world, 60% of which are in the Middle East with Saudi Arabia taking the lead. The prohibitive cost of these operations has limited their use but it is conceivable that those costs will look very cheap indeed in the foreseeable future.

These are but two paths that we can pursue among many. While on their surface they appear to be driven by environmental concerns, their real power is in their economic impact. Plentiful water and renewable energy on a broad scale will result in a profound change in the financial and political power structure both here and around the world that is difficult to conceive.

It’s easy to be right about what’s gone wrong. Being right about what needs to go right means changing the way we think and that’s the most difficult change of all.
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It has been brought to our attention that Margaret is being portrayed as a psychic on $1.99 sites. These sites are doing so without Margaret's permission. Margaret has not claimed she is a psychic. - MW