Too small

In a wonderful world, we would all wake up tomorrow morning and realise that our wealth is hurting our future. We would feel this hurt terribly and all act at once to make ourselves feel better. Everyone turns off lights, fixes faulty faucets, and buys local.

Life simplifies overnight.

Only this, admittedly unlikely, revolution seems not to work.

Demand for energy, water and food dips a little at first. But needs do not disappear with enlightenment. The volume of resources required to support everyone remains greater than at any previous time in human history. There are 7 billion of us after all.

We start talking to each other and begin to realise that as important as ‘act local’ is, it also ends up as think small and this is a problem. It precludes many of the solutions that need to roll out at scale, such as the recycling of water and waste, shifts to organic and lower input farming, deployment of technological innovations in energy, water and food, and any number of job creation requirements.

Most importantly, thinking small stifles investment opportunities. And until an alternative economic model emerges the world only works when capital is mobilised to achieve a return.

The World Bank has a fascinating visualisation website that shows private participation in infrastructure projects in developing and emerging economies. Click on a country and details of the past and current infrastructure pipeline appears.

Uganda, for example, has USD4.8 billion of investment since 1990 mostly in telecoms.

India, home to a little over 16% of the 7 billion people, has invested USD342 billion in the same period mostly on electricity supply, roads and telecoms.

These are tidy sums of money. And recall this is just spending from private capital. Government spending is in addition.

Revenue of the WWF over the same period for all its global activities is roughly USD15 billion (estimated crudely from the reported USD690 million received in 2013).  Private spending in conservation at this level is not a bad effort given there are rarely direct financial returns but it is still too small. It is an order of magnitude less than private investment in infrastructure for people.

Many commentators have mused on this disparity, why it happens and what, if anything, to do about it.

Alloporus believes it is a perception problem — when it comes to sustainability we think too small — and suggests a simple modification to the old adage:

Think global, act local and scale up


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