Thursday, June 19, 2008

Planet and People

When I hear people discussing sustainability (and that’s happening more each day), one thing jumps out: most of them stick to the environment. Carbon footprints, global warming, water shortages and the rest. Nothing wrong with that, but it isn’t enough. Sure the environment needs fast action but to shape our future we need to focus on Planet and People. We have to work on them both at the same time. It’s always good to be able to call on the support of a Nobel Prize winner for an idea. In this case I can claim five. The big five were part of a bunch of economists faced with a huge challenge. To rank a list of 30 different solutions to ten of the world's biggest problems. The problems had been worked up by 50 academics, all specialists in their fields, so a lot of heavy-weight brain power went into this project along with a good solid kicker. The economists’ rankings were dollar-based. They had to pretend they had an ‘extra’ $75 billion to spend over the next four years and work out the relative returns to get to their winning solutions.

So much for the rules. What topped the list as the best return on investing extra dollars? Global warming? No, it came in bottom as number 30. New ways to reduce fuel consumption? Wrong again. Pretty much all the top ten investments were aimed at malnutrition, disease control and education. People power. It’s a simple idea. “If an oxygen mask falls from the compartment above your head, put on your own mask first.” There is no future for a world where everyone is too exhausted, too hungry and too under-educated to help with the problems at hand. If we don’t look after our people first, we won’t have a dog’s show of looking after our world.

The top ranked solution to the world’s biggest problems? To get Vitamin A and Zinc supplements to 80 percent of the 140 million children who live in developing countries. Both Zinc and Vitamin A are essential to how kids develop physically and mentally but the problem is that Zinc is found in protein-rich foods, dairy, whole grains and Vitamin A in dairy, oily fish and veges like spinach. The kids we’re talking about get far too little of either and the effects will be felt for decades in their impaired physical and mental performance. For $60 million a year for four years, our team of economists reckoned investing in these supplements would amount to the equivalent of $1 billion worth of development investment. What a return!

This final dispatch from the 2008 Copenhagen Consensus Conference deserves to be discussed, challenged and imagined. You can read the report here. Let me know what you think.