Part nineteen of the multi-part BLUEprint Series: How the Ocean Will Save Civilization
Financial instruments are the tools of capital. They have the strengths and weaknesses of those who are to apply them. They can be used to preserve and sustain natural capital and release its value for the benefit of all mankind.
Over the past decade, public and private interests have experimented with financial tools as a means to advance change in an economy based on conventional practice and resistance. The tools are well known, but slowly applied to alternative ideas, processes, and outcomes. Subsidy is a tactic by which government can steer development — for example, industrial fertilizer use, fish boat construction and fisheries quotas, energy technology — projects at the time requiring extra capital to incentivize change in a particular direction. Subsidies often remain in place far beyond initial intent and become subversive as a continuing expectation of revenue long after the shift desired has been realized. A most egregious example has been the continuing subsidy of the energy industry, underwritten by tax payers to extract a publicly owned natural resource to drive fossil fuel based energy consumption, transportation, and manufacturing infrastructure, to levels that exceed any concept of sustainability and accumulate outcomes and emissions that are suddenly perverse, antithetical to climate, human health and well-being, and threatened with exhaustion.
Regulation provides another framework with similar consequence. Regulation can constrict and direct behavior by forcing companies to accommodate practice that is not always rewarding to their financial interests and profits. The coal industry is a perfect example, an industry that scours mountain tops, digs huge pits, withdraws a cheap fuel for energy production, indifferent to the health of its miners, its customers, and the larger community in the form of polluted streams, acid accumulation in the atmosphere, and change in pH on land and in the sea with serious, measurable, destructive effect on the species that inhabit those spaces. That the coal industry and its lobbyists and favored politicians have been so adamant against regulation is an indicator of how it, or its lack, can determine serious profit or loss.
Private investment is another tool, the targeting of capital to found new industry and expand old, in the form of stock ownership, public offerings, bilateral and multilateral payments, financial instruments such as bonds and certificates of credit, pension funds, commodity futures, start-up funds, directed funds, hedge funds, and social responsibility funds that finance change through directed capital. All these functions occur within the context of the global economy, financial markets, local and international, where exchange transactions add or detract value in a complex spiral of ownership subject to the vicissitudes of information, speculation, and unforeseen events. Greed may be a factor there too.
And finally, voluntary initiative is yet another tool, change driven by good intention, that allows processes to be tested and modelled as demonstration of acceptable re-direction of capital from one behavior to another. Herein lies the extraordinary capacity of human invention, the ability to imagine and energize novel concepts and applications that are in fact the expression of human capital, the most valuable tool of them all.
I have an assortment of tools in my barn. But I am useless if asked to make something with them. I warn others that if they put a tool in my hand I will either break it or drop it overboard. I was once given an axe by the King of Norway, a replica of a tool excavated at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland where those intrepid Viking sailors and explorers first came ashore pre-Columbus. My response to the King was, “A tool is only as good as the man who wields it, and I will try to do my best.”
But isn’t that always the case? Isn’t it true that every tool is a function of the person or entity that puts it to use, and the utility can be clear or confused, constructive or destructive, progressive or regressive, for private or public benefit, for better or for worse? Financial instruments are the tools of capital and they have all the strengths and weaknesses of those who are to apply them. All these tools can be used to preserve and sustain natural capital and release its value for the benefit of all mankind. The ocean/freshwater continuum, as it pertains to every aspect of our future survival, is natural capital, the raw material of change, subject to the best intentions, and mis-attentions, of all of us engaged in its use. The challenge to change lies there. The tools are in our hands, and we must strive to do our best.
PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory, a web-based place of exchange for information and educational services about the health of the world ocean.