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Expired · 18th December 2010
Ray Grigg
The world's total debt as of a given day recently was $40,660,121,927,289.00 according to The Economist magazine. Most of this $40 trillion has accumulated during the last few years as bailouts to banks and as stimulus packages to nations struggling to combat economic recession (Globe & Mail, Nov. 19/10).

Meanwhile, Russia has called a summit of 12 Asian nations in a desperate effort to save the tiger from extinction. Only 3,200 of the great cats still survive in the wild, only 1,000 of which are breeding females. As tiger habitat continues to shrink, poachers are killing at least 100 per year to satisfy the demand for aphrodisiacs, elixirs, talismans, rugs and exotic soup (Ibid.). Of the nine tiger subspecies, three are already extinct – the Javan, Caspian and Bali – while the South China subspecies exists only in captivity.

Unfortunately, Ireland has just entered it own kind of captivity. For a nation of spirited individualists who have proudly maintained their independence over centuries – "neither King nor Kaiser" – the Irish have now surrendered their sovereignty to the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund in an effort to avoid national bankruptcy. The $116 billion loan – the equivalent of $24,500 per Irish person – means the country has essentially ceded its financial governance to outsiders. A task that could not be accomplished by centuries of English colonialism has been engineered by massive bank insolvencies and a resulting recession that has left 200,000 mortgages – one-fifth of Irish homes – in default.

Iceland is in a similar condition. Portugal and Spain are threatened. The United States is wallowing in huge debt and deficits, creating paroxysms of political stress within the country and nervousness in the international business community. Indeed, the majority of countries, provinces and states are operating in financial deficits, a situation that is paralleled by environmental deficits. Just as we are spending more than our economic systems can afford, we are using more natural resources than our planet's biological systems can replenish. The mismanagement of our money is mirrored in the mismanagement of our ecologies.

The iconic tiger is simply a symbol of a larger problem that is environmental as well as economic. Will Russian initiatives to save the tiger be successful if decades of global conferences can't stem the threats of global warming from excessive greenhouse gas emissions? Will international conservation agreements be able to halt the rampant extinction of species if industrial nations can't reach currency and trade agreements? Will humanity be able to avoid a planetary environmental meltdown if our global financial strategies can't escape massive deficits, bank failures and monetary crises?

If all this is leading to a loss of confidence in what we are collectively doing, shouldn't it provoke the question, "What's wrong?"

One explanation may be a collision between our human character and the limited space in which we live. The same attributes of cunning and adaptation that allowed us to survive and prosper as a species now seem to be working against us. Our ingenuity continues to express itself in amazing inventions, astounding technology and breakthrough knowledge. But this same ingenuity, when amplified by the billions of us now inhabiting the planet, is creating unsustainable conditions. The means to our success is beginning to resemble the means to our failure. Perhaps our sense of self importance has made us better at advancing rather than at restraining ourselves.

Maybe the time has come to consider that a less complimentary expression for being ingenious is being exploitive. Because of the impact of our numbers and our technology, we may have crossed the boundary from being a part of nature to being apart from nature, from being a component of nature to being a nemesis of nature.

Exploiting opportunity in the financial system requires the same skills as exploiting opportunity in the biological system. This is the deeper reason for which the banking crisis is worrisome. If we are capable of jeopardizing the entire global financial system for private gain, are we then capable of jeopardizing the entire global ecological system for self-interest? Poaching rare tigers is the same process as wringing profits from dubious investment schemes. Harpooning endangered whales, catching imperilled bluefin tuna, impairing precarious wild salmon runs or poisoning healthy watersheds is the same process as wresting destructive profits from shady monetary strategies. The same attribute of character that causes us to risk our economic security also causes us to risk our environmental security.

The environmental crisis presently confronting our planet is a variant of the one confronting our financial system. The time scales are different but the dynamics are the same. So are the denials, the rationalizations, the failed oversight, the paucity of regulatory constraints and the public's naivete. The collective values that have engaged people in the busy enterprise of making money and amassing wealth have kept them so busy with the industry and commerce of production and consumption that they have failed to notice that the ecology of the planet is unravelling.

Do we wait for the ecological equivalent of a financial crisis to take remedial action? We can't print more oceans if they are acidic and empty. We can't borrow more soil if our existing supply is depleted and eroded. We can't make another atmosphere if the only one we have is wracking the planet with excessive heat. Nature has a different and less forgiving accounting system. In a high-stakes gamble, we are betting that our ingenuity and adaptability will beat nature in a risky game of winner-take-all.

As the stakes rise and the pressures mount, perhaps we should review our notion of winning. Losing the tiger may be the least of our worries.