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How much oil it’d take to buy the U.S. – A brief reflection

Today, MSN ran a piece by Scott Burns, in which he runs back of the envelope calculations to determine that there is enough oil in the middle east to buy the U.S. This is a perfectly reasonable exercise and very relevant today. As a guide to the future, however, I don’t think it helps much.

He defines our collective net worth as many economists would-from Federal Reserve data that estimates the collective value of our stuff (I can’t help but think of George Carlin)-cars, houses, bank deposits, stocks, bonds, and mutual funds. From this total, all of our debt is subtracted to arrive at net worth. If all we care about is this stuff, then I agree with what he’s done.

But, I know we care about a lot more. We care about each other. We care about other creatures. We care about education. Some of us care about God or a spirit world. 

The first of these perspectives reflects the thinking of “industrial man (or woman)”. Worth to her comes from unlimited natural resources (natural capital) used in an endless production of waste. If that sounds silly, well, that’s still our economy, by and large, today.

The second reflects the thinking of “ecological woman (or man)”. Worth to him comes from limited natural capital, as well as human and social capital, used in finite renewable production systems. And if that sounds silly, well, it’s not. It’s just the second law of thermodynamics applied to economics.

Conserv has been created for “ecological women and men”. I thank Mr. Burns for a thoughtful piece to help focus attention on the mental models embedded in our historic industrial culture.

- Michael Collins


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