Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The top 6 largest banks

According to results compiled by the Boston Consulting Group, the top 6 largest banks in the world are now (in order):

  1. Commercial Bank of China
  2. China Construction Bank
  3. HSBC of Britain
  4. Bank of China
  5. Bank of America
  6. Citigroup of the United States

These results were for end of 2007. The values of the American banks have fallen since then. Say goodbye to the 20th century (and with it the American empire) and hello to the the 21st.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Updated "Sustainability or Apocalypse" Presentation

I had a chance to present an updated version of my Sustainability or Apocalypse talk at the SUNY New Paltz campus to a group of about 30 people Thursday evening. The presentation was followed by an enthusiastic audience comment period. The copy of the new updated and expanded charts is available on the link in the right hand column. The basic premise of the presentation is:

  1. The rate of technological and social change this century will be even greater than in the past century, and many of our current social structures are not set up to deal with this.

  2. We will also be facing a “perfect storm” of problems in the next few decades, both nationally and as a global society

  3. These will be the some of the most important decades in the history of humankind, with some very big long term effects from the choices we make

  4. We could usher in a era of sustainability or major turmoil. The outcome is not predetermined, but will depend on preparations we make to handle moments of opportunity and the vision we promote about what is possible and desirable.

Take a look and feel free to post your comments below. I am very interested in any feedback on how to improve this presenation.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Collapse of American Power

In a recent column Paul Craig Roberts points out that

In his famous book, The Collapse of British Power (1972), Correlli Barnett reports that in the opening days of World War II Great Britain only had enough gold and foreign exchange to finance war expenditures for a few months. The British turned to the Americans to finance their ability to wage war. Barnett writes that this dependency signaled the end of British power.

The comparison to modern times is obvious. The United States had no money to finance the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and borrowed the entire amount, mainly from China and Japan. Historians may very well look back at this moment in our history as signaling the end of the American empire.

As I mentioned before, an organization is technically bankrupt when it is deep in debt and there is no foreseeable way it can ever pay off those debts. Paul Craig Roberts goes on to say

Moreover, the GAO report pointed out that the accrued liabilities of the federal government "totaled approximately $53 trillion as of September 30, 2007." No funds have been set aside against this mind boggling liability.

The US "superpower" cannot even finance its own domestic operations, much less its gratuitous wars except via the kindness of foreigners to lend it money that cannot be repaid.

The US will never repay the loans... The dollar is failing in its role as reserve currency and will soon be abandoned. When the dollar ceases to be the reserve currency, the US will no longer be able to pay its bills by borrowing more from foreigners.

By the way if you don't know who Paul Craig Roberts is, you might be tempted to think he is some sort of left wing "doom and gloom" radical who doesn't really know what he is talking about. Paul Craig Roberts was Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in the Reagan administration. He was Associate Editor of the Wall Street Journal editorial page and Contributing Editor of National Review. Scarry, isn't it?

Friday, April 4, 2008

State of the Planet 08

I recently attended the State of the Planet conference at the Earth Institute at Columbia University. It's a conference put on every other year by Jeff Sachs and the Earth Institute. Videos from this year's presentations are available here.

Two years ago I went to this conference for the fist time. The focus that year was on sustainable development, and I have to say that the overall tone was rather depressing. In terms of achieving anything remotely resembling a sustainable society, the overall conclusion from most presenters was that we weren't even close.

This year's conference was much more optimistic. Here are some of the interesting points that were made:

  • "We're in a process of heading towards a new global society. Yet our institutions and mindset is not ready for this. Much of the rest of the world is further along than we are at coming to grips with this."
  • Greening of the world' infrastructure will become a trillion dollar industry. But timing is important. Business needs to move ahead aggressively on this. There was confidence that the private sector will lead in adaptation in the 21st century, but government has an important role to play as a partner.
  • Kenya moved from civil war to a negotiated settlement in a few short weeks. There should be a real sense of optimism after seeing that such things are possible.
  • Big business has much power to effect the world's problems. We need to ask them what they have done with that influence and power?
  • We also need to ask the churches the same thing. Religions organizations have failed when they took sides based on identity politics. When they talk about "my people", they need to be talking about all of humankind.

Other signs of progress - we are actually succeeding when there is political will to change things for the better.

  • The Millennium Development Goals call for cutting poverty in half between 2000 and 2015. We are actually likely to reach that goal in all areas except sub-Saharan Africa.
  • 20 years ago there were 20 million refugees. Now there are 10 million.
  • In 1989 there were 10 genocides unfolding in the world. Today there are one or two.
  • There used to be 10 to 20 military coups per year in the world. Now there are typically 3 or 4.
  • There is 50% less warfare today than in 1989

One nagging thought that occurred to me during the conference was that they were literally flying in people from around the world to give 20 minute presentations on environmental responsibility. This problem was also noted by Jeff Sachs at the end. He talked about the possibility that this may be the last of these conferences they hold in this form. The next one in two years may be in the form of a globally connected broadband video conference connecting cities all around the world. Such an approach will obviously take some experimentation before they get it right, but I can't think of a better conference to take such a bold step and start developing the techniques to hold such a conference on a global scale while minimizing the number of miles traveled. I'm looking forward to seeing what they come up with.

Star Wars civilizations ruled by Stone Age emotions

E.O. Wilson is a famous biologist who has been making news for his recent efforts to bring attention to the critical nature of the environmental problems we are currently facing. I recently heard a quote from him that has been getting more attention than I was aware. The line below marked in bold sums up the current state of humankind nicely. I included the surrounding context, which came from a May 2007 article in Vanity Fair by E.O. Wilson titled Problems Without Borders. rising to power, beginning with the invention of agriculture a scant 10 millennia ago, we carried along with us the heavy baggage of ancient primate instincts. Today, as a result, we live in Star Wars civilizations ruled by Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology.

We haven't really figured out yet, as a species, what we are, where we are going, and what we will be when we get there. But at least we have discovered that we are fast ruining the global environment. The scientific evidence for that conclusion is now massive and compelling.... The bottom line is that we have created a real mess. In order to avoid wrecking our planetary home, we have to settle down and together devise the means to achieve sustainable development while preserving our biosphere. The good news is that the same thing that has gotten us into trouble—those brains of ours—can get us out. We're smart. We can do it."