It’s Time We Start Thinking of Earth As a Trust Fund

Here’s how we make sure it doesn’t run out.

When I was in high school, I had a friend that came from a wealthy east coast family. Paul was 21 years old. He lived in a modest 4 bedroom house and drove a new Ford Mustang. Paul always dressed nicely, but never extravagantly. He went on a few vacations throughout the years to Hawaii and Mexico, but spent most of his time locally. He had hobbies that weren't cheap, but they weren't ridiculously expensive — skiing and golf. Interestingly, Paul did not have a full time job, yet he was never concerned about money.

When Paul was 18, he was given access to a trust fund worth five million bucks. After taxes and management fees, Paul received about $300,000 a year from the corresponding interest and investments. He took 5% and put it right back in the fund to offset inflation, and spent no more than the remaining $285,000 annually. Not a bad income. Paul could live comfortably for the rest of his life, so long as he maintained the lump sum in his fund. He realized the importance of protecting the resource that unconditionally provided for him.

Paul had an younger brother named James, who lived quite the lavish lifestyle. He drove a brand new yellow Ferrari, and was always dressed his best in custom tailored suits from Italy. James built a custom 6 bedroom mansion right on the golf course and spared no expense in doing so. He was notoriously generous with his money, and was known for picking up the tab whenever going out with friends. He wrote sizable donation checks to his favorite causes and charities, and the nicest country club in town appeared to be his home away from home. James had a lifestyle that was like a rap music video playing 24/7.

How was James able to afford such a lavish stylish compared to his older brother? He couldn’t afford it. He was an idiot. He made poor financial decisions that benefited him only in the short run. James and Paul had the exact same trust funds, yet James consumed at a rate 10X what his brother did.

That was fifteen years ago. Where are they now? Paul has a couple kids and a wife, but his lifestyle is still mostly the same — comfortable but not outrageous. And what about James? What kind of exotic car is he driving now?

James drives a 1992 Toyota Tercel. He is a waiter at an Applebee’s and lives in a 1 bedroom apartment. After James blew through his fund in a few years, the checks stopped showing up. The Ferrari was repossessed and he had to offload his house in a short sale.

The Earth is full of tremendous resources, and everything that we consume — our food, our cars, our houses, our toys — comes from it. I don’t need to remind you that houses are built from trees, cars are built from iron ore, and even the device you are reading this on was made mostly from materials mined from the ground.

The earth may seem to have infinite resources, but it doesn’t. The earth can provide unfathomable amounts of raw materials to us, we just have to let them replenish. But we don’t.

Instead, we are blowing through our proverbial piggy bank like James blew through his trust fund. $5,000,000 seems like it can buy an awful lot of expensive things until it can’t anymore. The seemingly bottomless pit isn’t so bottomless. It has a hard floor, and it really hurts when you hit it.

If the Earth is our bank account, we are pulling out cash like a trust fund baby hooked on cocaine, with a shopping addiction, who has an ATM right across the street.

We are chipping away at our resource base at an alarming rate. In the past twelve months we have consumed the resources that it took the planet about eighteen months to produce. Every forest we clear cut, every oil field we drill, every ocean we overfish, we are setting ourselves up for disaster. The more that we pull out, the less that can be replenished.

If all of the world’s 7 billion people consumed as much as an average American, it would take the resources of between 5–8 Earths to sustainably support it all. Even at the current global rate of consumption, we need between 2 -3 Earths to keep the party going.

It’s not only the consumption that’s a problem, it’s the destruction. We are burning the candle on both ends. We put a tremendous strain on our Earth while simultaneously expecting it to provide more for us. Since we’ve polluted our air, water, and land, the Earth does not replenish resources at the same rate it did two hundred years ago. It’s like we are expecting our horse to win the Kentucky Derby after we have starved it for 2 weeks.

We are feverishly swiping our debit cards while simultaneously throwing molotov cocktails at the bank’s front door.

California is famous for movie stars, tech startups, and beautiful beaches. Recently, the Golden State has also become famous for something not quite as glamourous — epic drought. We’ve placed huge burdens on the water resources of the region, and with abnormally lower rainfall to replenish our reservoirs, we turn to our aquifers.

Aquifers have a particular recharge rate — the rate at which new, fresh water flows in. If we pump out water at or below the recharge rate, we can continue to tap into the resource indefinitely.

Perhaps due to lack of accountability, or convenience, or even macroeconomics, we continue to consume more of this resource each and every year. We’ve pulled so much water out of the ground that one part of the San Joaquin Valley has even sunk by 28 feet over the last century. While our initial consumption rate was probably less than the recharge rate, it crept up year after year and now far exceeds it. At some point, an adjustment is inevitable. When the wells dry up, we can only use what falls from the sky. Right now, that isn’t much. California has seen record low rainfall totals over the last few seasons.

Our global consumption habits are self destructive and won’t last indefinitely. We can’t go on forever like this. One day, the money will run out. One day, the man at the the Gucci store will tell us that our card has been declined. One day, we’ll have to downgrade to the Toyota Tercel and close our eyes to pretend we are still in the custom suede seats of the Ferrari. Unless we stop spending so damn much.

If we don’t stop the hemorrhaging soon enough, our resource stock will continue to shrink and can only replenish at an increasingly slower rate. As a society, we have to ask ourselves an important question. Do we want to live it up for a few years, and then have it all come crashing down? Or do we want to live a bit more modestly, but have it last indefinitely?

I wonder if I’ll ever get the chance to catch up with James. I would ask him why he had not stopped spending sooner. I would ask him if he saw the likelihood of a zero balance before it actually happened. Did he really think it would last forever? If he cut his cards with even $1,000,000 in the bank, at least he will still be making enough interest to live comfortably. It would take him decades of controlled spending to get back up to $5,000,000, but he could have done it.

Paul was smart with his money, yet he still lived a great life. He wasn’t any less happy than his younger brother, even though his car wasn’t as nice and his house was smaller. Today, Paul is far better off than James. He made a very small sacrifice to gain a very large benefit, and it has paid off.

Our planet may not have $5,000,000 in the bank anymore, but perhaps we have $3,000,000. The interest from this amount is still significant. If we make a change now, we can save ourselves from the fate of James. Let’s learn from Paul. Let’s use less resources, and let’s start today.