Money DOES grow on Trees

By G Davies, 2014. Published in SENG magazine


An engineer, and economist and an orang-utan are walking near a forest on a hot day and decide to stop for a rest.  The engineer looks at the trees, does some enthalpy calculations and announces he has a plan, whereupon he chops down a tree to make a fire. The heat from the fire is used to make steam, to turn a turbine and make electricity, which is then used to drive an air-conditioner and ‘voila’ he has nice cold air. “That’s cool!” says the economist who then chops down some trees, turns them into pulp and paper, prints money and proclaims to the world he is rich. With his riches, he buys cool air from the engineer and sells it to passers-by. He then says to the orang-utan “you’re lazy. If you were prepared to work, you too could have cool air”. Whereupon, the orang-utan scratches his head in puzzlement, walks across the road, climbs a tree, sits back and relaxes, while enjoying the evaporative cooling and shade provided by the forest. He then shouts back to the others, “I might be lazy, but you’re foolish; if you carry on like that, you’ll run out of wood and will overheat. (Written by an engineer!)

The above story obviously simplifies the situation, but captures the essence of how neo-liberal economics comes into conflict with ‘common sense’, and ultimately the laws of nature. Economic growth is akin to a pyramid scheme that relies on continual expansion, without due consideration of the finite nature of the resources.   The laws of thermodynamics will not treat us well if we continue down this path.

We need to learn to work with nature and appreciate its value and offerings if we are to achieve well-being and sustainability now and into the future. ‘Moneytree’ Policy (pardon the pun) needs to drive innovation and engineering to provide long term value using a full Life Cycle Assessment, whereas the current economy is run on the basis of products with an ever decreasing life, being thrown away and thereby ensuring (short term) repeat business.

The well-heeled idiom “money doesn’t grow on trees” is one of the most unfortunate and misleading phrases that one hears. Let me explain.

Firstly, what is money? Yes, it is a unit of currency that is often printed on paper, which itself comes from trees, but more importantly in this day and age, money is a more abstract concept of value or wealth – often represented by a number of digits appearing on a computer screen. These digits can evoke great distress if they have a negative sign in front! Conversely if there are say 7 or more digits appearing, you should be feeling very chuffed as you are in the top few per cent of wealthy people. In essence, money represents (or should represent) value and allows us to compare very disparate objects such as an overseas holiday, a shed, a guitar, a painting or even the headband of some famous celebrity.

Let us now turn our attention to trees and what they provide:

  • evaporative air conditioners, (as per above);
  • purification systems (turn CO2 into O2);
  • oils (teatree, eucalypt, ethanol);
  • fruit, nuts, food;
  • sap (used for rubber, glues);
  • firewood, bio-fuel, even coal (until it becomes a stranded asset!);
  • structural members;
  • inspiration for biomimicry design – eg. pumping system, photosynthesis, structural design (pointy trees in snow laden climates, low in windy country);
  • pollination, shade, aesthetics, aromas, habitats, sporting equipment, furniture, wind breaks.

Surely that is evidence enough that trees have value and thus ‘Money DOES grow on trees’!. In fact our economy is a human construct entirely dependent on the environment. This dependence is depicted in the ‘pyramid’ below, where each item is entirely dependent on the items below it. So, no environment; no economy! This is not to say we shouldn’t partake of nature, it’s just that neo-classical economics, if left unchecked, would drive us to a state of collapse because it has forgotten that the source of all wealth is from nature. Furthermore, current economic models do not consider the limits to growth. This is a case of the ‘tail is wagging the dog’, and it is simply not sustainable. To be sustainable the rate of resource extraction should not exceed the rate of replenishment (thermodynamics 101). Similarly, the rate of waste disposal should not exceed the rate at which the waste can be absorbed.

Energy is probably the defining characteristic of Western society in that it has allowed massive growth and expansion way beyond what could be achieved manually. Let it not be written into history that it was also the cause of our collapse. Its importance is such that it has been included as the base of the pyramid, and also because through the ‘big bang’, the planets were formed.

So if our economy is entirely dependent on us, the environment and energy, why is it given this cult like status – “that which must not be questioned or threatened”? This addiction to growth – measured by an increase in GDP – has caused grave injustices to society and seriously threatens the social fabric. Using GDP as a measure standard of living is like measuring the mass of food eaten as a measure of health. There are many measures such as Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) that would serve us better, but the G8/20 leaders have yet to realise this.

The leaders in industry continually say that strong companies attain financial success through investing in their people and systems. Surely then then a strong economy results from a nurturing its people and ecosystems. Unfortunately, big business has focussed on short term financial gain at the expense of the environment and society which has lead not only to grave injustices and environmental damage, but also financial crises. Big business has taken profits, yet left the burden of costs such as pollution, health, water contamination and emissions (in economic terms known as externalities) to society. ‘They have the meal and leave the bill’. What is required is a ‘Live and let Live’ philosophy, where you can do as you wish, but clean up your mess – all of it! Either the polluter pays for their own clean-up now or society pays later – it’s a simple choice. Unscrupulous individuals hide behind ‘grey tape’ (the bureaucratic set of rules and regulations that limit company liability, and pass the risk onto the environment and society), make large profits, and then suggest this as a way of lifting all of society’s wellbeing. It just doesn’t stack up. So if money DOES grow on trees, its time we started looking after the trees and the environment in the interests of all mankind and a strong economy.