SEVERAL years ago, I visited my relatives in the countryside of Trinidad and Tobago. My grandparents settled there in the 1930s when it was under British colonization. My grandmother, now 97, explained to me what life was like at a time when she had no money, no job, no food, no education and nobody to help.
As a teenager, she looked out on a desolate field and thought, “I don’t ever want my (future) children to go hungry like how I’m hungry.” She scrounged together some garbage scraps and planted anything from mango pits to sesame seeds. My grandmother has fed three generations of 20 family members over the past 80 years from this field. My uncles built several beautiful houses using the resources of that land. We collect rainwater to drink, my aunts make clothes and cook, and grandmother still tends to the field.
For thousands of years, people like my grandmother managed to survive without the help of government, “money” (fiat currency), corporate “jobs,” electronics or fossil fuel. Yet they were fed, clothed, sheltered, had fewer diseases and lived longer. Their children had inheritances, and there was “day care” and “retirement insurance” in a place where everyone takes care of each other. Nobody felt that the government was responsible for their lives; they took responsibility for their own survival.
But what actually makes this possible? The answer is the environment. Clean water. Arable land. A climate where food can grow. Natural resources like trees. And grandmother’s foresight and common sense to keep planting new trees for her children’s children. When people have access to a healthy environment, they have the resources to create value in society, becoming self-sufficient, creating their own jobs and a local economy.
One of my favorite places to visit is Alaska. I am always in awe of the majesty and purity of the environment. Most of the people I speak with who move to Alaska feel that they can be self-sufficient with their abilities, hard work and nature’s resources. Indeed, strong, resilient, self-sufficient people can be found from the countryside of a Caribbean island to the Denali mountain range, equipped by nature and their own two hands.
Technology helps us cure disease, makes our work efficient and enriches us. But if industrialization destroys the environment, people become dependent for their basic needs upon foreign sources, who could potentially control their lifeblood as they become more vulnerable to conflict and foreign politics, crippled in their abilities to self-govern and be self-sufficient. In times of crisis when inflation skyrockets and currencies are devalued, when a bubble bursts and the stock market crashes, and when there are trade wars preventing exports, all we have is our environment and our ability to survive. Without those basics, not even a digital economy can thrive.
Over the years, I’ve worked with governments around the globe on sustainable development and the problems seem to share a common theme. Where people are struggling to survive, their ability to tap into environmental resources has somehow been destroyed. This could be due to famine or natural disasters, exploitation and deforestation of land, political restriction on crops or dependence upon foreign resources. When people cannot access a healthy environment, it leads to poverty, unrest and even a country’s economic ruin.
On the flip side, if people have access to a healthy environment, with clean water, healthy food, renewable building materials, fiber for clothing and other natural resources, then they can work and sustain themselves — just as my grandmother did 80 years ago. They won’t easily fall prey to disease, starvation and scarcity. Instead, they create a thriving economy, which organically grows from within.
It is mission critical for governments to make it a top priority to invest efforts in restoring and cultivating a healthy environment for the people. It helps to feed not just one generation, but all generations to come. It also provides a solid foundation from which the industrial and digital economies grow. The environment is a priceless treasure, which no short-term government assistance can ever rival in terms of its capacity to empower the people. The environment is the key to the economy, opening the door to self-sufficiency, advancement and long-term prosperity for a people who are ambitious and free.
Ria Persad studied mathematics and physics at Harvard, Princeton and Cambridge. She was a space scientist at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and advises the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on environmental intelligence. Persad is the founding chief executive officer/inventor of StatWeather, whose artificial intelligence system was ranked the No. 1 climate risk technology in the world.