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Executive Perspectives

EXECUTIVE PERSPECTIVE: Revisiting the Wealth of Nations, The Seas

Erika Karp

01 Apr 2015

Source: The Economist Group

Looking out at the North Sea from his home in 18th century Scotland, economist Adam Smith might easily have pondered the potential of this economic frontier as he penned his seminal book, The Wealth of Nations.  Three centuries later it’s not too late to reflect upon, and respect the unimaginable wealth represented by the seas.

Today an estimated 61% of the world’s population lives within 10km of the ocean. A similar proportion of global GDP comes from coastal areas within 100km of the seashore. However, 95% of the world’s oceans remain uncharted territory.

Smith understood human nature, the drive for economic well-being, the good sense of playing to our strengths, and the human urge to trade. But could he have forecast the extent of today’s industrialisation of the seas? And what might he do to avoid “the tragedy of the horizons” colliding with “the tragedy of the commons”?  In other words, exploitation for the near term without long term stewardship of that which is most precious.

Had he been around today Smith might well have debated these questions at the Executive Roundtable on “Investing in the Blue Economy”, hosted in New York last month by The Economist and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.  This cross-disciplinary roundtable was attended by executives from business, finance and civil society, including Lockheed Martin, Starwood Hotels, Goldman Sachs, the US State Department and The Pew Trusts.

At the event he would have heard Maria Damanaki, global managing director for oceans at The Nature Conservancy, articulate the need to transform how we manage our oceans through measuring, planning, and supervising.  Like Smith, Maria calls for greater certainly and accountability.

Meanwhile, Sri Mulyani Indrawati, COO of The World Bank, called for intelligent frameworks and institutions to be put in place at a global level to manage the most complex developmental challenges we face, such as ocean governance and policies around pollution, debris and invasive species.

Much of today’s wealth of nations is derived from the seas.  To preserve this asset for future generations, we should draw upon the best thinkers, practices, and policies in economics, business, finance and civil society to mobilise the mainstream of society in the blue economy.

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