Found via Paul Kedrosky.
Sitting in a Panera in Boston’s financial district in early July with Jeremy Grantham, I suddenly found myself considering how I might safeguard my children’s and notional grandchildren’s future by somehow engineering the U.S. annexation of Morocco. Grantham, the founder and chief strategist of the asset-management firm GMO, was reading aloud from a rough draft of his next quarterly letter to investors, in which he ranks some long-term crises of resource limitation along a scale from “merely serious” to “dangerous.”
Grantham, who is 72 and has what’s left of a British accent after living in Boston for more than four decades, outlined this wildly distressing assessment against a bland backdrop of chain décor and piped-in smooth jazz. He marked up his draft with a pen as he went along, departing from the text at times to emphasize a point. “Phosphorus makes up 1 percent of your body weight,” he said, looking up from the page to catch my eye. “It’s a basic element, the residue of exploded stars. You can’t just make more.” He also pointed out that most economists see global trade as a win-win proposition, but resource limitation turns it into a win-lose, zero-sum contest. “The faster China grows, the higher grain prices go, the more people in China or India who upgrade to meat, the higher the tendency for Africa to starve,” he said.
Grantham argues that the late-18th-century doomsayer Thomas Malthus pretty much got it right but just had the bad timing to make his predictions about unsustainable population growth on the eve of the hydrocarbon-fueled Industrial Revolution, which “partially removed the barriers to rapid population growth, wealth and scientific progress.” That put off the inevitable for a couple of centuries, but now, ready or not, the age of cheap hydrocarbons is ending. Grantham’s July letter concludes: “We humans have the brains and the means to reach real planetary sustainability. The problem is with us and our focus on short-term growth and profits, which is likely to cause suffering on a vast scale. With foresight and thoughtful planning, this suffering is completely avoidable.”
Grantham’s quarterly letters, which command a cult following of readers within and beyond the financial industry, inspire even the most short-term profit-minded investors to do a little fate-of-the-world-scale thinking. I find that they have the opposite, equally mind-stretching effect on a passive investor like me. Although I’m normally happy to turn over my paychecks to the missus and not inquire into what happens to them, my encounters with Grantham tend to whip me into a state of alarm that has me thinking about acquiring tracts of arable timbered high ground, preferably defensible ones well inland from the rising seas.