A $100 million question

2 February 2010

Written by: Lawrie Zion

I was asked a question last night – one which kept me awake pondering the answer.

I was serving two gentlemen from Queensland at a wine bar and overheard their conversation on the state of humanity; I was immediately interested. They asked me if I’d like to take a seat so in my meal break I obliged.

As a student of the world I thought I knew what was wrong with the way we live and how we could improve it. I was first asked where I wanted to be when I was 50 (my parents’ age!) and my reply was stock-standard: “I want to be comfortable, healthy, and leave the world a better place for my children”; a desire which was identical to the chap sitting next to me who was forty years my senior.

They were in the sustainable energy industry and had been paying particular attention to researching the prospects of geothermal energy for the east coast. Then they hit me with it: it was like a right jab to the jaw, a left hook to the temple and finished with an uppercut to the chin – “If you had $100 million to spend on improving society, to make sure you get what you want in life, what would you do?.” I skirted around the question while I searched for an answer.

What specifically could I do to improve the Australian society and, more generally, the global community as a whole?

With $100 million most of us would buy a house, a new car, donate a portion to charity and invest a rest. But this wouldn’t benefit society, and certainly wouldn’t improve the future for our kids – in a meaningful way at least.

It could go to charity… but that wouldn’t stop bombs being dropped, wars being waged, weapons being proliferated or save innocent civilians caught in the crossfire.

It could go towards a food distribution program… but while that may provide some temporary relief in Haiti it wouldn’t stimulate long term solutions to a global emergency.

It could go towards renewable energy research… but for every $100 million spent on research there are many more barrels of oil traded, forests cleared and nuclear reactors built.

My list goes on. And you will have your own.

Despite growing up in the capitalist system where we are led to believe that money can solve our problems, we are left with a situation that is so far out of the realm of economics that perhaps a share portfolio, short-term loan, long-term deposit, or low interest rates cannot fix it.

Money simply cannot make the world a better place – the system doesn’t allow it.

So, what are we left with? What can we change to give us the future we truly long for?

The problems I see impeding my future require changes from the top down: a change in thinking, a change in practice, and a change in conscience.

Racial inequality, religious extremism, poverty, uneven distribution of resources, the treatment of nature, and corporate crime will not be solved by writing a cheque.

It’s not a revolution but a changing of the guard that we require. Each generation is left to clean up the mess made by the last, but as our list of chores increases we sink further into debt: our debt to nature and mankind along with our credit cards, mortgages and car loans… not to mention our HECS debt.

We are at a crossroads in history. We have a choice. We can choose to invest in the stock market or in our future.

As I write this I am still left with $100 million in my imaginary piggy bank but with just as many thoughts running through my mind.

I was asked a question last night – one which I cannot give an answer but will spend the rest of my life searching for.

Tyler Cameron is a second-year Bacherlor of International Relations student at La Trobe University.