Palo Alto Weekly

Real Estate - October 18, 2013

Positively Green

Natural resources vs. human resources

by Iris Harrell

Those of you who are regular readers of "Positively Green" know that I typically write about green building and construction, and living a green lifestyle. One of the main concerns of the green movement is how to conserve our natural resources for this and future generations. As a former school teacher, I see another connection between natural resources and our human resources when it comes to improving the environment and the conditions of life on earth.

Last year New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote an interesting article about the relationship of countries that have a shortage of natural resources and their better optimization of human resources when no other options were available (San Jose Mercury News, 3/11/12). His best example was Taiwan, which is his favorite country other than America. When asked why, he pointed out that Taiwan has no natural resources like gold or oil, but the education and skill level of its 23 million people makes it have the fourth largest financial reserves on the planet.

Taiwan's geographical make-up consists of barren rock in seas with reoccurring typhoons. Taiwan even has to import gravel and sand for its construction projects ... yet it is "rich"! How can a country without diamonds and forests, without iron ore or oil and very little coal or natural gas, be "rich"? Taiwan was forced early on in its economic development to rely on enlarging knowledge and skills of its people, since it had almost nothing in the ground to mine. Therefore education became a top priority for its economic growth. And fortunately education is one of those sustainable resources that "keeps on giving" without relying on finite and scarce natural resources.

Last year the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) completed a study that tested science, math and reading comprehension skills of 15-year-olds in 65 countries, posted against their country's total income from natural resources as a GDP percentage. In summation, how well the high school students of these countries did on science and math was measured in relation to how much oil was pumped or diamonds dug in each country. The relationship was very revealing. These PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) exams reveal a global pattern that is worth learning from. Which begs the question: Would standardized green education in public schools (science curriculum) help conserve resources or possibly reduce pollution or climate change?

The countries with high PISA scores and few natural resources are doing incredibly well (Finland, Japan, South Korea, Turkey, Hong Kong, Singapore). Yet many countries with high natural resources have lower PISA scores — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Kazakstan, Iran, Syria, Brazil, Mexico and Argentina, to name a few.

There are a few countries that have both high natural resources available and still score well on the PISA educational skills scores. Norway, Australia and Canada have government policies of high savings from the money made from extracting their natural resources. These countries have realized that their human resources are as valuable as their natural resources and that when they deplete all of the extractions from the ground, the human-resource investment is the sustainable one that will keep on giving high standard of living benefits to their citizens.

Friedman's whole point is that in the 21st century, how a country is going to really thrive is going to be measured from the number of highly effective teachers and committed students they have, not by their oil reserves or gold and diamond mines. Education is the 21st-century predictor for a country's wealth and improved societal outcome. When money is flowing because oil is flowing out of the ground, there is not as much effort required for a country's economic survival. This often leads to overlooking human resource development as the real winning hand for long-term success.

Those countries that realize they must live and survive by their skills and knowledge have given great emphasis to the quality of their national education systems. If America would recommit to improving our educational systems and making them more affordable for all of its citizens, we would be able to demonstrate like some of the other more advanced nations that human resources are our best sustainable and self-renewing resource.

The founder of Silicon Valley's Bloom Energy, KR Sridhar said it best. "When you don't have resources, you become more resourceful."

How green is that!

Iris Harrell is CEO and president of Harrell Remodeling, Inc. in Mountain View (www.harrell-remodeling.com). She can be reached at 650-230-2900 or irish@harrell-remodeling.com.

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