image of Alvaro Ugalde climbing hill

In Alvaro’s Words

Latin Trade Bravo Business Awards
Miami, Florida, United States
October 29, 2010

Muy buenas noches amigas y amigos.

It is a real honor to receive this award with all of you, especially with Pilar Nores, the charming First Lady of Peru and with President Alvaro Uribe, you are a president of the world.

Let’s take just a few seconds to admire a couple of images that I believe will provide a good context for some of the thoughts I’d like to express.

(“The Blue Marble” and “Pale Blue Dot” images projected on screen)

I’m sure we all agree that Earth is a really beautiful planet. But we must also understand, that it is very, very tiny, and that life is only possible, within an astoundingly thin layer around it, equivalent to a plastic wrap around a ball, our biosphere: the niche occupied by humans and all life on the planet.

Whether you’re a successful CEO, a powerful political figure, or an environmentalist, there is one, unrelenting truth that applies to us all in equal measure. Often expressed in Latin as “ex nihilo nihil fit,” this universal tenet tells us that “nothing comes from nothing.” In other words, it is impossible to create something out of nothing.

Because our Planet is virtually a closed system, whatever human wealth we’ve created, built, or manufactured here on earth, necessarily meant the reduction of another kind of wealth we don’t usually account for on our financial statements: our natural capital. Without fail, at the absolute beginning of the most ultimate of supply chains, and at several points further along it, a forest was cleared, the atmosphere was impacted, a river’s flow was polluted, diverted, or obstructed, and non-human life was taken, in order to provide us with the kind of life we’ve wanted for ourselves. I do not say this judgmentally, but rather as a matter of fact; it is simply the way things are because we must remember that in order to have something, we must diminish something else.

Absolutely no one or nothing escapes this truth, not me, not you, not the plane I boarded to get me to Miami, not the iPhone whose circuitry may contain copper from a mine somewhere, not the cloud forests that provide clean drinking water for me and other Costa Ricans, not the cow pastures that displace those cloud forests.

1940s Costa Rica was 3/4 covered with untouched forests, and its populace was still largely barefoot. Then, during that same decade, came government policies that eliminated the army, and directed capital investment into education, health, and other social welfare programs. Today, in terms of several conventional indicators, Costa Rica is considered a model for developing nations… In effect, because nothing comes from nothing, a considerable amount of my country’s forests and other natural capital was processed into schools, hospitals, pasturelands, infrastructure and services, not to mention more Costa Ricans.

We now have our shoes. We also have our cars, our highways, and our own Four Seasons Hotel and many others. But much of the country’s economic growth in recent decades may not have occurred if it hadn’t been for the strong conservation effort started in 1970 that slowed the several decades-old trend towards natural capital depletion.

Costa Rica’s national parks and equivalent reserves, whose creation I am proud to have been a tiny part of, not only help protect more than 4% of earth’s biodiversity, in a country so tiny that it is usually invisible in global maps, but also helped restore forest back to near half of Costa Rica’s land area, after falling to a low of approximately 1/5 in the 80s. On top of this, these parks played a pivotal role in consolidating what is today perhaps our top money maker: the tourism industry. It was an excellent investment in our natural capital.

Furthermore, the national park system, together with other lands that have been acquired and protected by local communities, non-profit organizations and individuals, have helped maintain vital services the Planet provides us, services we notoriously take for granted, such as the provision of drinking water, the hidden water contained in virtually all our goods and services, soil erosion control, flood mitigation, carbon sinking and climate moderation.

Costa Rica’s conservation movement is simply one example of times throughout the world, when humans have curbed the rate of conversion of natural capital into manufactured capital, essentially and perhaps unwittingly, striking a better balance between material development and the protection of the resources that make that kind of development even possible, not to mention sustainable over time.

But this balance remains a precarious one at best, both in Costa Rica and the world.

In his book Ecological Intelligence, Daniel Goleman asks us to imagine:

“What would happen if the knowledge now sequestered among specialists like industrial ecologists, were made available to the rest of us: taught to kids in school, easily available on the web, boiled down into evaluations of the things we buy and do, and summarized as we were about to make a purchase…If we knew the hidden impacts of what we buy, sell, or make, with the precision of an industrial ecologist, we could become shapers of a more positive future, by making our decisions better align with our values.”

Goleman is describing the ultimate free market world, a world in which accurate and holistic market information is readily available to everyone, a world in which all humans comprehend the full opportunity costs associated with the deterioration of our natural capital and life-support systems, a world in which we will have perhaps, redefined what we mean by “development” and gained a complete understanding of the fact that…nothing can come from nothing, it must always come from something else.

He is also telling us that, when humans become ecologically intelligent, we will generate a market force and a demand for a series of innovations, and each one of them will constitute an opportunity for business.

I invite all of us here tonight to do everything in our power to bring us closer to that world. As I have always been, I am very optimistic that we will.

Thank you Latin Trade and everyone associated with the BRAVO Business Awards, for this wonderful honor and the opportunity to talk about the impossibility of something from nothing and about the urgency and the possibility of doing so much more.

Thank you all.