If you’ve not yet read my book, you may be unfamiliar with the history of the universe. Here it is, in a nutshell, which I hereby grant myself permission to excerpt (apologies to those of you who have already read it):

The universe exploded into existence 15 billion years ago, or so they say. I find this hard to believe, in part for all the obvious reasons (could Bill Gates really have three dollars for every year since the beginning of the universe?), not to mention the logical headaches (where did it come from?), but I am one of the millions of readers who stopped understanding Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time midway through Chapter 4, so let’s just assume it’s true.

For the first 10 billion years, nothing happened.

Then — they say — the Earth was formed. That was about 5 billion years ago, give or take.

Now, to put this in a scale we can more or less comprehend, imagine that one century equals an inch. A hundred years, an inch. On that scale, the Earth was formed 789 miles ago. Milwaukee, if you live in New York. Denver, if you live in L.A. New Orleans, if you live in Chicago.

And every hundred years since the Earth was formed, you moved one inch closer to today.

I know this sounds like the story of the bird that lives on the cliff above the beach. (Every hundred years, it flies down from its perch and eats one grain of sand from the beach. When the bird … [pause for effect] … has eaten all the sand on the beach … [pause and then intone solemnly] … one second of eternity shall have elapsed.) I love that story.

The difference is, this story is real, as best we know. One century, one inch, 789 miles, give or take, since the Earth began.

The first four billion and some years nothing happened. Oceans, mountains, DNA maybe — don’t hold me to exact dates. But it was really, really slow. One inch a century. That brought you to around Scranton or Death Valley or Indianapolis.

Oh, sure, life was evolving, but it would be another 800 million years or so before you got your dinosaurs, and 140 million years more until they disappeared — which brings us, 60 million years ago, just 9 miles or so from today.

And in the 59.9 million years after that, bringing us up to 100,000 years ago, and 83 feet from where you’re sitting, still nothing much happened. Early man had evolved, and I don’t know, maybe he had invented primitive language, maybe fire, maybe the wheel.

Finally, inching along, century by century, about half a foot away, we came up with printing, and a few inches later, steam.

But my point is this: In the last inch and a half — the last 150 years — we have invented everything. Electricity, automobiles, radios, television, computers, faxes, airplanes, lasers, microwaves, Velcro — everything. And it’s only accelerating. As with any unimaginably complex jigsaw puzzle, the first pieces take forever to piece together. But as more pieces fit, the faster and faster it takes shape. We are mapping the human genome. (Decades ago, don’t forget, with by-now ancient technology, humans walked on the moon.) We are cloning living beings and freezing others, with the prospect, one day, of bringing them back to life.

None of this makes any sense whatever to me as a layman, except in one very obvious overall way; namely, that we are either at the beginning or the end of the human species, for all practical purposes. In the next inch or so, we will either screw it all up, a la nuclear winter or the release of some plague to end all plagues, or else we will launch ourselves into the dawn of an entirely new era (and even one day get enough human consciousnesses off this physical globe so that, should some comet hale-bopp into us one day, all will not be lost).

This huge, long journey that began with the formation of our planet 789 miles ago, proceeding century-long inch … after inch … now has reached what really appears to be the climax.

So?

So what we do matters.

There are dozens of persuasive political and economic philosophies, and I certainly don’t pretend to know for sure which is best. But I know this: Whatever your politics or ideology — or even your religion — waste is bad. Waste impoverishes us all.

Thus, without being slavish or ridiculous about it, a good starting point for anyone in stewarding his or her money, it seems to me, is to try to spend, invest, and donate wisely. At worst, it will do no good (I think it will do lots of good). But where’s the harm?

Just a few words here to note that waste is not all of a single kind or severity. For example, if I get a parking ticket, I’ve learned not to let it bother me. So long as I wasn’t blocking traffic or creating a hazard, what difference does it make? Instead of feeding a quarter in the meter, I send the city $35. The money doesn’t disappear, and given what I already pay in taxes, another $35 is so trivial as not to be worth a second thought. No appreciable resources have been wasted, no appreciable human effort misdirected. (Yes, there’s the meter maid, but it’s unrealistic to think that a change in my behavior will obviate the need for them — more likely they’ll soon invent some sort of "wand" that can be quickly passed over the meter and your license plate, automatically printing and mailing you a ticket, and perhaps debiting your checking account.)

But compare that with the time my car was parked 18 inches too close to a fire hydrant (but I swear there was still plenty of room — honest!). Instead of a ticket, my car was towed, and damaged in the process. The $125 ticket and $75 in towing fees weren’t the waste. It was damaging a perfectly good car that was a waste … and all the time (and a bit of fuel) involved in towing the car and then my having to go and retrieve it, and the paperwork, and … it wasn’t the stuff of an NBC special report. But this is what I mean by waste.

Leaving a tool outside to rust is a waste.

Burning fuel into the air to power a Sea-Doo is a waste — but it’s so damn much fun, it’s one of those trade-offs that’s not so simple. Part of the trick may be to build the "externalities" — the awful racket Sea-Doos make, the pollution they cause, the cost of disposing of them when they’re eventually junked and wash up on some seashore — into the price of driving them.

Long brisk walks are less wasteful than unused treadmills and Exercycles. (If you use yours, that’s different. But most of the exercise equipment I’ve bought over the years sits unpedalled.)

Spending money on a fancy dinner isn’t a waste, in the sense that you’re simply transferring most of it to other people — you’re satisfying each other’s needs. (In this country, given our resources, capital and technology, we’d need relatively few people just to feed, clothe and house us. The rest of the jobs, so long as we enjoy or profit from the products and services they create, are valuable too. Man does not live by bread alone.)

Digging for gold is a waste. After all, gold’s value lies largely in its scarcity. (We have more than enough already for our industrial and decorative needs.) Digging more only makes it less scarce.

Building casinos may add some measure of happiness to the lives of those who enjoy gambling, but would seem to be a lot less productive then building a factory or a school or a research lab.

And so on. You get the idea. And your judgment in assessing wastefulness is just as valid as mine — and we may differ. But it’s an assessment we six billion earthly denizens should perhaps routinely make. To me, spending $5 billion a year in the U.S. to promote the leading cause of preventable death is a waste — which accounts for my hectoring over the years on the tobacco issue. Bulldozing a clubhouse and filling in a perfectly fine pool, only to one day rebuild it, is a waste — which accounts for some of my misery [described earlier in the book] regarding Miami real estate. And you already know past all patience what I think about that other obsession of mine [also described earlier in the book]. With luck, one day there will be a postscript. In America, anything is possible.

 

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