What will world leaders pay for a good night’s sleep? $100 Trillion over the next twenty years.

O, sleep it is a gentle thing,

Beloved from pole to pole!

To Mary Queen the praise be given!

She sent the gentle sleep from Heaven,

That slid into my soul. – Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

As described in the previous LOTRW post, world leaders rest uneasy for many and diverse reasons, but there’s one insomnia-inducing concern that besets them all: any interruption of life’s essentials – food, water, and energy – for their people. The noblest see meeting this public need as their sacred responsibility. But even the most self-serving, duplicitous, tyrannical of leaders recognize such disruptions as a threat to their continued life of privilege.

Time was when securing these necessities was a universal and individual concern – and, for that matter, all-consuming. Farmers, hunters, gatherers couldn’t depend on any state to meet these needs. In fact, there was no state. Even as recently as 1800, 90% of the American labor force were farmers. The implication? At the country’s founding, essentially everyone was spending all waking hours eking out these three essentials.

But the Industrial Revolution and urbanization have changed all that. Today agricultural workers comprise only 1% of the U.S. labor force; farming per se contributes only 1% to GDP. (Agriculture-related industries contribute another 4-5%.) The Energy Information Administration tells us that the fraction of GDP that is energy related is something like 10% (varying between 6-14% depending on price fluctuations). The picture for water? Far murkier. But annual direct investments appear to be only a percent or so of GDP.

Adding all this up shows clear progress. Only 10-20% of U.S. attention is taken up with meeting these basic needs. This allows the majority of us to produce wealth through other means: manufacturing, services, and, by no means least – innovation – accelerating that economic growth. (This latter figure is also small; U.S. R&D is only about 3% of GDP[1]).

So far, so good. But worldwide, we’re told:

According to the World Economic Forum, the world needs to invest $26T in water infrastructure over and above the current rate of investment between now and 2030.

According to the International Energy Agency, the world needs to invest more than $48T in energy infrastructure prior to 2035.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates agricultural investments (as opposed to agricultural expenditures), in the developing world alone, over a comparable period need to be the order of $250B/year or $5T over twenty years. (Most of this will be made by farmers themselves as opposed to governments.)

Sum this all up and the bill for energy, water-resource, and agricultural investments comes to $80B over the next two decades. To a single significant figure? $100T. (Not $1000T; but not a mere $10T either.)

The figures quoted above are uncertain, and represent only a sample of the available estimates. For example, a separate World Economic Forum report puts needs for infrastructure investment more broadly (including transportation and waste disposal) at $5T/year for twenty years, or $100T. Another way of arriving at a comparable figure, within the uncertainties acknowledged here? Take the far-more-carefully constructed ASCE estimate of infrastructure investment needs in the United States alone, estimated to be $3.6T (by 2020! But let’s ignore that more urgent time frame) and multiply by the ratio of U.S. population to world population, and again you arrive at a $100T figure.

Two other statistics merit inclusion in this mix. Losses due to natural hazards, if they remain true to form, will amount to $5T globally over the next twenty years.

And Costanza et al. 2014 put the annual loss of ecosystem services[2] over the prior twenty years due to land-use changes at $4-20T/year. A great deal of uncertainty here, but taking the lower end of the estimate and extrapolating suggests an $80T loss in ecosystem services from this cause over the coming two decades.

Bottom line? It’s hard to shake the conclusion that over the next twenty years something like a $100T needs to be spent on energy, water, and food infrastructure, with investment in community resilience to hazards and protection of critical ecosystem services thrown in, if we’re to meet the needs of nine billion people.

Can world leaders foot the bill? Or is the sum too outsized? You be the judge. The figure is eye-wateringly large (per the graphic at the head of this post). But it amounts to no more than 5% of expected world GDP over the same period. This works out to something like $500/person worldwide per year, or a bit more than a dollar a day. Not bad in the developed world, but comparable to the total annual income for many of the world’s poorest.

That said, the world’s leaders, even the most selfish and tightfisted, might see this cheap at the price if it means sleeping easy. And you and I join them in this respect! Meet global needs for food, water, and energy, and we’ll all sleep well.

An added bonus? It puts people to work! More on this latter important aspect in a coming LOTRW post.


[1] With respect to percentages, we’re behind a number of countries, including Denmark, Finland, Germany, Israel, Japan, South Korea, and Sweden.

[2] ecosystem services fall into four broad categories: provisioning, such as the production of food and water; regulating, such as the control of climate and disease; supporting, such as nutrient cycles and crop pollination; and cultural, such as spiritual and recreational benefits. To help inform decision-makers, many ecosystem services are being assigned economic values.


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One Response to What will world leaders pay for a good night’s sleep? $100 Trillion over the next twenty years.

  1. Bill:-

    My takeaways…

    We need to invest $X T so that … why? Is this to provide energy and water systems to folks who won’t be able to maintain them? Or to provide those services in ways that may not be culturally appropriate? Or simply to provide funds to bureaucrats and their governmental sponsors? We can’t provide these things without the education to service them and people who want what we can provide.

    Are Americans supposed to pony up the dough? Hard sell, especially after the wealth we have transferred to other countries this century – an amount equal in value to all of the gold ever mined.

    If these numbers are real, the investments are not sustainable. The ONLY HOPE is for innovation, esp. at the local level. Our increasing agricultural productivity this century indicates that we can innovate even in endeavors as mature as agriculture. But in the US (and much of the developed world) we are still providing energy and water to the populace in essentially the same ways we did in the ’50’s and ’60’s.

    Governments can help – and if they have discretionary funds they can help a lot. But they are not really the answer. The UN is not the answer. If there ever were problems demanding “Whole of Community” approaches, providing potable water, food and CARE (consistent, affordable and reliable energy) to all certainly qualify. But the answers must be local: what works in the US now may not work in a Third World community. However much we may want to see all people adequately fed, watered, and powered, ultimately they will have to forge their own path to that state.

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