As we rode in our mini bus through the humid heat of Borneo, I tried to collect my thoughts amongst the wind blowing through our open windows to cool us down. Instead of the luscious rain forests we saw in the earlier part of the trip, we were now stuck in acres of palm tree plantations that lined the pot-hole filled street on both sides.
The palm plantations were formerly rain forests containing rare animals and plants that evolved for millions of years on the secluded island of Borneo to become unique to the world. The luscious forests were filled with Orangutans, the unique big-nosed Proboscis monkeys and an unknowable number of herbal healing secrets that are forever lost.
Now the land is full of palm plantations. It’s easy to take the first-world approach and say the locals have desecrated the land and removed some of the most precious forests from the world. Their selfish deeds have contributed to global warming by clearing the land with the force of fire whose smoke pollutes the rest of the world.
But you know, it actually makes economic sense for the locals to slash and burn the rain forests so they can provide for themselves. They’ve created an economy where before there was only worthless green space. They’ve created wealth that provides for their family, workers, and community. So why shouldn’t they be allowed to clear the rain forests?
In fact, the plantations full of palm trees provide a very good living for its owners and provides a decent living wage for many of the illegal immigrant workers as well as legal laborers. The primary purpose of the plantations is to produce palm oil. Each tree remains productive and fruit-bearing from age 3 through 26 years. After this, they’ll be cut down and replanted.
Each acre of palm can produce up to 20 tons of palm fruit per year. According to our Malaysian tour guide who took us around the city of Sandakan, each ton of palm fruit yields 600-700 Malaysia Ringgit which equals $200-$235 per year for the grower. If you’re able to clear 100 acres of rain forest and plant palm trees, you’re looking at $20,000 US per year! That’s a lot of money in the US and even more in Malaysia.
The original land was beautiful and the plants and animals were perfectly evolved into their ecosystem. They each had their specific purpose and trait which perfectly suited them to their environment and contributed to the survival of the rest of the plants and animals.
The beasts roamed the forests unchained and used their instincts to survive and thrive. Their only limitations were the territories each of them fought to gain and fought even harder to maintain. Now that the rain forests have been cleared out, the beasts have dwindled and the larger majority of their surviving relatives are caged in zoos and fed by the humans who display them.
The beasts have been killed or caged, but it makes economic sense. The land is no longer serving its original purpose, but it makes economic sense.
What economically sensible choices are you making?
Everyday we make decisions that might make the most economic sense. When I was deeply in debt, the right decision for me was to work as much as I could, travel as much as I could for work because I received a daily travel allowance, and to spend as little as I could at home. In fact, I traveled between Monday and Thursday almost every week for seven years. It was a great opportunity, but I also realized I felt like a stranger in my own home and that my relationships were lacking.
At times, the right economic decisions are to work as much as you can so you can get your money under control. It is a sacrifice you’ll need to make for you or your family to help you out in the long run. However, there are other times when the right economic decision may not be the right life decision.
The same is true with the rain forests. Just because it might be the right economic decision to exploit the land for profit, it obviously isn’t always the best choice for the long term.
At some point we all have to decide what is enough. Do you still want to buy a new car if it means it’ll add five more years to your retirement age? Is keeping up with the Jones’ worth the indentured service you’ll owe your company for decades to come? Will the next recession prove to be the one that takes out your company and your livelihood because you’re one of the 1/3rd of Americans who are living paycheck to paycheck?
The trees in the rainforest represent the minutes in our life. It might make economic sense to cut them down or to give away your minutes to work, but what happens when all of the trees (and minutes) are gone? The trees in the rain forest can be replanted and would someday return when humans are gone, but we can’t replace the minutes in our life.
The beasts in the rain forests are like the beasts inside us all – the inner yearnings and talents that make us individuals; the wants and desires to do something we feel we were meant to do. The beasts in the rain forests were killed and caged without their consent, but we’re all to willing to lock our inner-beast away in the name of job security and economic sense; while the beast stares at us through the bars wondering why it’s not free; like the orangutan at the zoo who sits there all day staring at the people who go by and maybe dreaming of the freedom it once had.
However, unlike the orangutan at the zoo, we have a way out. It all starts by making the decision to take control of your life and to think about what makes you fulfilled – is it a new car or is it spending time with your family? Is it starting your own business or spending as much time as possible traveling? Whatever your priorities, start making decisions to support them. Stop buying crap you don’t need so you can instead save for the trip you wanted to take. Stop buying crap you don’t need so you can leave a job you might hate and pursue something you love. Start focusing on your priorities. Oh yeah, and save the rain forests :).