10/20/2010 04:48 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Your Life Depends Upon This Tiny Plant

When asked the following question, most people guess the wrong answer. Question: What is worse: the collapse of the banking system or the collapse of phytoplankton?

Actually, most people don't know that this tiny plant life called phytoplankton is so small -- as small as bacteria -- that more than one trillion of them exist in a single drop of water. They live at the top levels of the ocean, worldwide.

The world's oceans look blue-green because of the phytoplankton. Similar in nature to bacteria, they can easily multiply. And, like the bacteria, they exist within a narrow range of temperatures. Beyond that range, they die. And therein lies the crux of the problem for humanity.

Phytoplankton is a keystone plant species and is the basis for all life in the ocean. Living close to the surface of the world's oceans, it is also responsible for producing 70% of the oxygen of the planet; the very air that we breathe. And they are disappearing at an alarming rate.

According to the Goddard Space Flight Center and NASA, phytoplankton in the North Pacific have dropped 30% since the 1980s.

Can we live without a banking system? The short answer is "Yes." Can life on Earth exist without phytoplankton? "No."

The risk to phytoplankton from climate change is so great that it has become the "persona non grata" in public discussions about climate change. It's easier to ask people to imagine a world without oil, than asking them to imagine living without the air they breathe.

And the two are interconnected. To save the phytoplankton, we may have to greatly limit our use of oil.

Is this possible? In his monthly update on the level of foreign oil imports in the U.S., energy expert T. Boone Pickens reported that the U.S. imported 60 percent of its oil, or 346 million barrels in September 2010, sending approximately $26.0 billion, or $602,720 per minute, to foreign countries. Pickens is calling for a switch to natural gas, however it too carries risks.

This month, U.S. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus called for 50 percent of all power for bases, cars, and ships for the Navy and the Marines to come from renewable sources by 2020. This is a big step in the right direction.

The U.S.S. Makin Island, for example is a hybrid sea vessel, which runs on electricity rather than on fossil fuel at speeds under 10 knots. On its maiden voyage from Mississippi to San Diego, the ship saved an impressive 900,000 gallons of fuel compared with a conventional ship its size.

Cities, who are networked through the or National League of Cities ( also have a role to play in shifting our dependency on oil by engaging citizens in goal setting. Des Moines, Iowa, Mayor Frank Cownie and I worked together with city residents to "Imagine Life Without Oil." What the one-day planning session tapped into was a power greater than that produced by oil. It tapped into the imaginative power of the mind.

With all energy use sectors addressed, city residents worked together to imagine a day in the life of Des Moines without oil. What unfolded was a vision of Utopian scale, with community at the center. If rated on a Happiness Index, it would be a 10.

While few people have ever looked up close at a single drop of water -- home to a trillion phytoplankton -- the lives of eight Billion people, in fact all life on Earth, depend upon their well being.

Thanks to Joel Rauch M.D. for his
timely discussions about bacteria and phytoplankton. I first reported on the decline of the phytoplankton eight years ago in my book, Rapid Evolution, quoting scientists from the National Ocean and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) and the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR)

Alexia Parks is founder and director of Parkinomics, for the New Economy. She is also author of eight books, including Parkinomics, an Amazon business and motivational bestseller. It offers "8 great ways to thrive in the New Economy", for the individual who wants to lead a life of "meaning, prosperity, and purpose." Parkinomics includes ideas and links to resources.