"America has poor people... with no house, job, education or healthcare?" was the question my cabbie asked me last week as we whisked along the causeway toward Sadiyaat Island. "Yes," I replied.
I was in the Middle East for the first time to attend a conference of investors, agencies, designers, ministers and kings on innovations in agriculture.
Prince Charles (via video remote) addressed the opening ceremony. Two hundred and fifty presenters, representing most of the nations of the West, the Middle East and Africa, all in Abu Dhabi for the Global Forum for Innovations in Agriculture or GFIA.
All of them, highlighting the extreme cost to our soil and water reserves incurred by the past 100 years of scorched earth agricultural activity -- each with a feed, sprinkler, tractor or robot intended to grow more and waste less while preserving precious water and healing our tired soil.
"But I thought America was the richest county in the world?" the Emirati taxi driver asked, as the on-board speed monitoring system chimed into our conversation to inform us we were exceeding the speed limit by more than 6 kilometers per hour. Two more violations like that and my driver would incur an automatic 100-dirham fine.
"America is superpower yes?" he said, with a tone of sincere confusion and a hint of disappointment. "We are" I responded, "We have the most powerful military in the world, in fact we can deliver a precision guided missile via remote control to any cell phone number in the world with the push of a button."
"But isn't a super power, a country rich enough to engage its population in meaningful work while offering all of its citizens adaptable access to world class education and health care?" I was stumped. This definition of a "superpower" had never been presented to me.
I was spending my days as a GFIA delegate along with my American partner with a group of mostly European, Middle Eastern and African leaders vastly more action oriented than any I had seen in my seven years as a participant at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
While Davos was always about projecting the identity of "importance" simply by virtue of ones attendance in the Swiss Alps -- GFIA in Abu Dhabi last week was laser focused on the foundations of global security in its truest sense.
GFIA's Mandate: What is your company, government or consortium doing in your country right now to enhance crop production, reduce waste, save water and heal the soil in a sustainable "7 generations" way? The existential threat of our time, climate and resource stability seen not as a subject for discussion, or feel as a good charitable activity -- rather as the defining systemic security issue in need of immediate and crucial action and implementation.
Folks offered everything from insect protein as feed for livestock, fish and chickens to a salt-water plant that turns into jet fuel or an electric tractor that has a universal spinning rod that can serve as a crane, drill, plow or motor for textiles, construction or harvesting tool. There was Agriculture software that boosts yields five to ten times, "floppy" sprinkler capable of watering 2x the land using 1/2 the water even salt-water tolerant potatoes, onions, carrots, beets and more.
In fact, attending GFIA made it clear that all the technology and resources are in place to collapse water consumption by 90% and multiply food production by a factor of three all while returning the land to a chemically decontaminated condition and employing millions of people in meaningful work. Leadership and implementation is what was missing.
"Why would America bankrupt itself at the expense of its own people simply to project military prowess half-way around the world? How is that a superpower?" my cabbie continued. I tried to detect malice or hostility in his voice, but it sounded more like a younger sibling discovering their older brother wasn't the person they had grown up admiring.
We pulled into my hotel, the air humid and dusty from that afternoon's sandstorm.
"The worlds first true superpower will be the country that creates meaningful work and shared prosperity for it's citizens and the world by implementing durable distributed grid resource systems that can be delivered anywhere in the world -- with the push of a button" I told him. "And you watch, Germany may the global leader in this regard today, but America will come through, I promise."
I paid him 50 dirhams. "We are counting on you," he said and drove off leaving me with the sound of the warm waves of the Persian Gulf splashing on the white powder sand just in front of the hotel.