It’s Only When the Tide Goes Out That We Learn … Who‘s Been Swimming Naked [Warren Buffett]

When the Tide Goes Out!

There’s a pristine, protected bay between our island, Tierra Verde, and the Gulf Beaches. The bay is a favorite place for boaters to throw down an anchor and retreat to a Gulf Beach resort. But a few of the bay’s visitors ignore a fundamental of boating literacy – respect for changing tides. In the past few months no less than three boats capsized and were destroyed by shifting tides.

No matter how convinced the boaters are about the calm waters, when an anchor is thrown in shallow waters at high tide, there’s a costly and painful lesson to be learned when the tide goes out.

Those of us who aren’t boaters can impolitely laugh and joke about the boaters’ follies. But unfortunately, unrealistic “high-tide thinking“ is prevalent in much of what we do. It’s the cause of most human crises, like the recent economic crisis and its legions of foreclosures. As billionaire, Warren Buffett, known for his astute investing, wrote off over $500 million in losses, George Mannes wrote for CNN Money:

A nugget of wisdom that Warren Buffett has passed along more than once to Berkshire Hathaway investors is this: “You only find out who is swimming naked when the tide goes out. ” What the oracular Omahan seems to have meant by this is that you don’t really know or appreciate the risks that companies are taking until they are tested by adverse conditions–a corollary to the saying that everyone looks like a genius in a bull market. Buffett used the line a year ago, for example, in reference to the follies of large financial institutions exposed by falling home prices.

Our prime concern, however, is not about economic high-tide thinking and its painful lessons. It’s about the ecology of our earth – and the warning signs of a rapidly depleting earth we ignore at our peril. It’s about our reservoirs of fresh drinking water, disappearing as glaciers melt, creating water shortages around the globe. Its about food shortages as the the earth’s once healthy soil turns to dust and spoils as the earth warms. Dust bowls and water shortages are spreading across Central Africa and parts of China and Mongolia. Elsewhere, crops once used as food are now used as biofuel, driving up shortages and prices.

The effect has created “The New Geopolitics of Food.” To protect their threatened food supplies countries, including China, are buying crop lands in South America and elsewhere. The effect is to deprive those in the countries whose land has been acquired from crops shipped to the purchasing countries. There is a growing fear of a food war as a result of what is being called the growing and unholy “land grab.” Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Chile have taken steps to protect their land and limit foreign ownership.

Renowned scientist Lester R. Brown writes in World on Edge:

We are liquidating the earth’s natural assets to fuel our consumption. Half of us live in countries where the water tables are falling and wells are going dry. Soil erosion exceeds soil formation on one-third of the world’s cropland … [We] are converting vast stretches of grassland to desert.

A May study appearing in the Science Journal concludes, “Climate trends were large enough in some countries to offset a significant portion of the increases in average yields that arose from technology, CO2 fertilization, and other factors.“

There are those, including the far right governors, like Florida’s Governor Scott, and legislators, who find no “credible evidence” of global warming or planetary abuse. For them, and those of us who choose to adopt their high-tide thinking, it’s business as usual. That is, until the shrinking resources of our earth, like the receding high tide, are gone.

In its May 16, 2011 editorial USA Today concludes:

One way to deal with a problem is to pretend it doesn’t exist. This approach has the virtue of relieving you from having to come up with a solution, spend money or make tough choices. … Such is the case with climate change, a threat that too many members of Congress, most of them Republicans, have decided to manage by denying the science. That head-in-the-sand approach avoids messy discussions of higher energy prices, but it just got harder to justify.

Late last week, the nation’s pre-eminent scientific advisory group, the National Research Council arm of the National Academy of Sciences, issued a report called “America’s Climate Choices.” As scientific reports go, its key findings were straightforward and unequivocal: “Climate change is occurring, is very likely caused primarily by human activities, and poses significant risks to humans and the environment.” Among those risks in the USA: more intense and frequent heat waves, threats to coastal communities from rising sea levels, and greater drying of the arid Southwest. ,,, Taken together, these developments ought to leave the deniers in the same position as the “birthers,” who continue to challenge President Obama’s American citizenship — a vocal minority that refuses to accept overwhelming evidence.

In June 1967, when I was sworn in as a member of the Florida Bar. I was honored to give the “acceptance speech” on behalf of Florida’s new lawyers.

The speech was titled, “Which Way America?” based on a theme song of Up With People, an organization dedicated to bringing the world together. A few nights before the Bar ceremonies, our family had attended an Up With People concert. As the concert neared its end, a young man stood at center stage, the only light upon him, and sang, “Which way America, which way to go. Which way America, this is my country and I want to know.”

We who have ignored the seriousness of the question in generations past must now stand up and provide the answer, and the right answer must include thoughtful ecological considerations about this globe we call our home.

So, I close with a question from Warren Buffett: When the Tide Goes Out, Will We Have Learned or Will We Be Swimming Naked?

And a challenge from Up With People: Which Way America, Which Way to Go?

And a 150-year old lesson from Chief Seattle:

“Teach your children what we have taught ours, that the earth is our mother. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. The earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the earth. Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.”

Leave a Reply

6 Comments on "It’s Only When the Tide Goes Out That We Learn … Who‘s Been Swimming Naked [Warren Buffett]"

Notify of

A superb analogy, Dick. I will share this post with many – some will get it, some won’t, but I will perhaps make an impression. Thank you!

Thank you Dick for your stunning photography!
Michael & Ilana

Brilliant application of a single photo capturing the essence of an essay…(“a picture being worth a thousand words”)! Your article, as always, is an expression of the depth of understanding and concern you have for our ability to live in harmony with our planet earth…Thanks!


Love the photo!


As always your blog is spot on. I assume you took that great photo. I also assume, like I do, whether these blog make a difference. I pray they do.


Excellent article!