As Japan’s economy sputters to a halt, the rest of the world looks on incredulously, wondering if this nation is up to the task of an overhaul.
Japan, however, is not the only country veering toward a breakdown, according to Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute and chairman of the Worldwatch Institute. He believes all nations are headed for trouble (though Denmark is doing better than most), and it is time to reconsider some of the fundamental assumptions underlying our economic policies.
Above all, we need to stop viewing the environment as a subset of the economy, and acknowledge that exactly the opposite is true.
Writing recently in The Ecologist (November 2001 and December/January 2002 issues), Brown argues that despite our high-tech urbanized lifestyles, we are just as dependent on the Earth’s natural systems today as were our hunter-gatherer ancestors before us. Unlike us, however, they admitted their dependence. Luckily, the source of our hubris may also prove our salvation: The science and technology that have led us to believe in our dominion over nature can help us learn to live within the limits of earth’s ecosystems.
The Ecologist articles are abridged from Brown’s latest book, “Eco-Economy,” which offers a blueprint for creating an ecologically sustainable economy.
“Today’s global economy has been shaped by market forces, not by the principles of ecology,” Brown explains. “Unfortunately, by failing to reflect the full costs of goods and services, the market provides misleading information to economic decision-makers at all levels. This has created a distorted economy that is out of sync with the Earth’s ecosystem — an economy that is destroying its natural support systems.”
Brown argues that the only sound economic policies are those that respect the principles of ecology. Integration of economics into ecology is “the only approach that reflects reality,” he believes, and this will require a revolutionary “paradigm shift.”
What we need, according to Brown, is an eco-economy, “one that satisfies our needs without jeopardizing the prospects of future generations to meet their needs.” The problem is how to get there.
“Not one country has a strategy to build an eco-economy,” he writes, though some nations are heading in the right direction. Thirty-one countries in Europe have stable population levels, “one of the most basic conditions of an eco-economy,” according to Brown. Europe has also stabilized its population within its own food-producing capacity.
Denmark, he notes, is doing a better job than most nations of reducing the size of its environmental footprint. Denmark has a stable population, has banned nonrefillable beverage containers and gets 15 percent of its electricity from wind-power generation. In addition, a third of all trips in Copenhagen are made by bicycle.
For nations to adopt eco-economies, two sectors of the economy — energy and materials — will require the greatest changes, reports Brown. Energy sources will shift from oil, coal and natural gas to wind, solar and geothermal energy, and fuel cells that use hydrogen will replace internal combustion engines. In the materials sector, he believes we must shift from our present linear model (production, use and disposal) to a “reuse/recycle model,” or a closed-loop system. “Recycling industries will largely replace extraction industries,” he writes.
Brown offers some specific examples of industries that might flourish in an eco-economy, a useful list for job hunters and venture capitalists. These include windfarm construction and wind-turbine manufacturing, hydrogen generation and fuel cell manufacturing, solar cell manufacturing, light rail construction, tree planting and fish farming.
As an eco-economy dawns, what will set? Nuclear-power generation will decline, Brown says, more due to high costs than to safety concerns. Disposable products will also be banned or taxed out of existence as countries work to create closed-loop material cycles.
He cites auto manufacturing as another “sunset industry,” predicting that “the conflict between the automobile and the city will intensify.”
Coal mining and oil pumping will also decline, while sustainable harvesting of timber will replace clear-cut logging. Brown terms the coming eco-economy the “Environmental Revolution” and believes no sector of the global economy will be left untouched.
In scale, he compares it to the previous Agricultural and Industrial revolutions. Putting his argument in historical perspective, he quotes Oystein Dahle, a retired vice president of Esso oil company: “Socialism collapsed because it did not allow prices to tell the economic truth,” Dahle said. “Capitalism may collapse because it does not allow prices to tell the ecological truth.”
Though Brown is not predicting the demise of capitalism, he is warning that everyone must begin to play by the rules, since a sustainable economy will only thrive within the bounds of ecology. Despite our magnificent achievements in the arts and sciences, humans still have much to learn about what these bounds entail.
As H.G. Wells wrote in “The Outline of History,” and Brown quotes, “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.” Brown’s book offers us an advantage in that race. Now all we have to do is overcome the inertia of the status quo in time to avert environmental catastrophe.