Economy, ecology out of sync: environmentalist

by Gary Tegler

SEIKA, Kyoto Pref. — Collapsing fisheries, shrinking farmland and rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are symptoms of severe stress put on the environment by a world whose population is spinning out of control, according to Lester Brown, chairman and founder of the prestigious Worldwatch Institute in Washington.

Speaking here earlier this week at “World Environment Forum 2001” at Keihanna Plaza, Brown took up the issue of a coming paradigm shift in the relation between the world economy and world ecology.

Before a crowd of more than 200 businesspeople, students, scholars and environmentalists, he sounded a note of dire warning, but also emphasized that even with the present technology we can begin solving environmental problems.

He began with the startling revelation that the world’s population has grown more in the last 50 years than it grew during the preceding 4 million years.

“We have designed an economy that has been highly successful in growth terms up to now, but one that is increasingly out of sync with the Earth’s ecosystem,” Brown said. “I don’t think we have grasped what it means, nor the consequences.”

Brown chose two examples to illustrate the seriousness of the current situation — the melting of the world’s ice and the decline of water tables around the globe. Last August, an American icebreaker reached the North Pole only to find there was no ice. Studies have shown that the Arctic Sea has lost more than 40 percent of its ice in the last 35 years alone, he said.

A 1-meter rise in the ocean’s levels, well within the range of possibility according to a World Bank study published last year, would result in Bangladesh losing half its rice fields. Similar trends in the Himalayas, the source of Asia’s major rivers, will eventually change the hydrology of Asia, Brown said.

His second observation dealt with the decline of water tables and aquifers around the world due to overpumping and inefficient management. Despite a tendency for many people to view water scarcity as a regional problem, what is happening in China should concern us all, he said.

Aquifers in China have been falling dramatically wherever the land is flat. The water table under Beijing fell last year by nearly 3 meters, while in the North China Plain, which produces 40 percent of China’s grain harvest, the water table has been falling almost 11/2 meters a year. As demand for water by cities and industries increases, China has continually diverted water from agriculture.

“Grain is then imported to offset the loss of productive capacity,” Brown said. “We are feeding ourselves, in part, by borrowing water from our children. That’s not a winning proposition,” he said.

Water scarcity is also moving across national borders via the international grain trade.

Regarding Japan, Brown acknowledged that the country leads the world in the design and manufacture of rooftop solar panels, but feels the country can do far more in exploring alternative sources of energy.

“It seems to me that Japan is falling behind,” he noted. “In a country as rich in geothermal energy resources, we should be seeing a lot more progress than we are. Solar energy is good and will certainly play an important role in Third World villages that are still not on a grid. But Japan is doing very little on wind and almost nothing on geothermal,” Brown said. “These are two of the major energy sources for the new energy economy.”

Indeed, one of the world’s main sources of energy in the future may, literally, be blowing in the wind.

Brown cited studies by the U.S. Department of Energy that looked at wind resources throughout the country. North Dakota, Kansas and Texas have sufficient wind energy that can be harnessed to satisfy the nation’s electricity needs, according to the report.

In Europe, countries including Denmark, Scotland, Germany and the Netherlands are beginning to locate wind farms offshore using technology learned from the oil industry.

Brown noted, however, that the severity of the Earth’s environmental problems is obscured by the marketplace.

“The market is giving us the wrong signal,” he said. “For example, if you burn a liter of gasoline, the price of that gasoline reflects the cost of pumping the oil out of the ground, refining and delivering the gasoline to the service station. You buy the gasoline. What you do not pay for is the cost of damages to crops and forests from acid rain, the costs of climate disruption or air pollution.

“The challenge is how to get the market to tell the truth. The way to do that is to restructure the tax system so that when we buy a liter of gasoline, we pay the full cost of using it,” he said.

He also decried government subsidization of scarce resources.

“One of the biggest items in the budgets of the U.S. and India is subsidies to farmers to buy electricity,” he explained. “They get electricity at a small fraction of what it costs to run their irrigation pumps. This is subsidizing the depletion of aquifers. Since it costs nothing to pump, farmers use it wastefully.”

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