Building an Economy for the Earth

Posted: 24 April 2002

Author: Lester R. Brown
Norton, USA, and Earthscan, UK, 2001/2002,
US$15.95, £17.99

This is more than a book. It is the start of a new campaign by the president of the recently formed Earth Policy Institute, and founder of the Worldwatch Institute, to inform the world about the changes needed to save the natural support systems of the global economy.

coverPerhaps no one has done more, over the years, than Lester Brown to beat the drum of planetary salvation. He has authored or contributed to 18 editions of State of the World, nine editions of Vital Signs and 11 other Worldwatch titles dealing with environmental issues. Many of these have become college course books, and all have been widely translated.

Here, he distils all that accumulated wisdom into a single volume which seeks to go beyond concern over shrinking forests, expanding deserts, collapsing fisheries, rising carbon dioxide, melting glaciers, rising seas and dying corals. It seeks, rather, to outline a vision of a sustainable economic system - an eco-economy - and to create a continuing debate on the issue through new reports and analysis.

At the heart of that vision (which can only be realised if conventional approaches to economics are turned upside down) is "a recognition that the economy is part of the earth's ecosystem and can sustain progress only if it is restructured so that it is compatible with it."

In Lester Brown's view that means that our fossil fuel based, automobile-centred, throwaway economy is not a viable model for the world. "The alternative is a solar/hydrogen economy, an urban transport system that is centred on advanced-design public rail systems...and a comprehensive reuse/recycle economy. And we need to stabilize population as soon as possible."

One key to doing this, he says, is to reform the tax system. This, for example, would put a price on climate disruption and pollution, and tax coal-fired electricity accordingly. This seems a forlorn hope in a country such as the United States, where the administration has withdrawn from the Kyoto protocol on climate change and seeks to step up fossil-based energy production by any means, but Brown points to many positive examples to show what can be done.

He points out that China, for example, has reduced its fertility rate to below two children per woman, and is thus heading for population stability. Denmark has banned the construction of coal-fired power plants. Israel has pioneered new technologies to raise water productivity. South Korea has covered its hills with trees. Costa Rica has opted for a renewable energy system. Germany is planning to reduce income taxes and to offset them with increased energy taxes. The Dutch are showing how to build urban transport structures, which give the bicyclea central role in increasing urban mobility and quality of life. And Finland has banned the use of non-refillable drink containers.

The urgency and imperative for such changes is highlighted by the example of China, which has chosen to fuel its economic growth through cars and roads on the western model. But says Brown, if China were to have a car in every garage, American style, it would need 80 million gallons of oil a day - more than the world currently produces. And if China were to use as much paper per person as in the United States, it would need more paper than the world produces. Such forms of development would need four planets, not one.

So how are the tentative changes glimpsed in some countries to become the paradigm shift in understanding and behaviour that is so urgently needed? Lester Brown takes comfort in the thought that we now know the outlines of a sustainable economy, critically based on a shift from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy. But just how corporations will change their ravenous ways, governments take the long-term view, and people come to understand the need for change is less clear.

There are many unspoken issues, relating to the whole structure of our unequal world, which will affect the answer to such questions. But this book and the continuing work of people like Lester Brown, gives some hope that inertia will - before too long - turn to concerted action.

Reviewer: John Rowley

Reviewer Info: John Rowley is Editor-in-Chief of People & the Planet website.