Building an Eco-Economy

May 5, 2002

By Michael Jessen

Lester Brown has proclaimed a new revolution. He has written a manual for this revolution, describing what it looks like and how to achieve a successful outcome. His portrayal of the actions of the revolution's foot soldiers inspires hope for our planet.

The revolution Brown is talking about is the Environmental Revolution and he believes its effect on humanity will rival that of the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions. The manual Brown has written is "Eco-Economy: Building an Economy for the Earth," published by W.W. Norton late last year.

It would be hard to find anyone with better credentials to lead us into this revolutionary era. Brown is the founder and former president of the Worldwatch Institute (, a private non-profit environmental research organization established in Washington, DC in 1974. Brown contributed to each of the institute's annual "State of the World" reports since the first one in 1984. From his current vantage point as Worldwatch board chairman and president of the Earth Policy Institute (, Brown has intensively studied the world's eco-systems. Brown knows what's wrong and has given us a prescription to ensure our continued survival. Even more amazing is the fact the book can be read, downloaded or printed for free by anyone with access to a computer. The book can be found at This is also familiar territory for Brown as it updates one of his many earlier books "Building a Sustainable Society," published in 1981.

No one can dispute the success the Western world has had in building the economy during the past 50 years. An economy valued at only $6 trillion in 1950 mushroomed to one worth $43 trillion in 2000 -- a sevenfold increase. As Brown points out, economists have forgotten one indisputable element to this phenomenal growth -- it has come at the expense of Earth's eco-systems. If you have any doubts, try these numbers on for size: since 1950 the world population has doubled, the world fish catch has grown by a factor of five, the world demand for paper has grown by a factor of six, and the world's herds of cattle, sheep, and goats have doubled.

As Kenneth Geiser adds in his book "Materials Matter: Toward a Sustainable Materials Policy," there has been a 29-fold increase in the consumption of nonfuel minerals, a 14-fold increase in the use of metals, and an 82-fold increase in the use of fossil fuel-based synthetic chemicals in just the past 25 years. Human consumption in developed countries has exceeded the ecological capacity of the biosphere. To support our $43 trillion economy, we must annually process or move 26 billion tons of the Earth's resources. There is no middle ground, Brown writes, an economy is either sustainable or it is not. An economy is only sustainable if it respects the principles of ecology, says Brown, and our current economy surpasses the sustainable yield of ecosystems.

"Easily a third of the world's cropland is losing topsoil at a rate that is undermining its long-term productivity," Brown writes. "Fully 50 percent of the world's rangeland is overgrazed and deteriorating into desert. The world's forests have shrunk by about half since the dawn of agriculture and are still shrinking. Two thirds of oceanic fisheries are now being fished at or beyond their capacity; overfishing is now the rule, not the exception. And overpumping of underground water is common in key food-producing regions."

The evidence is clear that the economy is in conflict with the Earth's natural systems. Brown senses a growing realization the economy must operate within the limits of our planet's ecosystems. "Just as recognition that the earth was not the center of the solar system set the stage for advances in astronomy, physics, and related sciences, so will recognition that the economy is not the center of our world create the conditions to sustain economic progress and improve the human condition," writes Brown.

After a couple of chapters describing the stressed relationship between the economy and the Earth, Brown proceeds with his real work -- the design of the new economy. This restructuring will result in new industries and new jobs and Brown calls it "history's greatest investment opportunity." Energy to power the "eco-economy" will come from energy efficiency and use of renewable energy sources such as solar cells, wind, and geothermal. Brown calls Denmark the eco-economy leader. "It has stabilized its population, banned the construction of coal-fired power plants, banned the use of nonrefillable beverage containers, and is now getting 15 percent of its electricity from wind. In addition, it has restructured its urban transport network; now 32 percent of all trips in Copenhagen are on bicycle."

Other countries are also achieving the goals of the new economy. "A reforestation program in South Korea, begun more than a generation ago, has blanketed the country's hills and mountains with trees. Costa Rica has a plan to shift entirely to renewable energy by 2025. Iceland, working with a consortium of corporations led by Shell and Daimler Chrysler, plans to be the world's first hydrogen-powered economy," says Brown. In addition, agriculture will be transformed through a restructuring of the protein economy. "The fastest growing subsector of the world food economy in the 1990s was aquaculture, expanding at more than 11 percent a year," Brown writes. "Fish farming is likely to continue to expand simply because of its efficiency in converting grain into animal protein." Already in China -- the world's leading consumer of seafood -- fish farming supplies two thirds of the seafood while the oceanic catch accounts for the other third.

In Brown's vision, hydrogen fuel cells will power our urban transportation, massive reforestation will revitalize sustainable forestry, cities will be redesigned for people. Brown says coal mining, oil pumping, nuclear power generation, clearcut logging, the manufacture of throwaway products, and automobile manufacturing are sunset industries in the eco-economy. These industries, he writes, will be replaced by fish farming, bicycle manufacturing, wind farm construction, hydrogen generation, fuel and solar cell manufacturing, light rail construction, and tree planting. The expanding professions in the eco-economy will be wind meteorologists, family planning midwives, foresters, hydrologists, recycling engineers, aquacultural veterinarians, ecological economists, geothermal geologists, environmental architects, bicycle mechanics, and wind turbine engineers.

The needed restructuring of the global economy has already begun, Brown reports. The shift from the fossil fuel era to the solar/hydrogen era can be seen in the contrasting growth rates of these energy sources in recent years. During the last decade, the use of wind power grew by 25 percent a year, solar cells at 20 percent a year, and geothermal energy at 4 percent annually. In stark contrast, oil expanded by only 1 percent a year and coal use declined by 1 percent annually. Natural gas, which is destined to be the transition fuel from the fossil fuel era to the hydrogen era, grew by 2 percent per year. The restructuring is gaining momentum. For example, from 1995 to 2000, world wind electric generation expanded nearly fourfold, a growth rate previously found only in the computer industry. The north German state of Schleswig-Holstein gets 19 percent of its electricity from wind, while Spain's state of Navarra gets 22 percent from wind. "Wind power has an enormous potential," says Brown. "According to a U.S. Department of Energy wind resources inventory, three of the most wind-rich states-North Dakota, Kansas, and Texas-have enough harnessable wind energy to satisfy national electricity needs. China can double its current electricity generation from wind alone. Europe's offshore wind potential is sufficient to meet the continent's electricity needs."

Our materials intensive economy will undergo a complete change, says Brown. "Mature industrial economies with stable populations can operate largely by recycling the materials already in use. The materials loop will be closed, yielding no waste and nothing for the landfills," he writes. "As the world shifts from a throwaway economy, engineers will be needed to design products that can be recycled -- from cars to computers. Once products are designed to be disassembled quickly and easily into component parts and materials, comprehensive recycling is relatively easy," Brown adds.

The new eco-economy will also change the places we live and work in. "Among the signposts of an environmentally sustainable economy are buildings that are in harmony with the environment. Environmental architects design buildings that are energy- and materials-efficient and that maximize natural heating, cooling, and lighting," writes Brown.

The tools for restructuring the economy are quite simple in Brown's view -- perhaps deceptively so -- but that just makes the eco-economy seem so tantalisingly attainable. Brown spends a chapter on the need to stablize world population through family planning, more access to education for females, and limiting children to two per family. Again he provides examples like China and Iran where population rates are falling to sustainable levels. Then he gives us a chapter on the need to shift taxes and subsidies that currently support resource extraction and punish income. Again Brown cites the many European countries that are successfully shifting taxes away from earnings onto destructive environmental behaviour. He tells us we need to vote with our wallets for products that are well-made from renewable or recyclable resources and suggests ecolabels will help us do this. The key to restructuring the economy is to restructure the tax system, to get the market to tell the ecological truth. As Oystein Dahle, former Exxon vice president for Norway and the North Sea, observes, "Socialism collapsed because it did not allow prices to tell the economic truth. Capitalism may collapse because it does not allow prices to tell the ecological truth."

In the end the question is not can we make our economy sustainable, but will we manage to do so before the current system wrecks irreparable havoc. Brown is optimistic and why not; to think otherwise is to give up. Brown sees leadership for the transition to the eco-economy coming from the United Nations, from new responsible governments, non-governmental organizations, corporations, and individuals. Once again, he provides examples -- for instance from Germany, where 72 percent of new paper is made from recycled sources, and a major tax shifting exercise is reducing income taxes and offsetting them with increases in energy taxes. Brown also sees the media playing an expanded role in helping educate the masses to the benefits of the eco-economy. The shift the U.S. economy underwent after the attack on Pearl Harbour gives Brown hope "that economic restructuring can occur at an incredible pace if a society is convinced of the need for it."

It is important for each of us to find our place in this new eco-economy. Learn, change jobs, reorganize your buying habits, spread the news. Each of us needs to reassess our desired lifestyles, values, and uses of technology. The archaeological sites of ancient civilizations provide ample evidence what happens when an economy is on an environmentally destructive path and a society does not make the needed correction in time. Our generation is facing a decision now that will affect life on earth for all generations to come. Lester Brown's book helps us steer the revolutionary road.

RESOURCES -- Kenneth Geiser's book was published by MIT Press in 2001. "Great Transition: The Promise and Lure of the Times Ahead" by Stockholm Environment Institute ( ) and the Global Scenario Group covers some of the same ground as Brown's book, but in a less accessible manner. Published just this year, it can be downloaded from the latter organization's web site at Redefining Progress ( published a sustainability issue brief last December using the ecological footprint concept to illustrate the impact on Earth of human consumption of the products and services of nature. It found that the average American requires approximately 30.8 global acres to provide for his or her consumption, or over four times the 7.1 global acre world average. These 30.8 global acres correspond to about 30 football fields without their end zones. (As Geiser points out, the United States consumes nearly one third of the world's nonenergy resources, yet has only 5 percent of the global population and seven percent of its land area.) In comparison, the average Canadian in 1997 lived on an ecological footprint that was one third smaller (21.5 global acres), while the average German lived on a footprint that was half the size (14.9 global acres). The paper points out there are only 5.3 global acres available per capita worldwide. For someone to use more than their share of biological capacity, someone is making do with less. Unless someone changes their habits and attitudes, conflict is inevitable.

Michael Jessen is a Nelson-based consultant who can help your business or community profit from environmental leadership. He can be reached at

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