Doomed? Not yet...

April 19, 2002

John Turnpenny considers a plan to end the 'extract - use - dump' mentality.

"Restructure or decline" is the choice for our economy presented by the widely respected environmental political thinker Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute and founder of the Worldwatch Institute. Brown is dedicated to informing the public and policy-makers about links between the world economy and the environment, and is the writer of many books about how society and the environment interact. For him, the natural environment has long been treated as an infinite resource or as an infinitely large sink to be used for human development. The effects of this are already emerging. The very economic growth that has been sustained by the natural environment is now threatened by environmental degradation. In this book, he sets out a blueprint of a world in which economy and environment are mutually supportive.

An initial chapter outlines the relationship between economy and environment, and presents the need for a radical rethink about how we conduct economic affairs. The consequences of failing to respect the environment while increasing the size of the economy are starkly repeated, and the fate of societies such as the Sumerians and Maya are used to draw parallels with our current situation.

The main part of the book begins with "A Stressed Relationship", which outlines the damaging changes to the environment caused by human activities. It focuses on two broad themes: climate/water, and the biological environment. The familiar survey of rising global temperatures, melting ice, water scarcity, eroding soils and deforestation is complemented by exploration of the "hidden services" provided by nature. For example, removing large areas of forest reduces rainfall and increases the amount of water running into rivers, causing flooding downstream. The costs of these impacts are not reflected in the price of the timber harvested and are often borne by those least able to bear them. Nature's capacity to spring surprises when all seems well, such as the collapse of the Newfoundland cod fisheries in the early 1990s, is a reminder that change in society, the economy and the environment rarely occurs smoothly.

The next section, "The New Economy", is the heart of the book. It begins by exploring the need to build an economy in which ecology is an integral part of decision-making rather than an optional extra. This part presents aspects of how an eco-economy might look, including its energy, material use, food and forests and city design. The main planks of such an economy are, first, energy derived from renewable sources such as wind and solar power and from "clean" sources such as hydrogen, and, second, a "closed loop" of resource use. When the loop is closed, jobs, development and the basis of the economy arise from fashioning, recycling and refashioning a near-constant amount of material, rather than the current process of "extract - use - dump". In the eco-economy, raw resource extraction would be virtually zero.

The final part of the book, "Getting from Here to There", presents three steps for making the change to an eco-economy: stabilising population, restructuring the economic system and reassessing the role of governments and decision-makers. Many of the proposed measures, such as subsidy and tax shifting to penalise polluting activities rather than, say, taxing income, are not new. However, there is no real consideration of why these measures - widely accepted in theory by the most hardened of conventional economists - are only slowly being taken up. More consideration of institutional torpor, vested interests and concepts of power relations would have been welcome. The need to stabilise world population is a pressing one but Brown takes a typically western position by exhorting those in the third world to have fewer children without really addressing the wider issue. He barely touches on the relationship between poverty and numbers of children born, and only briefly addresses the Marshall Plan-style wealth transfer that the West will need to start if population is to be stabilised.

This book outlines the problems of continuing on our current economic path and provides constructive suggestions about how to change. But what is missing is an element of how economy and environment interact with society. Brown says that "hunger is a productivity problem". It is also a distribution problem and a problem associated with a globalised economy that is still tipped in favour of the richest nations. The social implications of environmental policies, such as the impact on mining communities of removing dependence on coal, are not considered.

Brown's tone is positive and the book is not from the "we are all doomed" school of environmental writing. However, this positivity can be misleading. Reporting that renewable energy use is increasing massively and oil companies are turning green, Brown makes it sound as if the eco-economy is already here. He has great faith in hydrogen as a clean fuel for the future, although this is early-stage technology. Past technologies have offered miracle cures to all our problems and failed; hydrogen power should be treated with a healthy scepticism.

The descriptions of the problems, and suggestions for solutions, outlined by Brown are not new, but he writes powerfully and accessibly, and is eminently readable.

John Turnpenny is senior research associate, Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, University of East Anglia.

Eco-Economy: Building an Economy for the Earth

Author - Lester R. Brown
ISBN - 1 85383 826 8
Publisher - Earthscan
Price - £17.99
Pages - 351

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