Shaping an Economy to Sustain Our Future

Excerpt from the book Eco-Economy: Building an Economy for the Earth, including shaping an economy and environmentally friendly ways of doing business.

Author Lester R. Brown. As damage to the ecosystem compounds across the planet, creating a sustainable economy takes on a new urgency. Creating such an economy in the time available requires rapid systemic change throughout the world.

Author Lester R. Brown. As damage to the ecosystem compounds across the planet, creating a sustainable economy takes on a new urgency. Creating such an economy in the time available requires rapid systemic change throughout the world.


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As damage to the ecosystem compounds across the planet, creating a sustainable economy takes on a new urgency, shaping an economy in the time available requires rapid systemic change throughout the world.

Opportunity abounds in the new way of doing business

An economy is sustainable only if it respects the principles of ecology. These principles are as real as those of aerodynamics. If an aircraft is to fly, it has to satisfy certain principles of thrust and lift. So, too, if an economy is to sustain progress, it must satisfy the basic principles of ecology. If it does not, it will decline and eventually collapse. There is no middle ground. An economy is either sustainable or it is not.

Today's global economy has been shaped by market forces, not by the principles of ecology. 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 out of sync with the Earth's ecosystem — an economy that is destroying its natural support systems. (See "The Economy & the Earth," February/March 2002.)

An eco-economy is one that satisfies our present needs without jeopardizing the prospects of future generations; one that sees the economy as a subset of the environment, not the other way around.

Building a sustainable economy in the time available requires rapid systemic change throughout the world. The good news is the eco-economy offers a future full of promise, one that will boost some existing industries, will call entire new career fields into existence and will offer enormous investment opportunity.

New Industries, New Jobs

Describing the eco-economy is a somewhat speculative undertaking. In the end, however, it is not as open-ended as it might seem because the eco-economy's broad outlines are defined by the principles of ecology.

Shaping an economy involves phasing out old industries, restructuring existing ones and creating new ones. World coal use is already being phased out, dropping 7 percent since peaking in 1996. It is being replaced by efficiency gains in some countries; by natural gas in others, such as the United Kingdom and China; and by wind power in others, such as Denmark.

The automobile industry faces a major restructuring as it changes power sources, shifting from the gasoline-powered internal combustion engine to the hydrogen-powered fuel cell engine. This shift will require both a retooling of engine plants and the retraining of automotive engineers and automobile mechanics.

The new economy also will call for major new industries, ones that either do not yet exist or that are just beginning. Wind electricity generation is one such industry. Now in its embryonic stage, it promises to become the foundation of the new energy economy. Millions of turbines soon will be converting wind into electricity, becoming part of the global landscape. In many countries, wind will supply both electricity and, through the electrolysis of water, hydrogen.

The robustness of the wind turbine industry was evident in 2000 and 2001 when high-tech stocks were in a free fall worldwide. While high-tech firms as a group were performing poorly, sales of wind turbines were climbing, pushing the earnings of turbine manufacturers to the top of the charts. Continuing growth of this sector is expected for the next few decades.

As wind power emerges as a low-cost source of electricity and a mainstream energy source, it will spawn another industry: hydrogen production. Once wind turbines are in wide use, there will be a large, unused capacity during the night when electricity use drops. With this essentially free electricity, turbine owners can turn on the hydrogen generators, converting the wind power into hydrogen ideal for fuel cell engines. Hydrogen generators will start to replace oil refineries. The wind turbine will replace both the coal mine and the oil well. Both wind turbines and hydrogen generators will be widely dispersed as countries take advantage of local wind resources.

Shifting Food Sources

Changes in the world food economy will be substantial. Some of these, such as the shift to fish farming, are already under way. The fastest growing subsector of the world food economy during the 1990s was aquaculture, expanding at more than 11 percent a year. Fish farming is likely to continue to expand simply because of its efficiency in converting grain into animal protein.

Even allowing for slower future growth in aquaculture, fish farm output likely will overtake beef production during this decade. Perhaps more surprising, fish farming could eventually exceed the oceanic fish catch. Indeed, for China—the world's leading consumer of seafood — fish farming already supplies two-thirds of the seafood while the oceanic catch accounts for the other third.

With this development comes the need for a mixed-feed industry, one analogous to that which provides the nutritionally balanced rations used by the poultry industry today. There will also be a need for aquatic ecologists, fish nutritionists and marine veterinarians.

Transforming Transportation

A major growth industry of the future is bicycle manufacturing and service. Because the bicycle is nonpolluting, frugal in its use of land and provides much-needed exercise in sedentary societies, future reliance on it is expected to grow. As recently as 1965, the production numbers of cars and bikes were essentially equal, but today more than twice as many bikes are manufactured each year. Among industrial countries the urban transport model being pioneered in the Netherlands and Denmark—where bikes are featured prominently — gives a sense of the bicycle's future role worldwide.

As bicycle use expands, interest in electrically assisted bikes is also growing. Similar to existing bicycles, except for a tiny battery powered electric motor that can either power the bicycle entirely or assist elderly riders or those living in hilly terrain, its soaring sales are expected to continue climbing in the years ahead.

Professional Possibilities

Raising water productivity will be a rapid growth industry. Just as the last half century has been devoted to raising land productivity, the next half-century will be focused on raising water productivity. Virtually all societies will be turning to the management of water at the watershed level in order to manage the available supply most efficiently. Irrigation technologies will become more efficient. Urban wastewater recycling will become common. At present, water tends to flow into and out of cities, carrying waste with it. In the future, water will be used over and over, never dis charged. Since water does not wear out, there is no limit to how long it can be used, as long as it is purified before reuse.

In a future of water scarcity, watershed hydrologists will be in demand. Their responsibility will be to understand water cycles, including its movement underground to determine the depth and sustainable yield of aquifers. These professionals will be at the center of watershed management.

Another industry that will play a prominent role in the new economy — reducing energy use — is teleconferencing. Increasingly, for environmental reasons and to save time, individuals will be attending conferences electronically with both audio and visual connections. This industry involves developing the electronic global infrastructure, as well as the services to make this possible. One day there likely will be thousands of firms organizing electronic conferences.

Restructuring the global economy will create not only new industries, but also new jobs — indeed, whole new professions and new specialties within professions. For example, as wind becomes an increasingly prominent energy source, there will be a need for thousands of wind met to analyze potential wind sites, moo", wind speeds and select the best site wind farms. The better the data are wind resources, the more efficient the industry will become.

Closely related to this new profession will be the engineers who design the wind turbines. Again, appropriate turbine size and design can vary widely according to the site. It will be the job of wind engineers to tailor designs to specific wind regimes to maximize electricity generation.

Environmental architecture is also a fast growing profession. 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 maximize natural heating, cooling and lighting.

Shifting and Retraining: Shaping an Economy

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.

Technologies used in recycling are sometimes quite different from those used in producing from virgin raw materials. Within the U.S. steel industry, for example, where nearly 60 percent of all steel is produced from scrap, the technologies used differ depending on the feedstock. Steel manufactured in electric arc furnaces from scrap uses far less energy than traditional openhearth furnaces using pig iron. It will be the responsibility of the recycling engineers to close the materials loop, converting the linear flow-through economy into a comprehensive recycling economy.

In countries with a wealth of geothermal energy, geothermal geologists will locate the best sites either for power plants or for tapping directly to heat buildings. Retraining. petroleum geologists to master geothermal technologies is one way of satisfying the likely surge in demand for geothermal geologists.

If the world is to stabilize population sooner rather than later, it will need far more family-planning midwives in Third World communities. This growth sector will be concentrated largely in unindustrialized countries, where millions lack access to family planning. The same family planning counselors who advise on reproductive health and contraceptive use can also play a central role in controlling the spread of HIV.

One pressing professional need, particularly in developing countries, is for sanitary engineers who can design sewage systems not dependent on water, a trend already under way in some water-scarce countries. As it becomes clear using water to wash waste away is a reckless use of a scarce resource, a new breed of sanitary engineer will he in wide demand. Washing waste away is even less acceptable today, as marine ecosystems are overwhelmed by nutrient flows. Apart from the ecological disruption of a waterbased disposal method, there are also much higher priorities in the use of water, such as drinking, bathing and irrigation.

Agronomists who specialize in multiple cropping and intercropping form another new specialty likely to expand rapidly as productive farmland becomes scarce. This profession requires expertise in the selection of crops that can fit together well in tight rotation in various locales and in agricultural practices that facilitate multiple cropping

Historic Investment Opportunities

Restructuring the global economy so economic progress can be sustained represent the greatest investment opportunity in history. The conceptual shift is comparable to that of the Copernican Revolution in the 16th century, when Nicolaus Copernicus challenged the view that the sun revolved around the Earth, leading to a revolution it thinking. In scale, the Environmental Revolution is comparable to the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions that preceded it.

The Agricultural Revolution involved restructuring the food economy, shifting from a nomadic lifestyle based on hunting and gathering to a settled lifestyle based on tilling the soil. Although agriculture started as a supplement to hunting and gathering, it almost entirely replaced that original means of obtaining food. The Agricultural Revolution has entailed clearing one-tenth of the Earth's land surface of grass and trees for plowing. Unlike the hunter-gathered lifestyle that had little effect on the Earth, this new farming lifestyle literally transformed the face of the Earth.

The Industrial Revolution has been underway for two centuries, although it some countries it is still in its early stages. At its foundation was a shift in source energy from wood to fossil fuels, a shift that set the stage for a massive expansion in economic activity. Indeed, its distinguishing feature is the harnessing of vast amounts of fossil energy for economic purposes. While the Agricultural Revolution transformed the Earth's surface, the Industrial Revolution is transforming the Earth's atmosphere.

The additional productivity of the Industrial Revolution unleashed enormous creative energies. It also gave birth to new lifestyles and to the most environmentally destructive era in human history, setting the world firmly on a course of eventual economic decline.

The Environmental Revolution resembles the Industrial Revolution in that each is dependent on the shift to a new energy source. Like both earlier revolutions, the Environmental Revolution will affect the entire world.

There are differences in scale, timing and origin among the three revolutions. Unlike the other two, the Environmental Revolution must be compressed into a matter of decades. The other revolutions were driven by new discoveries, by advances in technology, whereas this revolution is being driven more by our instinct for survival.

There has not been an investment situation like this before. The amount the world spends now each year on oil, the leading source of energy, provides some insight into how much it could spend on energy in the eco-economy. In 2000 the world used nearly 28 billion barrels of oil, some 76 million barrels per day. At $27 a barrel, this comes to $756 billion per year. How many wind turbines will it take to produce this much energy? How many solar rooftops? How many geothermal wells?

One big difference between the investments in fossil fuels and those in wind power, solar cells and geothermal energy is the latter will supply energy in perpetuity. These "wells" will not run dry. If the money spent on oil in one year were invested in wind turbines, the electricity generated would be able to meet one-fifth of the worlds needs.

Investments in the infrastructure for the new energy economy, which eventually will have to be made as fossil fuels are depleted, obviously will be huge. These include the transmission lines that connect wind farms with electricity consumers and the pipelines that link hydrogen supply sources with end-users. To a substantial degree, the infrastructure for the existing energy economy — transmission lines for electricity and pipelines for natural gas — can be used in the new energy economy, as well. The local pipeline distribution network in various cities for natural gas easily can he converted to hydrogen.

For unindustrialized countries, the new energy sources promise to reduce dependence on imported oil, freeing capital for investment in domestic energy sources. Although few countries have their own oil fields, all have wind and solar energy. In terms of economic expansion and job generation, these new energy technologies are a godsend.

No sector of the global economy will be untouched by the Environmental Revolution. In the new economy, some companies will be winners and some will be losers. Those who anticipate the emerging economy and plan for it will he the winners. Those who cling to the past risk becoming part of it.

About the Author: This is the second of two excerpts from Lester R. Brown's new book, Eco-Economy: Building an Economy for the Earth, detailing changes that must be made now to ensure a healthy, sustainable future. Brown has devoted his life to monitoring the world from his post at the Worldwatch Institute, which he founded in 1974. The Institute's highly respected annual "State of the World" reports have provided solid evidence of the interrelated environmental and social crises the world now faces. Brown's new organization, the Earth Policy Institute, provides a vision of an environmentally sustainable economy and an ongoing assessment of the effort to create it. in this excerpt Brown o lines some of the systemic changes needed and the opportunity available in the restructured economy he envisions.

Read Eco-Economy: Building an Economy for the Earth online at , where you can download the book and sign up to receive regular Eco-Economy Updates. You can buy the book from MOTHER's Bookshelf.

Expanding industries in the Eco-Economy

Fish farming
Although growth will slow from the double-digit rate of the last decade, rapid expansion is likely to continue.

Bicycle manufacturing
Bicycles will become increasingly common because they are nonpolluting, quiet, require little parking space and provide much-needed exercise.

Wind farm construction
Wind-electric generation, including offshore wind farms, will grow rapidly over rt the next few decades, until wind is supplying most of the world's electricity.

Wind turbine manufacturing
Today the number of utility-scale wind turbines is measured in the thousands, but soon it will be measured in the millions, creating an enormous manufacturing opportunity.

Hydrogen generation
As the transition from a carbon-based to a hydrogen-based economy progresses, hydrogen generation will become a huge industry as hydrogen replaces coal and oil.

Fuel cell manufacturing
As fuel cells replace internal combustion engines in automobiles and begin generating power in buildings, a huge market will evolve.

Solar cell manufacturing
For many of the two billion people living in rural Third World communities who lack electricity, solar cells will be the best bet for electrification.

Light rail construction
Cities in industrial and unindustrialized countries alike will be turning to light rail to provide mobility as people tire of traffic congestion and pollution.

Tree planting
As efforts to reforest the Earth gain momentum and as tree plantations ex pand, tree planting will emerge as a leading economic activity.

Eco-Economy = Sunset for Some Old Industries

Coal mining
The 7 percent decline in world coal burning since it peaked in 1996 will accelerate in the years ahead.

Oil pumping
Projections based on shrinking oil reserves indicate production will peak and start declining in the next five to 20 years. Concerns about global warming could bring the decline closer.

Nuclear power generation
Although public concern focuses on safety issues, it is the industry's high cost that is ensuring its decline.

Clearcut logging
The rapid spread in eco-labeling of forest products likely will force logging firms to change to sustainable harvesting or be driven out of business.

Manufacture of throwaway products
As efforts to close the materials cycle intensify, throwaway products will be either banned or taxed out of existence.

Automobile manufacturing
As world population urbanizes, the conflict between the automobile and the city will intensify, reducing dependence on automobiles.

Professional Opportunities Abound in the Eco-Economy

Wind meteorologists
Wind meteorologists will play a role in the new energy economy comparable to that of petroleum geologists in the old one.

Reforesting the Earth will require professional guidance on what species to plant where, and in what combination.

As water scarcity spreads, the demand for hydrologists to advise on watershed management, water sources and water efficiency will increase.

Recycling Engineers
Designing consumer appliances so they can be easily taken apart and recycled completely will be a growing engineering specialty.

Agricultural Veterinarians
Until now,veterinarians have typically specialized in either large animals or small animals, but with fish farming likely to overtake beef production before the end of this decade, marine veterinarians will be in demand.

Ecological Economists
As it becomes clear that the basic principles of ecology must be incorporated into economic planning and policy making, the demand will grow for economists able to think like ecologists.

Geothermal geologist
With the likelihood that large areas of the world will turn to geothermal energy for electricity and for heating, demand for geothermal geologists will climb.

Environmental architects
Architects are learning the principles of ecology so they can incorporate them into the buildings in which we live and work.

Bicycle Mechanics
As the world turns to the bicycle for transportation and exercise, bicycle mechanics will be needed to keep the fleet running.

Family planning midwives
If world population is to stabilize soon, millions of family planning midwives will be needed in nonindustrialized countries.

Wind Turbine engineers
With millions of wind turbines likely to be installed in the decades ahead, there will be strong worldwide demand for wind turbine engineers.