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.
ILLUSTRATION: COURTESY EARTH POLICY INSTITUTE
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 www.earthpolicy.org , 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
Although growth will slow from the double-digit rate of the last decade, rapid expansion is likely to continue.
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.
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.
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
The 7 percent decline in world coal burning since it peaked
in 1996 will accelerate in the years ahead.
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
Nuclear power generation
Although public concern focuses on safety issues, it is the
industry's high cost that is ensuring its decline.
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
As world population urbanizes, the conflict between the
automobile and the city will intensify, reducing dependence
Professional Opportunities Abound in the Eco-Economy
Wind meteorologists will play a role in the new energy
economy comparable to that of petroleum geologists in the
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
appliances so they can be easily taken apart and recycled
completely will be a growing engineering specialty.
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.
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.
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.
Architects are learning the principles of ecology so they can incorporate
them into the buildings in which we live and work.
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
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.