Building an Environmentally Sustainable Economy

Author Lester R. Brown explains how building an environmentally sustainable economy will help with the global environmental challenges we face.

| February/March 2002

The author shares his essay on creating an environmentally sustainable economy. 

Lester R. Brown started his career as a farmer, growing tomatoes in southern New Jersey with his younger brother. After earning a degree in agricultural science from Rutgers University in 1955, he spent six months living in rural India. With advanced degrees in agricultural economics and public administration, he has served as an advisor to the U.S. government on agricultural issues and was one of the founders of the Overseas Development Council. In 1974 he founded the Worldwatch Institute, a research institute devoted to the analysis of global environmental issues. In 1984 he launched the "State of the World" reports, annual assessments that have become a bible of the global environmental movement. A MacArthur Fellow, he is the recipient of many international prizes and awards and has authored more than 20 books on the environment and the economy. In May he founded the Earth Policy Institute to promote an environmentally sustain able economy.

Why we must use ecological reality to build a new economy.

Today we need a similar shift in our worldview in how we think about the relationship between the Earth and the economy. The issue now is whether the environment is part of the economy or the economy is part of the environment. Economists see the environment as a subset of the economy. Ecologists, on the other hand, see the economy as a subset of the environment.

Like Ptolemy's view of the solar system, the economists' view confuses efforts to understand our modern world and has created an economy out of sync with the ecosystem on which it depends.

Economic theory and economic indicators do not explain how the economy is disrupting and destroying the Earth's natural systems. Evidence the economy is in conflict with the Earth's natural systems can be seen in the daily news reports of collapsing fisheries, shrinking forests, eroding soils, deteriorating rangelands, expanding deserts, rising carbon dioxide (CO2) levels, falling water tables, rising temperatures, more destructive storms, melting glaciers, rising sea level, dying coral reefs and disappearing species. These trends, which mark a stressed relationship between the economy and the Earth's ecosystem, are taking a growing economic toll. At some point this will overwhelm the worldwide forces of progress, leading to economic decline. The challenge for our generation is to reverse these trends before environmental deterioration leads to long—term economic decline, as it did for so many earlier civilizations.

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