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close this bookWIT's World Ecology Report - Vol. 11, No. 1 - Critical issues in Health and the Environment (WIT, 1999, 16 p.)
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View the documentPoint of View: Sustaining a Global Economy

Point of View: Sustaining a Global Economy

[Excerpted from International Herald Tribune, Paris, Tuesday, January 19, 1999 "It's Getting Late to Switch to a Viable World Economy." by Lester Brown, President, and Christopher Flavin, Senior Vice-President of the Worldwatch Institute]

We approach a new century with an economy that cannot take us where we want to go. Satisfying the projected needs of 8 billion or more people with the type of economy we now have is simply not possible. The Western industrial model - the fossil-fuel-based, automobile-centered, throw-away economy that so dramatically raised living standards in this century - is in trouble.

The shift to an environmentally sustainable economy may be as profound a transition as the Industrial Revolution. But the broad outlines of a sustainable economic system that can meet the human needs of the next century are beginning to emerge.

The foundation of such a system is a new design principle, one that shifts from the onetime depletion of natural resources to an economy based on renewable energy and which continually reuses and recycles materials. A sustainable economy will be a solar-powered, bicycle/rail-based, reuse/recycle economy, one that uses energy, water, land and materials much more efficiently and wisely than we do today. Building an environmentally sustainable world economy depends on a cooperative global effort. No country acting alone can protect the diversity of life on earth or the health of oceanic fisheries.

So far, national governments have largely failed effectively to implement the last decade's landmark environmental treaties on climate change and biodiversity. One of the big challenges of the early 21st century will be to fulfill their ambitious promises to stabilize the climate and slow the destruction of species.

Without a concerted effort by the wealthy to address the problems of poverty and deprivation, building a sustainable future may not be possible. Growing poverty, and the political and economic chaos that can be provoked by it, reverberate around the world, as was seen in 1998 with the Asian economic melt-down, which pushed tens of millions of people below the poverty line in just a few months. Meeting the needs of the more than a billion people now in poverty is essential to making the transition to an environmentally sustainable world economy.

We will also need a new understanding and values to support a restructuring of the global economy. The 21st century will require a new ethic of sustainability. We will need a new set of human responsibilities - to the natural world and to future generations to go with our newfound human rights.

One key to reversing environmental degradation is to tax the activities that cause it. By putting a price on these activities, the market can be harnessed to spur progress. If coal burning is taxed, solar energy becomes more economically competitive. If auto emissions are taxed, cleaner forms of transportation become more affordable. The new German government has embarked on the world's most ambitious environmental tax reform, reducing taxes on wages by 2.4 percent while raising energy taxes by an identical amount. This is a landmark step that will push Europe's largest economy in an environmentally sustainable direction.

Europe is also leading the way in some of the industries that are the foundations of a solar economy. For example, it has added 5,000 megawatts of wind power in the last five years, half of it in Germany, where Schleswig-Holstein gets 15 percent of its electricity from the wind. Wind power, now one of Europe's fastest growing manufacturing industries, employs thousands of workers. Sales of other new energy technologies are soaring as well. The production of solar photovoltaic cells has doubled in the last five years, propelled in part by the Japanese government's efforts to promote solar rooftops as a standard option for new suburban homes. Fuel cells that turn hydrogen into electricity, with water as the only by-product, are being spurred by billions of dollars of investment capital, as companies pursue them as a replacement for everything from the coal-fired power plant to the internal combustion engine.

The effort to replace today's unsustainable economy with one suited to the demands of the 21st century will create some of the new century's largest investment opportunities. Bill Ford, incoming chairman of the Ford Motor Co., has plans to increase profits by replacing the internal combustion engine that was at the center of his great-grandfather's success. "Smart companies will get ahead of the wave," Mr. Ford says. "Those that don't will be wiped out."

The challenge now is to mobilize public support for a fundamental economic transformation, a shift to a 21st century economy far less resource-intensive and polluting yet even more productive than today's.

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