"Oil wells go dry and coal seams run out, but for the first time since the Industrial Revolution began we are investing in energy sources that can last forever." –Lester R. Brown, Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization.
Building a new economy, one that can sustain economic progress, involves phasing out old industries, restructuring existing ones, and creating new ones. This new economy will be powered by renewable sources of energy, will have a more diverse transport system—relying more on rail, buses, and bicycles, and less on cars—and will recycle everything. For example, coal use will be phased out, replaced by efficiency gains in many countries, but also by natural gas, as in the United Kingdom, and by wind power, as in Denmark and Germany.
The world automobile industry will face a modest restructuring as it shifts from the gasoline-powered internal combustion engine to the gas-electric hybrid, the diesel-electric hybrid, plug-in hybrids, or high-efficiency diesel. This will require a retooling of engine plants and the retraining of automotive engineers and automobile mechanics.
The new economy will also bring major new industries, ones that either do not yet exist or are just beginning. Wind electricity generation is one such industry, incorporating three subsidiary industries: turbine manufacturing, installation, and maintenance. Now in its embryonic stage, this promises to become the foundation of the new energy economy. Millions of turbines soon will be converting wind into cheap electricity, becoming part of the landscape, generating income and jobs in rural communities throughout the world.
As wind power emerges as a mainstream low-cost source of electricity, 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. This can then be used to run power plants now fueled with natural gas. The wind turbine will replace the coal mine, the oil well, and the gas field.
Among the many changes in the world food economy will be the continuing shift to fish farming. Aquaculture, the fastest growing subsector of the world food economy, has expanded at 9 percent a year since 1990. The farming of fish, particularly omnivorous species such as carp, catfish, and tilapia, is likely to continue expanding rapidly simply because these fish convert grain into animal protein so efficiently. With this aquacultural growth comes the need for a rapidly expanding aquafeed industry, one where feeds are formulated by fish nutritionists, much as they are for the poultry industry today.
Bicycle manufacturing and servicing is a growth industry. As recently as 1965, world production of cars and bikes was essentially the same, with each at nearly 20 million, but as of 2003 bike production had climbed to over 100 million per year compared with 42 million cars. This growth in bicycle sales reflects growth in the ranks of those reaching the bicycle level of affluence, principally in Asia. Among industrial countries, the urban transport model being pioneered in the Netherlands and Denmark gives a sense of the bicycle’s future role worldwide.
As bicycle use expands, interest in battery-assisted bikes will also grow. Similar to existing bicycles, except for a tiny battery-powered electric motor that can either power the bicycle entirely or partially, its soaring sales are expected to continue climbing.
Yet another growth industry is increasing the productivity of water. Just as the last half-century was devoted to raising land productivity, this half-century will be focused on raising water productivity. Irrigation technologies will become more efficient. The continuous recycling of urban water supplies, already started in some cities, will become common, replacing the “flush and forget” system.
As oil prices rise, teleconferencing gains appeal. To save fuel and time, individuals will be “attending” conferences electronically with both audio and visual connections. One day there will likely be literally thousands of firms organizing electronic conferences.
Other promising growth industries are solar cell manufacturing, light rail construction, and tree planting. For the 1.7 billion people living in developing countries and villages that lack electricity, the mass production of solar cells is the best bet for electrification. As people tire of traffic congestion and pollution, cities throughout the world are restricting car use and turning to light rail to provide mobility. As efforts to reforest the earth gain momentum, and as tree plantations expand, tree planting will emerge as a leading economic activity.
Restructuring the global economy will create not only new industries, but also new jobs—indeed, whole new professions and new specialties within professions. Turning to wind in a big way will require thousands of wind meteorologists to analyze potential wind sites, identifying the best sites for wind farms. The role of wind meteorologists in the new economy will be comparable to that of petroleum geologists in the old economy.
There is a growing demand for environmental architects who can design buildings that are energy- and materials-efficient and that maximize natural heating, cooling, and lighting. In a future of water scarcity, watershed hydrologists will be needed to study the local hydrological cycle, including the movement of underground water, and to determine the sustainable yield of aquifers. They will be at the center of watershed management regimes.
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. These engineers will be responsible for closing the materials loop, converting the linear flow-through (throwaway) economy into a recycling economy.
In countries with a wealth of geothermal energy, it will be up to geothermal geologists to locate the best sites either for power plants or for tapping this underground energy directly to heat buildings. Retraining petroleum geologists to master geothermal technologies is one way of satisfying the likely surge in demand for geothermal geologists.
Another pressing need, particularly in developing countries, is for sanitary engineers who can design sewage systems using waterless, odorless, composting toilets, a trend that is already under way in some water-scarce communities. Yet another growing demand will be for agronomists who specialize in multiple cropping and intercropping. This requires an expertise both in the breeding and selection of crops that can fit together in a tight rotation in various locales and in agricultural practices that facilitate multiple cropping.
Corporations will obviously be challenged by economic restructuring, but so too will universities. Economic restructuring means a demand for new professions such as wind meteorologists, energy architects, and recycling engineers and thus for courses to train tomorrow’s professionals.
Adapted from Chapter 12, “Building a New Economy,” in Lester R. Brown, Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006), available for free downloading and purchase at www.earth-policy.org/books/pb2.