EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 12. Accelerating the Transition: Introduction

At a 1999 conference of corporate leaders and bankers, Robert Nef, the head of a Swiss research institute, shared with me a thoughtful definition of technology. "Technology," he said, "is nature's experiment with man." At issue for us today is how this experiment will turn out.1

Earlier chapters described the dimensions of the restructuring needed to build an eco-economy. The scale of the change needed is matched only by its urgency. Time is running out. The central question facing our generation is whether we can reverse environmental deterioration before it spirals out of control, leading to global economic decline.

We would like to think that such a tragedy cannot happen in the modern age, but we need only look at Africa to see what happens when governments delay in responding to a threat
in this case, the spread of HIV. Nearly 40 million Africans have now been infected with the virus that causes AIDS. Several countries, including Botswana, Zimbabwe, and South Africa, could lose one fifth to one third of their adult populations by 2010. Africa's AIDS fatalities during this decade may eclipse all fatalities during World War II.2

Just as the governments of Africa let the AIDS virus spread, so the governments of India and China are letting water tables fall. Since the ability to pump water from underground faster than nature replenishes it has evolved only during the last century, the world has little experience in dealing with aquifer depletion. We do know that failing to address the issue early on risks an even more catastrophic result when the aquifer is depleted and the rate of pumping is reduced to the rate of recharge.

Even while African governments let HIV spread and Asian governments let water tables fall, the United States is letting atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels rise. The one country that is capable of single-handedly disrupting the earth's climate is doing so. The United States could reduce its carbon emissions by the modest amount called for in the Kyoto Protocol by 2010 and make a profit doing so, but it chooses not to.

Other governments are watching as populations grow, doing little to facilitate family planning and the shift to smaller families. After nearly half a century of rapid population growth, farms already divided once are now being divided again as another generation comes of age. Shrinking plots of land are driving hundreds of millions of people either into nearby cities or across national borders in search of a job.

As water scarcity and land hunger spread, people become desperate. It is this quiet desperation of trying to survive that drives them across national borders. In some cases, it drives them to their deaths, as tragically seen in the bodies of Mexicans who regularly perish trying to enter the United States by crossing the Arizona desert, and in the bodies of Africans washing ashore in Spain when their fragile watercraft come apart as they try to cross the Mediterranean. The combination of land hunger, water scarcity, soil erosion, desertification, and rising sea level all coming at once is a recipe for human migration on a scale that has no precedent.

Unless we can build an eco-economy, the world that we leave our children will be a troubled one indeed. Restructuring the economy depends on restructuring taxes. (See Chapter 11.) If we fail to restructure the tax system, we will almost certainly fail to reverse the trends that are undermining our future. If this effort is not actively supported by all segments of society—not only governments, but also the communications media, corporations, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and individuals, we will fail. Building an eco-economy is not a spectator sport. Everyone has a role to play.


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1. Robert Nef, Tiroler Wirtschaftsforum, Innsbruck, Austria, discussion with author, 6 October 1999.

2. Number of HIV-positive Africans based on Anne Hwang, "AIDS Erodes Decades of Progress," in Worldwatch Institute, Vital Signs 2001 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001), pp. 78-79; specific countries in Population Reference Bureau (PRB), 2001 World Population Data Sheet, wall chart (Washington, DC: 2001).


Copyright © 2001 Earth Policy Institute