EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 12. Accelerating the Transition: New Responsibility of Governments

Building an eco-economy depends on a shared global vision and a broad understanding of the fiscal restructuring needed to realize the vision. It is up to governments to foster the national vision of an eco-economy and to adopt the ecologically defined economic policies needed to build it. This will require a systematic effort to incorporate input from ecologists in economic policy formulation, especially in restructuring taxes and subsidies to help the market reflect the ecological truth.

Building public support for change of this scale will not be easy because it involves challenging vested economic interests. A sustainable economy will not emerge by accident, but only as a result of concerted, intelligent effort by an informed citizenry supporting strong political leaders. There is no substitute for political leadership in building an eco-economy.

It is up to national governments to develop long-term plans of where we want to go and how we plan to get there. The basic components of this plan are rather straightforward. They include reestablishing a balance between carbon emissions and carbon fixation, between aquifer withdrawals and aquifer recharge, between trees cut and trees planted, between soil loss and soil regeneration, and between human births and deaths.

The issue is not whether these balances will eventually be established. The only question is how. If societies do not achieve a balance between births and deaths by reducing births, nature eventually will do so by raising deaths. With aquifers, the choice is whether to balance pumping and recharge soon
while there is time to adjust—or to delay until the aquifer is depleted and the resulting fall in food production leads to potentially catastrophic food shortages.

Formidable though the effort to build a sustainable economy appears to be, almost all the component goals have been achieved by at least one country. China, for example, has reduced its fertility rate to below two children per woman and is thus headed for population stability within a few decades. Denmark has banned the construction of coal-fired power plants. Israel has pioneered new technologies to raise water productivity. South Korea has covered its hills and mountains with trees. Costa Rica has a national energy plan to shift entirely to renewable sources to meet its future energy needs. Germany is leading the way in a major tax-shifting exercise to reduce income taxes and to offset this with an increase in energy taxes. Iceland is planning the world's first hydrogen-based economy. The United States has cut soil erosion by nearly 40 percent since 1982. The Dutch are showing the world how to build urban transport systems that give the bicycle a central role in increasing urban mobility and improving the quality of urban life. And Finland has banned the use of nonrefillable beverage containers. The challenge now is for each country to put all the pieces of an eco-economy together.8

Conveying the information needed to help people understand the imperative for change means collecting and disseminating information on key environmental indicators on a regular basis. For example, governments publish economic data on such trends as new housing starts, employment levels, labor productivity, and international trade balances each month. There is now a need for governments to systematically gather and publish the environmental data on such trends as carbon emissions, tree planting, water productivity, recycling rates, ice melting, and wind turbine installations, so we can measure progress on the environmental front.

An ideal way to transmit this information is through regular governmental press briefings that would relate these trends to the evolution of an eco-economy. Doing so could raise public understanding to where people will not only accept change, but actively work for it. This could include, for example, a press conference on melting glaciers and ice caps and the consequences for the country of resulting rises in sea level. In countries where population continues to grow, regularly assessing the future effect on the water supply and cropland availability per person could help build public support for stabilizing population.

Making the shift from a carbon-based to a hydrogen-based energy economy will require a major government effort to lead and inform. While many environmentalists and professionals in the energy industry understand the need for this, few understand the technologies that will be involved or the incentives needed to ensure that this fundamental shift proceeds on schedule. There is also a need for national annual reports on progress toward an eco-economy. The role of government, always important, is now even more so.


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8. China fertility rate in PRB, op. cit. note 2; International Energy Agency, Energy Policies of IEA Countries: Denmark 1998 Review (London: October 1998); Israel in Sandra Postel, Last Oasis, rev. ed. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997), pp. 58, 118-19, 128-30, 148, 189; South Korea from author's observations, November 2000; Costa Rica in U.S. Department of State, "Background Note: Costa Rica," April 2001, www.state.gov/www/background_notes/costa_rica_0600_bgn.html; Germany from David Malin Roodman, "Environmental Tax Shifts Multiplying," in Brown et al., op. cit. note 3, pp. 138-39; Iceland from Seth Dunn, "The Hydrogen Experiment," World Watch, November/December 2000, pp. 14-25; U.S. soil erosion in Agriculture Economic Report Number 794 (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), January 2001), p. 3; Netherlands in "White Bikes Return to Amsterdam," Bicycle Retailer and Industry News, 1 November 1999; Finland in Brenda Platt and Neil Seldman, Wasting and Recycling in the United States 2000 (Athens, GA: GrassRoots Recycling Network, 2000).


Copyright © 2001 Earth Policy Institute