EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 4. The Shape of the Eco-Economy: A Monumental Undertaking

Converting our economy into an eco-economy is a monumental undertaking. There is no precedent for transforming an economy shaped largely by market forces into one shaped by the principles of ecology.

The scale of projected economic growth outlines the dimensions of the challenge. The growth in world output of goods and services from $6 trillion in 1950 to $43 trillion in 2000 has caused environmental devastation on a scale that we could not easily have imagined a half-century ago. If the world economy continued to expand at 3 percent annually, the output of goods and services would increase fourfold over the next half-century, reaching $172 trillion.5

Building an eco-economy in the time available requires rapid systemic change. We will not succeed with a project here and a project there. We are winning occasional battles now, but we are losing the war because we do not have a strategy for the systemic economic change that will put the world on a development path that is environmentally sustainable.

Although the concept of environmentally sustainable development evolved a quarter-century ago, not one country has a strategy to build an eco-economyto restore carbon balances, to stabilize population and water tables, and to conserve its forests, soils, and diversity of plant and animal life. We can find individual countries that are succeeding with one or more elements of the restructuring, but not one that is progressing satisfactorily on all fronts.

Nevertheless, glimpses of the eco-economy are clearly visible in some countries. For example, 31 countries in Europe, plus Japan, have stabilized their population size, satisfying one of the most basic conditions of an eco-economy. Europe has stabilized its population within its food-producing capacity, leaving it with an exportable surplus of grain to help fill the deficits in developing countries. Furthermore, Chinathe world's most populous countrynow has lower fertility than the United States and is moving toward population stability.6

Among countries, Denmark is the eco-economy leader. It has stabilized its population, banned the construction of coal-fired power plants, banned the use of nonrefillable beverage containers, and is now getting 15 percent of its electricity from wind. In addition, it has restructured its urban transport network; now 32 percent of all trips in Copenhagen are on bicycle. Denmark is still not close to balancing carbon emissions and fixation, but it is moving in that direction.7

Other countries have also achieved specific goals. A reforestation program in South Korea, begun more than a generation ago, has blanketed the country's hills and mountains with trees. Costa Rica has a plan to shift entirely to renewable energy by 2025. Iceland, working with a consortium of corporations led by Shell and DaimlerChrysler, plans to be the world's first hydrogen-powered economy.8

So we can see pieces of the eco-economy emerging, but systemic change requires a fundamental shift in market signals, signals that respect the principles of ecological sustainability. Unless we are prepared to shift taxes from income to environmentally destructive activities , such as carbon emissions and the wasteful use of water, we will not succeed in building an eco-economy. (See Chapter 11.)

Restoring the balances of nature is a huge undertaking. For energy, it depends on shifting from a carbon-based economy to a hydrogen-based one. Even the most progressive oil companies, such as BP and Royal Dutch Shell, that are talking extensively about building a solar/hydrogen energy economy are still investing overwhelmingly in oil, with funds going into climate-benign sources accounting for a minute share of their investment.9

Reducing soil erosion to the level of new soil formation will require changes in farming practices. In some situations, it will mean shifting from intense tillage to minimum tillage or no tillage. Agro-forestry will loom large in an eco-economy.

Restoring forests that recycle rainfall inland and control flooding is itself a huge undertaking. It means reversing decades of tree cutting and land clearing with forest restoration, an activity that will require millions of people planting billions of trees.

Building an eco-economy will affect every facet of our lives. It will alter how we light our homes, what we eat, where we live, how we use our leisure time, and how many children we have. It will give us a world where we are a part of nature, instead of estranged from it.

 Previous Table of Contents Next

5. Lester R. Brown, "World Economy Expands," in Worldwatch Institute, Vital Signs 2001 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001), pp. 56-57.

6. Population stabilization from Population Reference Bureau, 2001 World Population Data Sheet, wall chart (Washington, DC: 2001).

7. Denmark population from ibid.; coal-plant ban in International Energy Agency, Energy Policies of IEA Countries: Denmark 1998 Review (London: October 1998); beverage containers in Brenda Platt and Neil Seldman, Wasting and Recycling in the United States 2000 (Athens, GA: GrassRoots Recycling Network, 2000); wind energy from Christopher Flavin, Worldwatch Institute, Vital Signs 2001 press briefing, Washington, DC, 24 May 2001; bicycles in Molly O'Meara Sheehan, City Limits: Putting the Brakes on Sprawl, Worldwatch Paper 156 (Washington, DC: Worldwatch Institute, June 2001), p. 11.

8. South Korea is author's personal observation while in the country, November 2000; Costa Rica from United Nations Development Programme, Sustainable Development Networking Programme, Capacity 21 Programme, Costa Rice Country Report 1998, www.sdnp.undp.org/c21, viewed 7 August 2001; Iceland from Seth Dunn, "The Hydrogen Experiment," World Watch, November/December 2000, pp. 14-25.

9. Mark Schrope, "A Change of Climate for Big Oil," Nature, 31 May 2001, pp. 516-18.


Copyright © 2001 Earth Policy Institute