"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.
Chapter 1. Entering a New World: Introduction
Our global economy is outgrowing the capacity of the earth to support it, moving our early twenty-first century civilization ever closer to decline and possible collapse. In our preoccupation with quarterly earnings reports and year-to-year economic growth, we have lost sight of how large the human enterprise has become relative to the earth’s resources. A century ago, annual growth in the world economy was measured in billions of dollars. Today it is measured in trillions.
As a result, we are consuming renewable resources faster than they can regenerate. Forests are shrinking, grasslands are deteriorating, water tables are falling, fisheries are collapsing, and soils are eroding. We are using up oil at a pace that leaves little time to plan beyond peak oil. And we are discharging greenhouse gases into the atmosphere faster than nature can absorb them, setting the stage for a rise in the earth’s temperature well above any since agriculture began.
Our twenty-first century civilization is not the first to move onto an economic path that was environmentally unsustainable. Many earlier civilizations also found themselves in environmental trouble. As Jared Diamond notes in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, some were able to change course and avoid economic decline. Others were not. We study the archeological sites of Sumerians, the Mayans, Easter Islanders, and other early civilizations that were not able to make the needed adjustments in time. 1
Fortunately, there is a consensus emerging among scientists on the broad outlines of the changes needed. If economic progress is to be sustained, we need to replace the fossil-fuel-based, automobile-centered, throwaway economy with a new economic model. Instead of being based on fossil fuels, the new economy will be powered by abundant sources of renewable energy: wind, solar, geothermal, hydropower, and biofuels.
Instead of being centered around automobiles, future transportation systems will be far more diverse, widely employing light rail, buses, and bicycles as well as cars. The goal will be to maximize mobility, not automobile ownership.
The throwaway economy will be replaced by a comprehensive reuse/recycle economy. Consumer products from cars to computers will be designed so that they can be disassembled into their component parts and completely recycled. Throwaway products such as single-use beverage containers will be phased out.
The good news is that we can already see glimpses here and there of what this new economy looks like. We have the technologies to build it—including, for example, gas-electric hybrid cars, advanced-design wind turbines, highly efficient refrigerators, and water-efficient irrigation systems.
We can see how to build the new economy brick by brick. With each wind farm, rooftop solar panel, paper recycling facility, bicycle path, and reforestation program, we move closer to an economy that can sustain economic progress.
If, instead, we continue on the current economic path, the question is not whether environmental deterioration will lead to economic decline, but when. No economy, however technologically advanced, can survive the collapse of its environmental support systems.
1. Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (New York: Penguin Group, 2005).
Copyright © 2006 Earth Policy Institute