EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Eco-Economy: Building an Economy for the Earth

Chapter 12. Accelerating the Transition: Crossing the Threshold

Students of social change often think in terms of thresholds of change. A threshold, a concept widely used in ecology in reference to the sustainable yield of natural systems, is a point that when crossed can bring rapid and sometimes unpredictable change in a trend. In the social world, the thresholds of sudden change are no less real, though they may be more difficult to identify and anticipate. Among the more dramatic recent threshold crossings is the one that led to the political revolution in Eastern Europe in 1989 and 1990, the year the Berlin Wall came down, as well as the one that led to the dramatic decline in cigarette smoking in the United States.

The political change in Eastern Europe came with no apparent warning. It almost seems as if one morning people woke up and realized that the great socialist experiment, with its one-party political system and centrally planned economy, was over. Even those in power realized this, which was why it was essentially a bloodless political revolution. Interestingly, no articles in political science journals during the 1980s forecast this fundamental change in governance. Although we do not understand the process well, we do know that at some point in Eastern Europe a critical mass had been reached
that a time came when so many people were convinced of the need for change that the process achieved an irresistible momentum.

A similar scenario unfolded with smoking in the United States. In the early 1960s, smoking was increasingly popular among Americans—a habit that was aggressively promoted by the cigarette manufacturers. Then in 1964 the U.S. Surgeon General released a report on the relationship between smoking and health, the first in a series that has appeared almost every year since then. These reports, and media coverage of the thousands of research projects the reports spawned, fundamentally altered the way people think not only about their own smoking but also about secondhand smoke from the cigarettes of others.

So strong was this shift in thinking that in November 1998 the tobacco industry, after arguing under oath for decades that there was no proof of a link between smoking and health, agreed to reimburse state governments for the past Medicare costs of treating smoking-related illness. This settlement with 46 state governments, plus separate agreements reached earlier with the other four states, totaled $251 billion. (See also Chapter 11.) If anyone had forecast in, say, 1995 that the tobacco industry would cave in and agree to this massive reimbursement, it would have been hard to believe. At that time the tobacco industry was still hiring "medical experts" to testify before congressional committees that there was no proof of a link between smoking and health.40

This revolution in attitudes has reversed the trend in cigarette smoking in the United States, dropping it from a high of 2,810 cigarettes per person in 1980 to 1,633 in 1999—a decline of 42 percent. It has also spread to other countries, leading to a worldwide decline in cigarettes smoked per person of 11 percent from the historical peak reached in 1990. The number of cigarettes smoked per person has dropped 19 percent in France since peaking in 1985, 8 percent in China since 1990, and 4 percent in Japan since 1992.41

Emboldened by this effort and the realization that an estimated 4 million people die prematurely each year from smoking cigarettes, the World Health Organization under the leadership of Gro Harlem Brundtland, former Prime Minister of Norway, is now putting together a worldwide campaign to eradicate cigarette smoking. The global effort to reverse the worldwide smoking trend began with a research and information dissemination initiative by a national government. The information in the countless reports on smoking and health over the decades was regularly disseminated by news organizations and used by NGOs to mobilize support for restrictions on smoking.42

An earlier, much more abrupt shift in thinking in the United States may be even more relevant to the economic restructuring needed today. In 1940 and 1941, there was a vigorous debate in the United States about whether the country should become involved in the war in Europe. Although most Americans were strongly opposed to U.S. entrance into the war, President Franklin Roosevelt felt that U.S. involvement was inevitable. But the majority of the American people did not want to be pulled into Europe's internal conflicts again, arguing that 160,000 young American men had died in World War I without being able to establish a lasting peace.

Then came the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, which crippled the U.S. Pacific fleet. The debate was over. The United States declared war and began to mobilize. Things changed rapidly. One day men were working in factories and offices. The next they were in military training camps. Women who had been working at home suddenly found themselves on assembly lines. One day Chrysler was making cars. The next it was making tanks. Consumption of gasoline, rubber, and sugar was rationed. The entire U.S. economy was restructured almost overnight in what was referred to as the "war effort." The attack on Pearl Harbor had lifted the United States past a threshold. Now as we face the need for a wholesale restructuring of the global economy, for a Copernican-scale shift in economic thinking, we need to be lifted past a similar threshold.

The ecological trends of recent years are driving a paradigm shift toward an eco-economy. For years, these trends were marginalized by policymakers as "special interest" topics, but as developments have come to impinge more and more directly on people's lives, this has begun to change.

We see these changes occurring with energy, for example. Most leaders in the energy economy now realize that shifting from a carbon-based to a hydrogen-based energy economy is almost inevitable. Attitudes toward various energy sources are changing. Coal, which fueled the early Industrial Revolution, is now seen as a villain among fuels. Natural gas is the fossil fuel of choice.

And attitudes toward nuclear power have changed. The destructive explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in the Soviet Ukraine in early April 1986 did what hundreds of studies assessing the risks of nuclear power could never have done: it made the dangers real. Fresh vegetables were declared unfit for human consumption in northern Italy. Polish authorities launched an emergency effort to administer iodine tablets to children. The livelihood of the Lapps in northern Scandinavia was threatened when reindeer became too radioactive to bring to market. In the Soviet Union itself, 100,000 people in the vicinity of the reactor were forced to abandon their homes.43

More fundamentally, nuclear power is no longer an economically viable energy source. Wherever markets for electricity have been opened to competition, as in the United States, no one is investing in nuclear reactors. When the costs of decommissioning nuclear power plants, which may rival those of construction, and the costs of disposing of nuclear waste are incorporated into cost calculations, it seems clear that nuclear power has no economic future.

Meanwhile, in sharp contrast, wind power is gaining rapidly in public favor. In the United States, where the modern wind energy industry was born in the early 1980s, four trends are converging to create a potentially explosive growth in wind energy use. One, the cost of generating electricity from wind is falling fast. (See Chapter 5.) Two, there is a growing realization of the worldwide abundance of wind energy. Three, as farmers and ranchers realize that they own most of the wind rights in the country, a new agricultural lobby is emerging in support of wind power, joining the environmental lobby that has been supporting it for years.

The fourth trend that is spurring the growth in wind power is the requirement by more and more state utility commissions that utilities offer their customers a "green power" option. (See Chapter 11.) This is enabling individuals, companies, and local governments to vote with their pocketbooks. And they are doing so in growing numbers. The convergence of these four trends is creating a situation where wind electric generation is likely to soon become a major U.S. energy source.

Changes are also under way in other sectors, such as the forest products industry. The United States appears to be crossing the threshold for responsible forest management as the principles of ecology replace basic economics in shaping the management of national forests. After several decades of building roads with taxpayers' money to help logging companies clearcut publicly owned forests, the Forest Service announced in early 1999 that it was imposing a moratorium on road building. For decades the goal of the forest management system, which had built some 600,000 kilometers (400,000 miles) of roads to facilitate clearcutting, had been to maximize the timber harvest in the short run.44

But in 1998, Forest Service chief Michael Dombeck, responding to a major shift in public opinion, introduced a new management system—one designed to maintain the integrity of the ecosystem and to be governed by ecology, by a complete cost accounting that includes both the goods and the services that forests provide. Henceforth, the 78 million hectares of national forests—more than the area planted to grain in the United States—will be managed with several goals in mind. For example, the system will recognize the need to manage the forest so as to eliminate the excessive flooding, soil erosion, silting of rivers, and destruction of fisheries associated with the now-banned practice of clearcutting. Under the new policy, the timber harvest from national forests, which reached an all-time high of 12 billion board feet per year during the 1980s, has been reduced to 3 billion board feet.45

The United States is not the only country to institute a radical change in forest management. In mid-August 1998, after several weeks of near-record flooding in the Yangtze river basin, Beijing acknowledged for the first time that the flooding was not merely an act of nature but was exacerbated by the deforestation of the upper reaches of the watershed. Premier Zhu Rongji, recognizing the water storage and flood control capacity of forests, personally ordered not only a halt to the tree cutting in that area, but also the conversion of some state timbering firms into tree-planting firms. (See Chapter 3.) Another key threshold was crossed.46

A chastened tobacco industry, oil companies investing in hydrogen, reformed forest management in the United States and China—these are just some of the signs that the world may be approaching a paradigm shift on the scale described in Chapter 1. Across a spectrum of activities, places, and institutions, attitudes toward the environment have changed markedly in just the last few years. Among giant corporations that could once be counted on to mount a monolithic opposition to serious environmental reform, a growing number of high-profile CEOs have begun to sound more like environmentalists than representatives of the bastions of global capitalism.

If the evidence of a global environmental awakening were limited to only government initiatives or a few corporate initiatives, it might be dubious. But with the evidence of growing momentum now coming on both fronts, the prospect that we are approaching the threshold of a major transformation becomes more convincing. The question is, Will it happen soon enough? Will it happen before the deterioration of natural support systems leads to economic decline?


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40. USDA, Economic Research Service, "Cigarette Price Increase Follows Tobacco Pact," Agricultural Outlook, January-February 1999.

41. USDA, Foreign Agricultural Service, World Cigarette Electronic Database, December 1999; USDA, Special Report: World Cigarette Situation, August 1999; U.S. Bureau of the Census, International Data Base, electronic database, Suitland, MD, updated 10 May 2000.

42. Jacqui Thornton, "WHO Looks to Ban Tobacco Advertising Worldwide," Associated Press, 30 January 1999.

43. Christopher Flavin, Reassessing Nuclear Power: The Fallout From Chernobyl, Worldwatch Paper 75 (Washington, DC: Worldwatch Institute, March 1987).

44. USDA, Forest Service, "Forest Service Limits New Road Construction in Most National Forests," press release (Washington, DC: 11 February 1999).

45. USDA, Forest Service, "New Forest Service Chief Outlines Plan To Move Into 21st Century," press release (Washington, DC: 6 January 1997); board-feet statistics in USDA, Forest Service, 1998 Report of the Forest Service (Washington, DC: April 1999).

46. "Forestry Cuts Down on Logging," China Daily, 26 May 1998.


Copyright © 2001 Earth Policy Institute