EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Eco-Economy: Building an Economy for the Earth
February 10, 2002

Keynote Speech presented at Delhi Sustainable Development Summit

Lester R. Brown

About a year-and-a-half ago, I moved from the position of President of the Worldwatch Institute to Chairman of the Board and for the first time in 26 years had more time to think. One of the things that emerged from the thinking was the idea that we do not have within even the environmental community, a shared vision of what it is we want to do, of where we want to go. Since Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring, the environmental movement has evolved into one that is against things. But it has not always been clear what we are for. If we do not have a shared vision of where we want to go, the chances are we are not going to get there. So one of the things I have done is start a new institute--the Earth Policy Institute--a very small one, to develop this vision.

The second is to write a book, titled Eco-Economy: Building an Economy for the Earth, which is my "first cut" at trying to describe what an environmentally sustainable economy, an eco-economy would look like.

I begin Eco-Economy with Copernicus. In 1543, I think it was, he published a very academic paper, "On the Movement of the Celestial Spheres," where he put forth the radical idea that the sun does not revolve around the earth; the earth revolves around the sun. Copernicus' revolutionary idea inaugurated debate between scientists and theologians that literally lasted for centuries. And this model set the stage for enormous progress not only in astronomy but in physics and in all of the related sciences.

Today we are in a somewhat similar situation. The question is not whether the sun revolves around the earth or the earth around the sun, but whether the economy is part of the environment or the environment is part of the economy. Most economists, and I think it would be fair to say most members of the business community, think of the environment as being a subset of the economy. It is the pollution sector. And the traditional thinking is when you get wealthy enough you can clean things up because environmental problems are not really that serious.

What I argue in Eco-Economy is the ecologists' view, which is that the economy is part of the earth's ecosystem. It is the commercialized part. If the ecologists are right that the economy is part of the earth's ecosystem then it follows that the economy must be designed so that it is compatible with the earth's ecosystem. Our existing economy is not. We have an economy that is out of sync with the earth's ecosystem. And we see an increasingly stressed relationship, particularly as the economy grows. I think it was Gus Speth who was mentioning the economy has grown six-fold since 1950. This is enormous. The growth of the world economy in 1999 was greater than the growth in the world economy during the 19th century. The economy is becoming huge and even two or three percent increases are big additional pressures on the earth's ecosystem.

We see these stresses everywhere. We read about them in the daily newspapers--shrinking forests, expanding deserts, collapsing fisheries, rising carbon dioxide levels, rising temperatures, soil erosion, disappearing species, falling water tables, ice melting, rising sea level, etc. These are signs of an increasingly stressed relationship between the global economy and earth's ecosystem.

We can also look at earlier civilizations. Today we study the archeological sites of earlier civilizations that got on an economic path that was environmentally unsustainable--the Sumerian civilization in what is now southern Iraq, the Mayan civilization in what is now the lowlands of Guatemala, and the Easter Island civilization. One can go down the list. We can look at the history of earlier civilizations to see why we have to change.

We can also look at China. We are indebted to China because it has been growing so fast in the last two decades it is almost telescoping history. The economy has expanded fourfold since 1980. Individual incomes have gone up almost fourfold since 1980. But we are beginning to see what happens when large numbers of people become rapidly more affluent. In 1994, the Chinese government announced that it was going to develop an automobile-centred transportation system and they invited major automobile manufacturers to submit proposals for building assembly plans: Volkswagen, Toyota, General Motors. But what happens if China succeeds? What happens if China one day has one car in every garage or two cars in a garage, American style? The answer is that if the Chinese ever consume gasoline at the rate that we Americans do in per capita terms they would need 80 million barrels of oil a day. The world is currently producing 76 million barrels of oil a day and probably will never produce much more than 80 million barrels.

Consider paper. If paper consumption in China were to reach the US level, China would need more paper than the world currently produces. There go the world's forests. What we are learning from China is that the western industrial development model will not work there, nor will it work in India with a billion-plus people now, nor for the other 2 billion people in the developing world. And in the long term it will not work for the industrial countries either. The fossil-fuel-based, automobile-centred, throwaway economy that developed in the West will not work for the world.

The encouraging thing, indeed the exciting thing, is now we will begin to see what the new economy looks like. Instead of being powered by fossil fuel, it is powered by renewable energy sources--wind, solar, geo-thermal. Instead of auto-centred transport systems, we will have rail-centred transport systems. The automobile promised mobility and it has. But as the world becomes increasingly urbanized, there is an inherent conflict between the automobile and the city. And everyone is beginning to realize this. We see it in London where the average speed of a car today is almost exactly the same as that of a horse-drawn carriage a century ago. In Bangkok last year, the average motorist spent the equivalent of 44 working days sitting in the car in traffic going nowhere. Something is wrong. We have got to rethink the system. The throwaway economy will not work either. And we are beginning to see what a comprehensive reuse-recycle economy will look like.

I am not going to talk in detail about the problems save one. I mentioned a dozen stresses that indicate how out of sync the global economy is with the earth's ecosystem. One of those stresses is ice melting. In August a year ago, on a Saturday morning, I picked up the New York Times outside my apartment door in downtown Washington. On the front page was the story about an icebreaker cruiser that has reached the North Pole only to discover it is in open water. That was so different from what I had learned about the early explorers as they tried to reach the North Pole--the bitter cold and ice and snow. If they had been trying to hike to the North Pole last summer they would have had to swim the last few miles.

The Arctic Sea has lost more than 40 percent of its ice over the last 35 years. Two Norwegian scientists who have been studying it think that within 50 years, and perhaps in a much shorter time, there may not be any ice in the Arctic Sea in the summer time at all.

Finally, the dream of a northwest passage that so fascinated the early explorers will become reality. We will be able to sail westward from Europe up past Greenland, across the top and down through the Bering Straits and you will be in the Pacific Ocean. But what was for them a dream could be a nightmare for us. Because if the climate in the Arctic Sea changes that much and we lose much of the ice cover that reflects sunlight back into space, then that sunlight will be absorbed on a much larger scale and we will have a feedback loop that will lead to rapid warming in the Arctic.

This shift concerns scientists because Greenland is largely within the Arctic Circle. Greenland, which is three times the size of Texas, is covered with ice and snow. In some areas the ice is a mile and a half thick. What scientists pointed out in an article in Science recently was that Greenland is starting to melt. If Greenland lost all of its ice--and that is not going to happen overnight because it has a huge ice mass--but if it did, sea level will rise more than 7 meters or 23 feet. We would be living in a world very different than any of us have known-a world very different from any since agriculture began some 11,000 years ago.

We have to think about what the melting of ice means. I think climate change is serious business and my sense is that we are not giving it nearly the attention it deserves, certainly not in Washington.

I mentioned shifting from the old model to a new economic model. I would like to talk briefly about the energy sector of the new model, and within that wind. In the past seven years, wind power generation has grown some fivefold.

Worldwide in 2001 it grew by 31 percent. In the US, which is now beginning to move rapidly with wind energy, it grew by 61 percent. These are very high growth rates. Denmark has moved into a leadership position. It now gets 15 percent of its electricity from wind. In the northernmost state in Germany, Schleswig-Hölstein, it is 19 percent, and in Spain's northern industrial province of Navarra, it is 22 percent. So wind is beginning to become established as an important energy source.

Why is wind energy growing so rapidly? Wind is abundant, cheap, inexhaustible, clean, and it doesn't disrupt the climate. These are the reasons why wind, which I once thought would likely be the cornerstone of the new energy economy, may in fact become the centrepiece. A survey by the US Department of Energy showed that three out of the 50 states--North Dakota, Kansas, and Texas--have enough harnessable wind energy to satisfy national electricity needs. China can double its current electricity generation from wind alone. Europe has enough offshore potential up to a depth of 30 metres to satisfy the continent's electricity needs.

Fifteen years ago, wind electricity cost about 35 cents a kilowatt-hour. On prime wind sites, it is now down to 4 cents and there have been some long-term contracts signed recently at 3 cents a kilowatt-hour. Wind is becoming highly competitive with other energy sources.

The economics are attractive, particularly to farmers and ranchers. A farmer in Northern Iowa who leases a quarter acre of land--a tenth of a hectare--to the local utility to site a large advance-design wind turbine can earn $2,000 a year in royalties with no investment on his part. That same land in corn would produce maybe $100 worth of corn, and part of that is expenses. That one turbine can easily produce $100,000 worth of electricity.

Communities, farmers, and ranchers are becoming excited about this and are forming a new lobby in the United States, in addition to the environmental lobby and the wind power lobby, in support of the development of wind resources.

Once you get cheap electricity, you then have the option of electrolyzing water and producing hydrogen. There are two exciting things about this. One, hydrogen is the fuel of choice for the new fuel-cell engines that every major automobile manufacturer is working on. Honda and Daimler-Chrysler both plan to be on the market next year with fuel-cell-powered vehicles. Now there won't be millions of them, but probably thousands. So we are beginning to see some rapid progress. Shell and Daimler-Chrysler are leading an effort in Iceland in cooperation with the Icelandic government to make it the world's first hydrogen-powered economy. British Petroleum has signed a letter of intent with the Government of Singapore to start opening hydrogen stations there. Shell will open the first hydrogen station in Reykjavik this year. The plan is to start converting the city's fleet of 80 buses to fuel-cell engines and then build out from there.

Advances in two technologies, the design of wind turbines and the evolution of fuel-cell engines, have set the stage for a dramatic restructuring of the world's energy economy in the years and decades ahead. We are seeing enormous growth in the scale of investments in wind. The largest wind farm in the world, 300 megawatts, is under construction in the northwestern United States on the border between Washington and Oregon. It is called the State Line Project. But in east-central South Dakota, there is a wind farm in the early stages of planning and development that will produce 3000 megawatts of electricty. The intent is to carry electricity across Iowa into the industrial Midwest. This project is not only huge for wind, it is huge for any energy project.

We are also seeing an interesting new trend in the energy sector. During the last century, the energy sector became increasingly globalized as we moved from coal to oil.

But what we are going to see now, as we develop local resources particularly wind and solar cells, is the localization of the energy sector--an entirely new and different trend. Solar cells are probably a decade or more behind wind in terms of falling costs, but they are becoming competitive in some areas, particularly in remote sites where there is no grid to supply electricity. In Peruvian villages, for example, in the Andes, it is now often cheaper to pay the monthly installment on a solar cell installation than it is to buy candles to provide lighting. And the same may soon be true in remote villages in India where the alternative may be buying kerosene for kerosene lamps. More than a million homes in the world now get their electricity from solar cells.

I can talk about the throwaway economy and converting it into a reuse-recycle economy. We are making progress. Last year 58 percent of all the steel produced in the United States came from scrap. In Germany, 72 percent of the paper produced came from recycled fiber. I cite these two industrial economies to give a sense of what's now possible.

What we are looking at is a situation where recycling industries are beginning to replace mining industries. Now the question is: we can see this new economy, we can describe it, we can begin to see what it would look like and how it would work; how do we get from here to there? And the key is to get the market to tell the economic truth. We heard from Charles Perrings this morning. I think Charles has been elected as the President of the International Society of Ecological Economics, which I am pleased to say is one of the fastest growing organizations in the world. The principal reason for the evolution of this organization and for the growth of ecological economics is the realization that the market is not telling the truth. Doing something about that means rethinking economics.

Oystein Dahle, a Norwegian and former vice president of Exxon for Norway and the North Sea, said, 'Socialism collapsed because it did not allow the market to tell the economic truth. Capitalism may collapse because it does not allow the market to tell the ecological truth.'

Let me give one example to show how distorted market prices are becoming. You may remember that in December 1998 there was severe flooding in Yangtze river basin in China. According to Munich Re Insurance, it caused $31 billion of damage. It also displaced 120 million people out of the 400 million people who live in the basin from their homes either because of flooding or the threat of flooding. That is damage and displacement big time. For weeks the Chinese called this an act of nature. But in mid-August they had a press conference in Beijing and said that they realized there was a very strong human hand in it. They acknowledged the role of deforestation. The Yangtze river basin has lost 85 percent of its original tree cover. Then they said two interesting things. They were instituting a ban on all tree cutting in the Yangtze river basin. And to justify the ban, they said trees standing are worth three times as much as trees cut. Now that is my line. But when Zhu Rongji says it, it represents a dramatic breakthrough, public recognition at the national leadership level, that the market is not telling the truth. Recognizing that forests provide services as well as goods and that in the Yangtze river basin one of the services, flood control, was worth far more than all the lumbering of trees--that is the kind of rethinking we have to do with prices.

The question is, can we change fast enough? We can see the new economy emerging. We see it in the wind farms of Denmark, the solar rooftops of Japan, the reforested mountains of Korea, the irrigation efficiencies of Israel, steel recycling in the United States, the bicycle networks in The Netherlands, and the paper recycling mills in Germany. The question is, can it happen fast enough? A lot depends on what we do. A lot depends on what happens in Johannesburg.

Sometimes social change comes very quickly. You may remember 1989/90 when the Berlin Wall came down and we had a political revolution in Eastern Europe--essentially a bloodless political revolution, with the minor exception of Romania. One day people woke up and realized that the great socialist experiment with the one-party political system in a central planned economy was over. And everyone knew it, including the people in power, which is why there was no resistance to the revolution.

Consider what has happened in the tobacco industry in recent years in the United States. If I had been addressing you five years ago and I had said, I think the US tobacco industry is getting ready to cave in, and I think they are going to reimburse state governments $251 billion for the smoking-related medicare costs. That is almost a thousand dollars for every person in the United States. You would be wondering how I got on this programme. But it has happened. Not only that, six developing country governments are suing US tobacco companies in US courts using the same data with a hope of reclaiming the same costs.

So social change can come quickly. All of us who have been working on these issues for the last twenty, thirty, forty years know that there is lot to be discouraged about. But sometimes change comes quickly and we may be on the threshold of such change with the environmental issue.

Copyright © 2002 Earth Policy Institute