Political Transition Needed

by Carolyn Chase


Think back 100 years or so. Horseless carriages were only 1 percent of America's transportation (like solar generation is today in the energy field). Think of the scorn them newfangled things got from all the horse breeders, hay haulers, livery stable owners, buggy whip manufacturers, etc.

    "Never make a profit," some said. Good for Sunday driving, mebbe. Consider how the main pollution problem then in cities was ankle-deep horse poop. Fisher Body Works and men named Rockefeller , Ford and others saw what was coming and mutated into the auto and oil megaplayers for the new age.

    Fast forward, a century or so. Now, the poop is greenhouse gases, toxic and heavy metal emissions and so on from the oil-machine megaplayers.

    And these pollutants are not confined to city streets but are triggering climate change planet-wide and toxic deposition everywhere - including remote areas such as the north and south poles.

    "For the first time since the oil age began, the world has the technology to wean itself from petroleum coming from the politically volatile Middle East," says Lester R. Brown in his new book, "Eco-Economy: Building an Economy for the Earth." (Available for FREE downloading at www.earth-policy.org/Books/index.htm .

    "A combination of wind turbines, solar cells, hydrogen generators, and fuel cell engines offers not only energy independence, but an alternative to climate-disrupting fossil fuels," said Brown, President of the newly established Earth Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental research organization.

    "Eco-Economy" presents how the global economy is out of sync with the earth's ecosystem, as evidenced by collapsing fisheries, shrinking forests, expanding deserts, eroding soils, and falling water tables. This can also be seen in the earth's changing climate as rising temperatures lead to more destructive storms, melting glaciers, and rising sea levels.

    In the new economy, which Brown calls an eco-economy, renewable energy will replace climate-disrupting fossil fuels and a recycling economy will replace the throwaway economy. Wind turbines will replace coal mines and recycling industries will replace mining industries.

    San Diegans will recognize this terminology as that of erstwhile former Mayoral candidate - and now City Council candidate, Jim Bell.

    The needed restructuring of the global economy has already begun, Brown reports. The shift from the fossil fuel era to the solar/hydrogen era can be seen in the contrasting growth rates of these energy sources in recent years. During the last decade, the use of wind power grew by 25 percent a year, solar cells at 20 percent a year, and geothermal energy at 4 percent annually. In stark contrast, oil expanded by only 1 percent a year and coal use declined by 1 percent annually. Natural gas, which is destined to be the transition fuel from the fossil fuel era to the hydrogen era, grew by 2 percent per year.

    "The materials economy is also changing," said Brown. "The challenge is to shift from a linear flow-through economy to a comprehensive recycling economy. Progress is being made on this front, but not nearly enough. Some countries are advancing. For example, 58 percent of U.S. steel production now comes from scrap. In Germany 72 percent of all paper comes from paper recycling mills. If the entire world were to achieve this rate, wood needed for pulp production would drop by nearly one third."

    In an eco-economy most energy is produced locally from wind, solar cells, hydropower, biomass, and geothermal sources, thus offering a new grassroots development potential for developing countries, one that does not require spending scarce foreign exchange on imported oil. With a comprehensive recycling economy, the need for imported raw materials will also diminish, reducing vulnerability to external political and economic instability.

    Another key characteristic of an eco-economy is population stability. Over the last few decades, some 31 countries in Europe plus Japan have stabilized their populations. One of the keys to this is improving the status of women. The more education women have, the fewer children they have. World Bank research indicates that investing in the education of girls yields an economic return perhaps four times that of investing in electric utilities.

    The key to restructuring the economy is to restructure the tax system, to get the market to tell the ecological truth. As Øystein Dahle, former Exxon vice president for Norway and the North Sea, observes, "Socialism collapsed because it did not allow prices to tell the economic truth. Capitalism may collapse because it does not allow prices to tell the ecological truth."

    Restructuring the global economy will require ecologists and economists to work together to identify the indirect costs associated with a particular product or service. These costs can then be incorporated into market prices in the form of a tax and offset by a reduction in income taxes. "This restructuring of the tax system, which is the key to restructuring the economy, does not change the level of taxes," Brown emphasized, "only their composition."

    Another element of energy security is decentralized technology, such as solar and wind power. The latter is now the fastest-growing source of new energy supply. Big, centralized power stations are sitting ducks for terrorist attack. Nuclear plants would suffer meltdowns of their core if they took a direct hit from a large airplane, which would expose millions of people to radiation poisoning. By definition, small and decentralized energy supply is not vulnerable to such attack.

    Another component to our national security is our overseas image. Oil and related extractive industries have arguably done more to tarnish our image abroad than any other commercial pursuit. Building the eco-economy would reduce a major cause of anti-American feeling while simultaneously decreasing our vulnerability to oil embargoes and price spikes.

    Long before the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush adopted the slogan, "national security depends on energy security." How can America best increase it's overall security?

    By accelerating the transition to the eco-economy. This shift will arrive in any case due to increasing ecological degradation as well as other factors. But it would be far better if it came deliberately, through a national commitment to a different - clean and secure - energy path.

    Unfortunately, the Bush administration's energy policy is guided mainly by the idea that we should just find more exotic and expensive places to keep drilling for oil. This is not surprising given the administration's intimate ties to the petroleum industry.

    But the truth is that the most decisive war we can wage on behalf of true national security and America's global image is the war against our own oil dependency and for a new eco-economy.