Interesting Times

by Carolyn Chase


s we approach the new millennium, there are growing signs that the world may be on the edge of an environmental revolution at least comparable to the political revolution that swept Eastern Europe. According to Lester Brown, president of the Worldwatch Institute, while the social revolution in Eastern Europe led to a restructuring of the region's political systems, this next global revolution could lead to an environmentally-driven restructuring of the global economy.

"I believe that there are now some clear signs that the world is in the early stages of a major shift in environmental consciousness," said Brown. "What is not clear to me is whether we will cross this threshold in time to avoid the disruption of global economic progress."

For many who track environmental trends - such as collapsing fisheries - shrinking forests, rising temperatures, and the rising losses of plant and animal species, it has been clear for some time that economic progress can be sustained only if the economy is restructured so that its natural support systems are protected.

Brown argues that there is an exciting alternative economic model that promises a better life everywhere without destroying the earth's natural support systems. The new economy will be powered not by fossil fuels, but by various sources of solar energy and hydrogen. Urban transportation systems will be centered not around the car,
but around high-tech transit systems augmented by bicycles and walking. Instead of a throwaway economy, we will have a reuse/recycle economy.

"Twenty years ago when we first outlined this new model at the Institute, it was seen as pie-in-the-sky," said Brown. "Now that view is changing both because it is becoming clear that the old model won't work and also because we can see the broad outline of the environmentally sustainable economic model emerging."

Nowhere is the new model more visible than in the energy sector. While oil and coal use have expanded by just over 1 percent a year since 1990, the use of solar cells has expanded by 16 percent per year and wind power by a prodigious annual rate of 26 percent.

Worldwide, the wind power potential is several times that of hydropower, which now supplies just over one fifth of the world's electricity. A new Japanese solar roofing material promises to revolutionize the electrical generating industry.

The more enterprising corporate CEOs are beginning to see this economic restructuring as the greatest investment
opportunity in history. In a speech on February 9, Mike R. Bowlin, Chairman and CEO of ARCO, first and foremost an oil
company, described the beginning of "the last days of the age of oil" and the emergence of the new clean energy economy. He sees ARCO's large holdings of natural gas playing a key role in the transition from a carbon-based energy economy to one based on hydrogen. Within the last two years, British Petroleum has committed $1 billion to the development of wind and solar energy and Royal Dutch Shell has announced a $500 million investment in renewable energy sources.

Governments, too, are changing. Denmark has banned the construction of coal-fired power plants. Costa Rica plans to get all its electricity from renewable sources by 2010. In mid-August 1998, after several weeks of near-record flooding in the Yangtze River basin, Premier Zhu Rongji ordered a halt to tree cutting in the upper
basin, arguing that trees standing are worth three times as much as those cut.

What's up with the United States? Denial is a powerful human phenomena especially when billions of dollars of investments are on the line. With a generally unlimited amount of money to spend in the American political arena to protect parochial interests, there is no legislative entity that can withstand the relentless organizing power of the vast, global fossil fuel industry.

While great increases in renewables are hopeful, I see little on the horizon to show that oil companies believe they should reduce or restrict any of their exploration activities. The mainstream of American culture is still firmly embedded in its "drink it 'til the party's over" mentality. This makes it even more important that business leadership learn how to make good environmental practices pay.

If we are indeed approaching a social threshold on the environment that could lead to a rapid restructuring of the economy, will it come soon enough?

Worldwatch asks and answers some interesting questions. Is it too late to save the Aral Sea? Yes, its fish are gone. Is it too late to save Indonesia's rain forests? Probably. Is it too late to avoid global warming? Apparently. The Earth's average temperature keeps rising. Can we ameliorate future temperature rises? Yes. Can we move fast enough to prevent environmental deterioration from disrupting the global economy? Probably. But only if we push the threshold.

"No challenge in the new century looms greater than that of transforming the economy into one that is environmentally sustainable," said Brown. "This Environmental Revolution is comparable in scale to the Agricultural Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. The big difference is in the time available. The Agricultural Revolution was spread over thousands of years. The Industrial Revolution has been underway for two centuries.
The Environmental Revolution, if it succeeds, will be compressed into a few decades."

Brown writes that archeologists have uncovered the sites of earlier civilizations that moved onto economic paths that were environmentally destructive and could not make the needed course corrections, either because they did not understand what was happening or could not summon the needed political will.

"We do know what is happening," said Brown. "The question for us is whether our global society can cross the social threshold that will enable us to restructure the global economy before environmental deterioration leads to economic decline."

There has perhaps never been a time when the time-honored political observation, "When the people lead, the leaders will follow" was so apt. As with tobacco, without leadership from the American public itself, there is little chance that this Congress or any future Congress will be able to commit the U.S. leadership required to wean us from fossil fuels.