New century to be marked by growing threats, opportunities
provided by Worldwatch Institute
he bright promise of a new century is clouded by unprecedented threats to the stability of the natural world, according to a special millennial edition of the State of the World report, released by the Worldwatch Institute today.
"In a globally interconnected economy, rapid deforestation, falling water tables, and accelerating climate change could undermine economies around the world in the decades ahead," said Lester Brown and Christopher Flavin, lead authors of the new report. During the past century, world population grew by more than 4 billion -- three times the number of people when the century began. At the same time, the use of energy and raw materials grew more than ten times. "These trends cannot continue for many more years," said the authors. "As the 21st century approaches, the big question is whether we can muster the ingenuity to change -- and do so rapidly enough to stave off environmentally-based economic decline. The one thing we can say for sure is that the 21st century will be as different from the 20th as that one was from the 19th."
The 20th century began with extraordinary optimism. Major advances such as widespread electric lighting and the emancipation of women were widely predicted, but many other developments, such as air travel and the birth-control pill, were not. The darkest developments of the 20th century, including two world wars and more than a billion people living in poverty, were completely unexpected.
Today, at the dawn of a new century, faith in technology and human progress are as common as they were a century ago. In their fascination with information technologies, many of today's economic thinkers seem to have forgotten that our modern civilization, like its forerunners, is entirely dependent on its ecological foundations -- foundations that the economy is now eroding.
Since our emergence as a species, human societies have continually run up against local environmental limits that have caused them to collapse, as local forests and cropland were overstressed. But the advances in technology that have allowed us to surmount these local limits have transferred the problem of environmental limits to the global level, where human activities now threaten planetary systems. Among the problems we now face:
"Our analysis shows that we are entering a new century with an economy that cannot take us where we want to go," said Worldwatch President Lester Brown. "Satisfying the projected needs of 8 billion or more people with the economy we now have is simply not possible. The western industrial model -- the fossil-fuel-based, automobile-centered, throwaway economy that so dramatically raised living standards in this century -- is in trouble."
The shift to an environmentally sustainable economy may be as profound a transition as the Industrial Revolution. But just as our great-grandparents were able to change a century ago, so must we be ready to change again. In fact, the broad outlines of a sustainable economic system that can meet the human needs of the next century are beginning to emerge.
The foundation of such a system is a new design principle -- one that shifts from the onetime depletion of natural resources to an economy that is based on renewable energy and that continually reuses and recycles materials. A sustainable economy will be a solar-powered, bicycle/rail-based, reuse/recycle economy, one that uses energy, water, land, and materials much more efficiently and wisely than we do today.
Defenders of today's industries point to the costs of environmental protection. But reversing the environmental deterioration that has marked the 20th century is hardly a luxury. Archaeologists study the remains of civilizations that undermined their ecological support systems. The Fertile Crescent, where agriculture emerged over ten millennia ago, was turned into a virtual desert by ancient farmers and herders -- and even today, supports only a small population.
These societies found themselves on a growth path that was environmentally unsustainable and were not able to make the economic adjustments needed to avoid a collapse. Unfortunately, the records do not tell us whether these civilizations did not understand the need for change, or whether they saw the problem but could not agree on the steps needed to stave off economic decline. Today, the adjustments we must make are clear. The question is whether we can make them in time.
Building an environmentally sustainable world economy depends on a cooperative global effort. No country acting alone can protect the diversity of life on Earth or the health of oceanic fisheries. So far, national governments have largely failed to effectively implement the last decade's landmark environmental treaties on climate change and biodiversity. One of the big challenges of the early 21st century will be to fulfill their ambitious promises to stabilize the climate and slow the destruction of species.
In the absence of a concerted effort by the wealthy to address the problems of poverty and deprivation, building a sustainable future may not be possible. Growing poverty, and the political and economic chaos that can be provoked by it, reverberate around the world, as was seen in 1998 with the Asian economic meltdown, which pushed tens of millions of people below the poverty line in just a few months. Meeting the needs of the more than 1 billion people now in poverty is essential to making the transition to an environmentally sustainable world economy.
"One question facing humanity as the new century approaches is whether we can find a new understanding and values that will support a restructuring of the global economy," said author Christopher Flavin. "Although such a transformation may seem farfetched, the end-of-the-century perspective offers hope. Just as the 19th century was marked by the abolition of slavery and the 20th century by a new international principle of human rights (adopted by the United Nations in 1948), the 21st century will require a new ethic of sustainability that includes the need to live within our ecological means. We will need a new set of human responsibilities -- to the natural world and to future generations -- to go with our new-found human rights."
One key to reversing environmental degradation is to tax the activities that cause it, according to the report. By putting a price on these activities, the market can be harnessed to spur progress. If coal burning is taxed, solar energy becomes more economically competitive. If auto emissions are taxed, cleaner forms of transportation become more affordable.
The new German government, elected in October 1998, has embarked on the world's most ambitious environmental tax reform, reducing taxes on wages by 2.4 percent, while raising energy taxes by an identical amount. This is a landmark step that will push Europe's largest economy in an environmentally sustainable direction.
In the last decade of the 20th century, Europe is also leading the way in some of the industries that are the foundations of a solar economy. Europe has added 5,000 megawatts of wind power in the last 5 years, for example, half of it in Germany, where the northernmost state of Schleswig-Holstein gets 15 percent of its electricity from the wind. Wind power, now one of Europe's fastest growing manufacturing industries, employs thousands of workers.
Sales of other new energy technologies are soaring as well. The production of solar photovoltaic cells has doubled in the last five years, propelled in part by the Japanese government's efforts to promote solar rooftops as a standard option for new suburban homes. Fuel cells, which turn hydrogen into electricity with water the only byproduct, are meanwhile being spurred by billions of dollars of investment capital, as companies pursue them as a replacement for everything from the coal-fired power plant to the internal combustion engine.
The effort to replace today's unsustainable economy with one that is suited to the demands of the 21st century will create some of the new century's largest investment opportunities. Bill Ford, the incoming Chairman of the Ford Motor Company, has plans to increase his company's profits by replacing the internal combustion engine that was at the center of his great-grandfather's success. "Smart companies will get ahead of the wave," says Ford. "Those that don't will be wiped out." [see story below]
The challenge now is to mobilize public support for a fundamental economic transformation -- a shift to a 21st century economy that is far less resource intensive and polluting, yet even more productive than today's.
"No challenge is greater, or more satisfying, than building an environmentally sustainable global economy, one where economic and social progress can continue, not only in the 21st century, but for many centuries beyond," the authors conclude.
|For more information contact: Mary Caron, Press Officer (202) 452-1992 ext. 527. Also visit the Worldwatch website at www.worldwatch.org. The Worldwatch Institute is a nonprofit research organization that analyzes global environmental and development issues. Worldwatch's expert researchers are available to provide journalists with the latest data and thinking on global environmental and development trends|