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World: Environmentalist Predicts Economic Collapse If Trends Continue

  • Ahto Lobjakas

In order to survive, the global economy must undergo a shift as groundbreaking as the Copernican revolution in astronomy in the 16th century, which recognized that the Earth revolves around the sun, rather than vice versa. This is the message being taken to political and business leaders all over the world by noted U.S. environmentalist Lester Brown, who says they need to recognize that the economy should be considered secondary to ecological concerns. To do the reverse -- treat the environment as of lesser importance than the economy -- spells certain disaster, warns Brown, who last week was in Brussels and spoke to RFE/RL correspondent Ahto Lobjakas.

Brussels, 19 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Lester Brown says the modern world faces an imminent choice: It must either bring its economy into line with the demands of the environment or prepare for decline and eventual collapse. The rate at which the world's economy grows and its population expands will simply soon exhaust most of the natural resources on which they vitally depend.

"Eco-Economy: Building an Economy for the Earth" is the latest of numerous publications by the world-renowned environmentalist on the links between the ecology and the global economy. In it, Brown urges a massive shift in thinking he likens to the sensational assertion by Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, who was the first to support the heliocentric theory of the universe -- that it is the Earth that revolves around the sun, not the sun around the Earth.

In order for the global economy to survive, Brown says, it must recognize that it is dependent on the world's ecology -- not the other way around.

"Today we're faced with a somewhat similar situation [as the pre-Copernican world]. The question is whether the economy is part of the ecosystem -- whether the economy is part of the environment or whether the environment is part of the economy," Brown says. "Most economists, and I think business leaders, would think of the environment as being a subsector of the economy -- it's basically the 'pollution sector.'"

But Brown argues that it is the ecologists who are right and that the design of the economy must recognize the limits set by the ecosystem. Right now, the global economy is "out of sync" with the environment, he says. Brown, who in 1971 founded the Worldwatch research institute devoted to the analysis of global environmental issues, presents a long list of evidence of what he calls "mounting stresses" in the relationship between ecology and the economy -- shrinking forests, expanding deserts, collapsing fish stocks, falling water tables, eroding soils, rising carbon dioxide levels, rising temperatures, melting polar icecaps, increasingly destructive storms, disappearing species, and the growing pollution of air and water.

In Brown's vision, our civilization now appears to be at the apex of a cycle of unsustainability which, historically, has always led to decline and destruction.

"Our current economy is slowly destroying its support systems. We know from earlier civilizations, whose archeological sites we now study, that when they got on an economic path that was economically unsustainable, they eventually declined -- whether that's the Sumerians in what's now southern Iraq or the Mayans in what's now the coastal lowlands of Guatemala or the Eastern Islanders," Brown says. "One can go through a long list of early civilizations whose economies were undermined by environmental degradation and disruption."

In "Eco-Economy," Brown explains how despite all its innovative ingenuity, the ancient Sumerian civilization was eventually brought down by a fatal ecological design flaw. When diverting river water for irrigation, the Sumerians did not take into account what happens when some of the water inevitably "percolates" downward from the fields. Over the years, underground water tables rose gradually. When it got to within a few feet of the surface, the water started affecting the development of root systems. The Sumerians then introduced different, more water-resistant crops, but over time water got closer still to the surface and started evaporating, leaving behind salt deposits. This made further agricultural activity impossible, and, as Brown notes, many of the original Sumerian sites in southern Iraq are barren to this day.

Brown often uses the example of China to demonstrate how close today's global economy is to the limits of what is ecologically possible.

Brown says China, with its rapid economic growth in recent decades, "telescopes history" -- letting us see what happens if large numbers of poor people become more affluent. He cites in particular the decision of the Chinese government in 1994 to develop a car-centered transportation system. Brown says that to have a car -- or two, in traditional U.S.-style -- in every garage, China will need more oil than the world currently produces. Or, if paper consumption in China reached U.S. levels, it would need more paper than the world currently produces.

Brown says the "throwaway" approach to the global economy will fail not only in countries with rapidly expanding populations like China and India, but eventually in the rest of the developing and developed world.

He says there are already countries and areas where steps are being made toward a new, more sustainable economy. In particular, he sees great potential in wind energy, saying China could double its current electricity production using wind generators. In Europe, using offshore wind generators up to the depth of 30 meters would be enough to cover all the continent's energy needs. In the United States, the price of a kilowatt of wind-generated electricity is already as little as 3-4 cents.

Yet Brown says time is running out and some of the world's ecosystems are already beyond salvaging: "When we ask the question 'Do we have enough time?' or 'How much time do we have?' we have to be specific -- how much time for what? Do we have enough time to save the Aral Sea? No, it's dead. Can we save India's rain forests? Probably not, they may have reached the point of no return. Can we save the glaciers in Glacier National Park [in the United States]? Probably not, half of them are gone already and the other half are projected to disappear within the next 30 years. Can we reverse the environmental trends that are slowly undermining the global economy before we face economic decline and collapse of the sort that was experienced by earlier civilizations? I think so, I think we can. But we don't have a lot of time."

Brown says the two crucial global challenges are the need to stabilize carbon dioxide emissions and curb population growth. If these two objectives are met, he says, many of the world's problems "would begin to take care of themselves." He warns, however, that if present trends are not reversed soon, there's probably not an ecosystem on Earth we can save.

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