Courtesy Les Brown and the Earth Policy Institute,
|In our preoccupation with quarterly earnings reports and year-to-year
economic growth, we have lost sight of how large the human enterprise
has become relative to the Earth’s resources. A century
ago, annual growth in the world economy was measured in billions
of dollars. Today it is measured in trillions.
As a result, we are consuming renewable resources faster than
they can regenerate. Forests are shrinking, grasslands are deteriorating,
water tables are falling, fisheries are collapsing, and soils
are eroding. We are using up oil at a pace that leaves little
time to plan beyond peak oil. And we are discharging greenhouse
gases into the atmosphere faster than nature can absorb them,
setting the stage for a rise in the Earth’s temperature
well above any since agriculture began.
Our 21st-century civilization is not the first to move onto an
economic path that was environmentally unsustainable. Many earlier
civilizations also found themselves in environmental trouble.
As Jared Diamond notes in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed,
some were able to change course and avoid economic decline. Others were not.
We study the archeological sites of Sumerians, the Mayans, Easter Islanders,
and other early civilizations that were not able to make the needed adjustments
Fortunately, there is a consensus emerging among scientists on the broad outlines
of the changes needed. If economic progress is to be sustained, we need to replace
the fossil-fuel-based, automobile-centered, throwaway economy with a new economic
model. Instead of being based on fossil fuels, the new economy will be powered
by abundant sources of renewable energy: wind, solar, geothermal, hydropower,
Instead of being centered around automobiles, future transportation systems will
be far more diverse, widely employing light rail, buses, and bicycles as well
as cars. The goal will be to maximize mobility, not automobile ownership.
The wasteful, throw-away economy will be replaced by a comprehensive reuse/recycle
economy. Consumer products from cars to computers will be designed so that they
can be disassembled into their component parts and completely recycled. Throwaway
products such as single-use beverage containers will be phased out.
The good news is that we can already see glimpses here and there of what this
new economy looks like. We have the technologies to build it—including,
for example, gas-electric hybrid cars, advanced-design wind turbines, highly
efficient refrigerators, and water-efficient irrigation systems.
We can see how to build the new economy brick by brick. With each wind farm,
rooftop solar panel, paper recycling facility, bicycle path, and reforestation
program, we move closer to an economy that can sustain economic progress.
If, instead, we continue on the current economic path, the question is not whether
environmental deterioration will lead to economic decline, but when. No economy,
however technologically advanced, can survive the collapse of its environmental
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