EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 4. The Shape of the Eco-Economy: Restructuring the Economy

An economy that is in sync with the earth's ecosystem will contrast profoundly with the polluting, disruptive, and ultimately self- destructing economy of todaythe fossil-fuel-based, automobile-centered, throwaway economy. One of the attractions of the western economic model is that it has raised living standards for one fifth of humanity to a level that our ancestors could not have dreamed of, providing a remarkably diverse diet, unprecedented levels of material consumption, and unimagined physical mobility. But unfortunately it will not work over the long term even for the affluent one fifth, much less for the entire world.

Among the key economic sectorsenergy, materials, and foodthe most profound changes will be in energy and materials. It is difficult to imagine a more fundamental sectoral restructuring than that in the energy sector as it shifts from oil, coal, and natural gas to wind, solar cells, and geothermal energy.

With materials, the change is not so much in the materials used as in the structure of the sector itself as it shifts from the linear economic model, where materials go from the mine or forest to the landfill, to the reuse/recycle model. In this closed loop system, which emulates nature, recycling industries will largely replace extraction industries.

In the food sector, the big changes are not in structure, but in the way the sector is managed. The challenge here is to better manage natural capital, to stabilize aquifers by increasing water productivity, and to conserve topsoil by altering agricultural practices. And above all else, it means sustaining the rise in land productivity in order to avoid clearing more forests for food production.

We can now see what an eco-economy looks like. Instead of being run on fossil fuels, it will be powered by sources of energy that derive from the Sun, such as wind and sunlight, and by geothermal energy from within the earth. (See Chapter 5.) It will be hydrogen-based instead of carbon-based. Cars and buses will run on fuel-cell engines powered by electricity produced with an electrochemical process using hydrogen as the fuel instead of internal combustion engines. With fuel cells powered by hydrogen, there is no climate-disrupting CO2 or noxious health-damaging pollutants; only water is emitted.

In the new economy, atmospheric CO2 levels will be stable. In contrast to today's energy economy, where the world's reserves of oil and coal are concentrated in a handful of countries, energy sources in the eco-economy will be widely dispersed--as widely distributed as sunlight and wind. The heavy dependence of the entire world on one geographic region--the Middle Eastfor much of its energy will likely decline as the new climate-benign energy sources and fuel-cell engines take over.

The energy economy will be essentially a solar/hydrogen economy with various energy sources deriving from the Sun used either directly for heating and cooling or indirectly to produce electricity. Wind-generated electricity, which is likely to be the lowest-cost source of energy, will be used to electrolyze water, producing hydrogen. This provides a means of both storing and transporting wind energy. Initially, existing natural gas pipelines will be used to distribute hydrogen. But over the longer term, both natural gas and oil pipeline networks can be adapted to carry hydrogen as the world shifts from a carbon-based to a hydrogen-based economy.

The transport systems of cities will changeindeed, they already are. Instead of the noisy, congested, polluting, auto-centered transport systems of today, cities will have rail-centered transport systems and they will be bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly, offering more mobility, more exercise, cleaner air, and less frustration. (See Chapter 9.) Historians looking back on the current system will likely see it as a dark age in urban evolution.

Urban transport systems will have the same components as they do today: automobile, rail, bus, and bicycle. The difference will be in the mix. As more and more city planners recognize the inherent conflict between the automobile and the city, new, cleaner, more efficient transport systems will develop. Urban personal mobility will increase as automobile use and traffic congestion decline.

The materials sector of the eco-economy will look far different too. (See Chapter 6.) Mature industrial economies with stable populations can operate largely by recycling the materials already in use. The materials loop will be closed, yielding no waste and nothing for the landfills.

One of the keys to reversing the deforestation of the earth is paper recycling; the potential here has been only partly realized. A second key is developing alternative energy sources that will reduce the amount of wood used as fuel. In addition, boosting the efficiency of wood burning can measurably lighten the load on forests.

Another promising option is the use of carefully designed, ecologically managed, and highly productive tree plantations. A small area devoted to plantations may be essential to protecting forests at the global level. Plantations can yield several times as much wood per hectare as can a natural forest.

In the economy of the future, the use of water will be in balance with supply. Water tables will be stable, not falling. The economic restructuring will be designed to raise water productivity in every facet of economic activity.

In this environmentally sustainable economy, harvests from oceanic fisheries, a major source of animal protein in the human diet, will be reduced to the sustainable yield. Additional demand will be satisfied by fish farming. This is, in effect, an aquatic version of the same shift that occurred during the transition from hunting and gathering to farming. The freshwater, herbivorous carp polyculture on which the Chinese rely heavily for their vast production of farmed fish offers an ecological model for the rest of the world.10

A somewhat similar situation exists for rangelands. One of the keys to alleviating the excessive pressure on rangelands is to feed livestock the crop residues that are otherwise being burned for fuel or for disposal. This trend, already well under way in India and China, may hold the key to stabilizing the world's rangelands. (See Chapter 7.)11

And finally, the new economy will have a stable population. Over the longer term, the only sustainable society is one in which couples have an average of two children .

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10. Rosamond L. Naylor et al., "Nature's Subsidies to Shrimp and Salmon Farming," Science, 30 October 1998.

11. A. Banerjee, "Dairying Systems in India," World Animal Review, vol. 79/2 (Rome: FAO, 1994); Gao Tengyun, "Treatment and Utilization of Crop Straw and Stover in China," Livestock Research for Rural Development, February 2000.


Copyright © 2001 Earth Policy Institute