Eco-Economy: Building an Economy for the Earth


Lester R. Brown

Chapter 4. The Shape of the Eco-Economy: New Industries, New Jobs

Describing the eco-economy is obviously a somewhat speculative undertaking. In the end, however, it is not as open-ended as it might seem because the eco-economy's broad outlines are defined by the principles of ecology. 

The purpose of describing the restructuring of the overall economy before turning to chapters on the key sectors is to give a sense of the dynamics at work. The specific trends and shifts described are not projections of what will happen, though the term "will" is often used here for the sake of efficiency. No one knows if these shifts "will" in fact occur, but we do know that something like this is needed if we are to build an eco-economy. 

What is not so clear is how ecological principles will translate into economic design since, for example, each country has a unique combination of renewable energy sources that will power its economy. Some countries may draw broadly on all their renewable energy sources, while others may concentrate heavily on one that is particularly abundant, say wind or solar energy. A country with a wealth of geothermal energy may choose to structure its energy economy around this subterranean energy source. 

Building a new economy involves phasing out old industries, restructuring existing ones, and creating new ones. World coal use is already being phased out, dropping 7 percent since peaking in 1996. It is being replaced by efficiency gains in some countries; by natural gas in others, such as the United Kingdom and China; and by wind power in others such as Denmark.12 

The automobile industry faces a major restructuring as it changes power sources, shifting from the gasoline-powered internal combustion engine to the hydrogen-powered fuel cell engine. This shift from the explosive energy that derives from igniting gasoline vapor to a chemical reaction that generates electricity will require both a retooling of engine plants and the retraining of automotive engineers and automobile mechanics. 

The new economy will also bring major new industries, ones that either do not yet exist or that are just beginning. Wind electricity generation is one such industry. (See Table 4-1.) Now in its embryonic stage, it promises to become the foundation of the new energy economy. Millions of turbines soon will be converting wind into electricity, becoming part of the global landscape. In many countries, wind will supply both electricity and, through the electrolysis of water, hydrogen. Together, electricity and hydrogen can meet all the energy needs of a modern society. 

In effect, there will be three new subsidiary industries associated with wind power: turbine manufacturing, installation, and maintenance. Manufacturing facilities will be found in scores of countries, industrial and developing. Installation, which is basically a construction industry, will be more local in nature. Maintenance, since it is a day-to-day activity, will be a source of ongoing local employment. 

The robustness of the wind turbine industry was evident in 2000 and 2001 when high tech stocks were in a free fall worldwide. While high tech firms as a group were performing poorly, sales of wind turbines were climbing, pushing the earnings of turbine manufacturers to the top of the charts. Continuing growth of this sector is expected for the next few decades. 

As wind power emerges as a low-cost source of electricity and a mainstream energy source, it will spawn another industryhydrogen production. Once wind turbines are in wide use, there will be a large, unused capacity during the night when electricity use drops. With this essentially free electricity, turbine owners can turn on the hydrogen generators, converting the wind power into hydrogen, ideal for fuel cell engines. Hydrogen generators will start to replace oil refineries. The wind turbine will replace both the coal mine and the oil well. (See Table 4-2.) Both wind turbines and hydrogen generators will be widely dispersed as countries take advantage of local wind resources. 

Changes in the world food economy will also be substantial. (See Chapter 7.) Some of these, such as the shift to fish farming, are already under way. The fastest growing subsector of the world food economy during the 1990s was aquaculture, expanding at more than 11 percent a year. Fish farming is likely to continue to expand simply because of its efficiency in converting grain into animal protein.13 

Even allowing for slower future growth in aquaculture, fish farm output will likely overtake beef production during this decade. Perhaps more surprising, fish farming could eventually exceed the oceanic fish catch. Indeed, for China--the world's leading consumer of seafood--fish farming already supplies two thirds of the seafood while the oceanic catch accounts for the other third.14 

With this development comes the need for a mixed-feed industry, one analogous to that which provides the nutritionally balanced rations used by the poultry industry today. There will also be a need for aquatic ecologists, fish nutritionists, and marine veterinarians. 

Another growth industry of the future is bicycle manufacturing and servicing. Because the bicycle is nonpolluting, frugal in its use of land, and provides the exercise much needed in sedentary societies, future reliance on it is expected to grow. As recently as 1965, the production of cars and bikes was essentially the same, but today more than twice as many bikes as cars are manufactured each year. Among industrial countries, the urban transport model being pioneered in the Netherlands and Denmark, where bikes are featured prominently, gives a sense of the bicycle's future role worldwide.15 

As bicycle use expands, interest in electrically assisted bikes is also growing. Similar to existing bicycles, except for a tiny battery-powered electric motor that can either power the bicycle entirely or assist elderly riders or those living in hilly terrain, its soaring sales are expected to continue climbing in the years ahead.

Yet another growth industry is raising water productivity. Just as the last half-century has been devoted to raising land productivity, the next half-century will be focused on raising water productivity. Virtually all societies will be turning to the management of water at the watershed level in order to manage available supply most efficiently. Irrigation technologies will become more efficient. Urban waste water recycling will become common. At present, water tends to flow into and out of cities, carrying waste with it. In the future, water will be used over and over, never discharged. Since water does not wear out, there is no limit to how long it can be used, as long as it is purified before reuse. 

Another industry that will play a prominent role in the new economy, one that will reduce energy use, is teleconferencing. Increasingly for environmental reasons and to save time, individuals will be "attending" conferences electronically with both audio and visual connections. This industry involves developing the electronic global infrastructure, as well as the services, to make this possible. One day there will likely be literally thousands of firms organizing electronic conferences. 

Restructuring the global economy will create not only new industries, but also new jobs-indeed, whole new professions and new specialties within professions. (See Table 4-3.) For example, as wind becomes an increasingly prominent energy source, there will be a need for thousands of wind meteorologists to analyze potential wind sites, monitor wind speeds, and select the best sites for wind farms. The better the data on wind resources, the more efficient the industry will become. 

Closely related to this new profession will be the wind engineers who design the wind turbines. Again, the appropriate turbine size and design can vary widely according to site. It will be the job of wind engineers to tailor designs to specific wind regimes in order to maximize electricity generation. 

Environmental architecture is another fast-growing profession. Among the signposts of an environmentally sustainable economy are buildings that are in harmony with the environment. Environmental architects design buildings that are energy- and materials-efficient and that maximize natural heating, cooling, and lighting. 

In a future of water scarcity, watershed hydrologists will be in demand. It will be their responsibility to understand the hydrological cycle, including the movement of underground water, and to know the depth of aquifers and determine their sustainable yield. They will be at the center of watershed management regimes. 

As the world shifts from a throwaway economy, engineers will be needed to design products that can be recycledfrom cars to computers. Once products are designed to be disassembled quickly and easily into component parts and materials, comprehensive recycling is relatively easy. 

Technologies used in recycling are sometimes quite different from those used in producing from virgin raw materials. Within the U.S. steel industry, for example, where nearly 60 percent of all steel is produced from scrap, the technologies used differ depending on the feedstock. Steel manufactured in electric arc furnaces from scrap uses far less energy than traditional open-hearth furnaces using pig iron. It will be the responsibility of the recycling engineers to close the materials loop, converting the linear flow-through economy into a comprehensive recycling economy.16 

In countries with a wealth of geothermal energy, it will be up to geothermal geologists to locate the best sites either for power plants or for tapping directly to heat buildings. Retraining petroleum geologists to master geothermal technologies is one way of satisfying the likely surge in demand for geothermal geologists. 

If the world is to stabilize population sooner rather than later, it will need far more family planning midwives in Third World communities. This growth sector will be concentrated largely in developing countries, where millions of women lack access to family planning. The same family planning counselors who advise on reproductive health and contraceptive use can also play a central role in controlling the spread of HIV. 

Another pressing need, particularly in developing countries, is for sanitary engineers who can design sewage systems not dependent on water, a trend that is already under way in some water-scarce countries. As it becomes clear that using water to wash waste away is a reckless use of a scarce resource, a new breed of sanitary engineers will be in wide demand. Washing waste away is even less acceptable today as marine ecosystems are overwhelmed by nutrient flows. Apart from the ecological disruption of a water-based disposal method, there are also much higher priorities in the use of water, such as drinking, bathing, and irrigation. 

Yet another new specialty that is likely to expand rapidly in agriculture as productive farmland becomes scarce is agronomists who specialize in multiple cropping and intercropping. This requires an expertise both in the selection of crops that can fit together well in a tight rotation in various locales and in agricultural practices that facilitate multiple cropping.


Table 4-2. Examples of Eco-Economy Sunset Industries
Industry Description
Coal mining The 7 percent decline in world coal burning since it peaked in 1996 will accelerate in the years ahead.
Oil pumping Projections based on shrinking oil reserves indicate production will peak and start declining in the next 5-20 years. But concerns about global warming could bring the decline closer.
Nuclear power generation Although public concern focuses on safety issues, it is the high cost that is ensuring the industry's decline.
Clearcut logging The rapid spread in eco-labeling of forest products will likely force logging firms to change to sustainable harvesting or be driven out of business.
Manufacture of throwaway products As efforts to close the materials cycle intensify, throwaway products will be either banned or taxed out of existence.
Automobile manufacturing As world population urbanizes, the conflict between the automobile and the city will intensify, reducing dependence on automobiles.
Table 4-3. Expanding Professions in an Eco-Economy
Profession Description
Wind meteorologists Wind meteorologists will play a role in the new energy economy comparable to that of petroleum geologists in the old one.
Family planning midwives If world population is to stabilize soon, literally millions of family planning midwives will be needed.
Foresters Reforesting the earth will require professional guidance on what species to plant where and in what combination.
Hydrologists As water scarcity spreads, the demand for hydrologists to advise on watershed management, water sources, and water efficiency will increase.
Recycling engineers Designing consumer appliances so they can be easily disassembled and completely recycled will become an engineering specialty.
Aquacultural veterinarians Until now, veterinarians have typically specialized in either large animals or small animals, but with fish farming likely to overtake beef production before the end of this decade, marine veterinarians will be in demand.
Ecological economists As it becomes clear that the basic principles of ecology must be incorporated into economic planning and policymaking, the demand for economists able to think like ecologists will grow.
Geothermal geologists With the likelihood that large areas of the world will turn to geothermal energy both for electricity and for heating, the demands for geothermal geologists will climb.
Environmental architects Architects are learning the principles of ecology so they can incorporate them into the buildings in which we live and work.
Bicycle mechanics As the world turns to the bicycle for transportation and exercise, bicycle mechanics will be needed to keep the fleet running.
Wind turbine engineers With millions of wind turbines likely to be installed in the decades ahead, there will be strong worldwide demand for wind turbine engineers.
Table 4-1. Examples of Eco-Economy Industries
Industry Description
Fish farming Although growth will slow from the double-digit rate of the last decade, rapid expansion is likely to continue.
Bicycle manufacturing Because bicycles are nonpolluting, quiet, require little parking space, and provide much-needed exercise in exercise-deprived societies, they will become increasingly common.
Wind farm construction Wind electric generation, including off-shore wind farms, will grow rapidly over the next few decades, until wind is supplying most of the world's electricity.
Wind turbine manufacturing Today the number of utility-scale wind turbines is measured in the thousands, but soon it will be measured in the millions, creating an enormous manufacturing opportunity.
Hydrogen generation As the transition from a carbon-based to a hydrogen-based energy economy progresses, hydrogen generation will become a huge industry as hydrogen replaces coal and oil.
Fuel cell manufacturing As fuel cells replace internal combustion engines in automobiles and begin generating power in buildings, a huge market will evolve.
Solar carll manufacturing For many of the 2 billion people living in rural Third World communities who lack electricity, solar cells will be the best bet for electrification.
Light rail construction As people tire of the traffic congestion and pollution associated with the automobile, cities in industrial and developing countries alike will be turning to light rail to provide mobility.
Tree planting As efforts to reforest the earth gain momentum and as tree plantations expand, tree planting will emerge as a leading economic activity.


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