The Earth Policy Reader


Lester R. Brown, Janet Larsen, and Bernie Fischlowitz-Roberts

Part 1. The Economic Costs of Ecological Deficits: Introduction

As populations have multiplied and incomes have risen, demands on the natural support systems of many economies have become excessive, generating ecological deficits. The effects of these deficits are first seen at the local level as deforestation leads to fuelwood shortages, overplowing leads to falling crop yields, overgrazing leads to emaciated herds of cattle, or overpumping drops water tables and dries up wells.

At some point, these expanding deficits begin to reinforce each other, creating an ecological disaster of national proportions. This is now happening in China—where disappearing forests, deteriorating rangelands, eroding croplands, and falling water tables are converging to create a dust bowl of historic dimensions. China’s sheer geographic size, the weight of its 1.3 billion people on the land, and the pace of its economic expansion put it on the frontline of the deteriorating relationship between the global economy and the earth’s ecosystem.

Although China is not well prepared for it, it is now at war. It is not invading armies that are claiming its territory, but expanding deserts. Old deserts are advancing and new ones are forming, like guerrilla forces striking unexpectedly, forcing Beijing to fight on several fronts. And China is losing the war. Not only are the deserts advancing, but their advance is gaining momentum, claiming an ever larger piece of territory each year. The flow of refugees has already begun, as villages in several provinces are overrun by sand dunes.

Mounting ecological deficits are taking an economic toll in other countries as well. Algeria, suffering from the same complex of deficits as China, is trying to convert the southern one fifth of its grainland to orchard crops in an effort to halt the advancing Sahara. On the Sahara’s southern fringe, Nigeria is fighting a similar battle.

Among other things, these ecological deficits are producing refugees. Villages are being abandoned as aquifers are depleted in Iran and India. Kazakhstan has surrendered half of its cropland to the desert.

On another front in this war, if sea level rises by 1 meter during this century, which is now clearly a possibility, Bangladesh will lose half of its riceland, scores of other Asian countries will lose their rice-growing river deltas, and some island countries will become uninhabitable. Modern civilization, with its growing population, is being squeezed into an ever smaller area by expanding deserts and rising seas.

The first section of Part 1 of The Earth Policy Reader describes how ecological deficits are converging to expand deserts in China. The second section looks at the negative effect of ecological deficits on the food prospect and how to eliminate both soil and water deficits. The third section describes how nature’s inability to fix carbon as fast as we release it is destabilizing climate. It then discusses how to restructure the energy economy and eliminate this deficit by reducing carbon emissions. And finally we discuss how to fix the market to achieve environmental sustainability.


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