Peter C Meek
I am sometimes asked if the economy would collapse were we to bring our economy into balance with our natural resources. My answer is no, it will be a more robust system.
An economy that is in sync with the earth’s ecosystem-an eco-economy-will contrast profoundly with the polluting, disruptive, and ultimately self-destructing economy of today-the fossil-fuel-based, automobile-centered, throwaway economy.
First, we will have a stable population rather than an increasingly expanding one putting ever more pressure on the earth to supply its needs. Among the key economic sectors-energy, materials, and food-the 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. The materials loop will be closed, yielding no waste and nothing for the landfills. In the food sector, the challenge is to better manage natural capital: stabilizing aquifers by increasing water productivity, conserving topsoil by altering agricultural practices, and raising land productivity to avoid clearing more forests for food production.
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.
Instead of being run on fossil fuels, the eco-economy 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. Cars and buses will run on electricity derived from wind and possibly fuel cells powered by hydrogen. 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 will be as widely distributed as sunlight and wind. The heavy dependence of the entire world on one geographic region-the Middle East-for much of its energy will decline as the new climate-benign energy sources take over.
The transport systems of cities will change. 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. Urban personal mobility will increase as automobile use and traffic congestion decline.
New Industries, New Jobs
Building an eco-economy represents one of the greatest investment opportunities of all time. Restructuring the global economy will create not only new industries, but also new jobs-indeed, whole new professions and new specialties within professions. For example, as wind becomes an increasingly prominent energy source, there will be a need for 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 engineers to design and supply wind turbines.
Among the signposts of an environmentally sustainable economy are buildings that are in harmony with the environment. Environmental architects will be needed to 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 at the center of watershed management regimes. 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. As the world shifts from a throwaway economy, engineers will be needed to design products that can be recycled-from cars to computers. Once products are designed to be disassembled quickly and easily into component parts and materials, comprehensive recycling is relatively easy. 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.
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.
Another pressing need, particularly in developing countries, is for a new breed of sanitary engineers to design sewage systems not dependent on water, a trend that is already under way in some water-scarce countries. Using water to wash waste away is a reckless use of a scarce resource. 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.
No sector of the global economy will be untouched by the Environmental Revolution. In this new economy, some companies will be winners and some will be losers. Those who anticipate the emerging eco-economy and plan for it will be the winners. Those who cling to the past risk becoming part of it.
Lester Brown is President of the Earth Policy Institute. This article adapted from his book Eco-Economy:Building an Economy for the Earth,”The Shape of an Eco-Economy.” See www.earth-policy.org