Lester Brown recently wrote Eco-Economy: Building an Economy for the Earth in which his thesis was that "the environment was not part of the economy...but instead that the economy was part of the environment." (p. xv)
Here he presents an upbeat and positive plan for saving the world from the consequences of what he calls the planet-wide "bubble economy." His central argument is that we are about to face a food shortage of crisis proportions as our aquifers and rivers run dry. The relative price of food, which is directly dependent upon ready water supplies from underground and through the diversion of rivers, he argues, is about to skyrocket as China and other grain-hungry nations begin to import grain.
His plan B is a combination of interventions that would include environmental tax reform, that is, taxing products in terms or their true cost including pollution and the use of non-renewable resources. Thus the consequences of pollution-induced illnesses like asthma, etc. be factored into the cost of gasoline. In this way non-polluting energy sources such as windmills and solar energy cells would become cost-competitive with fossil fuels almost immediately.
The first half of the book is devoted to describing the problem, which he calls "A Civilization in Trouble." The second half is devoted to his Plan B which includes adopting "honest global accounting," stabilizing the population, and raising land productivity. He wants not only to shift taxes from the environmentally sound ways of doing business to the ecologically harmful ways, but to shift the subsidizes that many countries now give to fossil fuel producers and to fishing and logging industries to environmentally safe products and industries. He points out that it is foolhardy to subsidize the destruction of our environment as we are now doing.
Brown quotes Oystein Dahle, former Vice President of Exxon for Norway as saying: "Socialism collapsed because it did not allow the market to tell the economic truth. Capitalism may collapse because it does not allow the market to tell the ecological truth." (p. 210)
A striking example of what Brown means by shifting taxes comes from former Harvard Economics professor N. Gregory Mankiw, who wrote: "Cutting income taxes while increasing gasoline taxes would lead to more rapid economic growth, less traffic congestion, safer roads, and reduced risk of global warming..." (p 214)
Incidentally, Brown asserts that rising temperatures adversely affect crop yields. He notes that crops are grown in many countries "at or near their thermal optimum, making them vulnerable to any rise in temperature." He cites a study by Mohan Wali at Ohio State University showing that photosynthesis increases until the temperature reaches 68 degrees F. and then plateaus until it hits 95 degrees whereupon it begin to decline, and ceases at 104 degrees. (pp. 62-63)
The problem with his solution is that, as Brown points out, the body politic, especially that of the United States, must take action to implement the changes. Unfortunately, President Bush, who represents corporate interests (as most American politicians do), will continue to call for more studies, and nothing will be done. More particularly, taxing destructive practices will only work if all (or at least a substantial majority) of the countries of the world cooperate. Polluted air, acid rain, depleted aquifers, and rivers run dry cross borders. Consequently we have a daunting task in front of us.
A crucial psychological problem is that our instincts were honed in the pre-history when the resources of forest and savanna were effectively inexhaustible, where it didn't matter how much we burned and polluted since we could just move on. Our numbers were so small relative to the land that it would renew itself as we were despoiling other lands. With six billion-plus people on the planet there are no "other lands" and there is no time for the land to renew itself. We can no longer toss our waste over our shoulders, defecate in the stream, and slash and burn.
This is just one respect in which we have to ask, are human beings as presently evolved able to cope with the modern world? The tribal mentality, with its violence toward outsiders and toward the environment, is still with us, but the tolerance of the environment for such behavior is not. The myth of the noble savage and indigenous people living in harmony with nature needs a reality check. We are savages in headsets, neither noble nor ignoble. We are indigenous people whose lands have gone the way of the Garden of Eden. We are clumsily and incompletely adjusting to a different landscape: the modern world.
The race is on. Which will come first: our adjustment to the needs of the planet or the collapse of our great civilizations? Note well it is the needs of the planet that come first. Note also that the collapse of our civilizations will usher in a period of immense pain and suffering, even for those of us sitting atop Mount Olympus, as it were, in our garden homes sheltered from the storms in our inner cities and in Bangladesh and Pakistan.
A great deal of human suffering can be averted by anticipating the consequences of globalization, of diminishing resources resulting in diminishing returns. But it is also true that a great deal of human suffering can be averted by not doing something stupid that may have unintended consequences. We must use our abilities and our knowledge to choose between the two. Lester Brown is trying to help us do that. This book is a fine introduction to the problem and to a possible solution.