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Book Review:

Eco-economy: Building an Economy for the Earth
Lester R. Brown

Lester Brown, Chairman of the Worldwatch Institute, which is known for the high quality of its reports, presents his vision of an environmentally sustainable economy - an eco-economy. The purpose of his book is to show that we have no alternative to restructuring the economy if we want economic progress, to describe with some degree of confidence what the eco-economy will look like and to outline a strategy of how to get there in the time available.

After cataloguing the grim decline in the planet's ability to carry on with business as usual, and pointing out that mismanagement is destroying forests, rangelands, fisheries and croplands, - the four eco-systems that supply our food and, except for minerals, all our raw materials - Eco-Economy provides hope that the solutions are within our reach, affordable and can lead to new employment opportunities and a higher standard of living.

An economy is sustainable only if it respects the principles of ecology; if it does not, it will decline and eventually collapse; there is no middle ground. Relying on distorted market signals to guide investment decisions is a recipe for disaster. We need a change in mind set similar to that when our ancestors accepted that the earth revolves around the sun.

Twenty five years ago the concept of environmentally sustainable development - restoring carbon balances, stabilizing population and water tables, conserving forests, soils and plant/animal diversity - was introduced but not one country is progressing satisfactorily on all fronts. Nonetheless glimpses of the eco-economy are visible. Many countries have stabilized their population - the first requirement for a sustainable future, - banned construction of coal-fired power plants or nonrefillable beverage containers, reforested, and encouraged use of bicycles. These are all facets of building a sustainable economy in marked contrast to the fossil-fuel-based, automobile-centered, throwaway economy of today.

Perhaps the most profound change will occur in the energy field where wind-generated energy at a cost as low as four cents per watt is likely to be a major source of energy for the foreseeable future. By electrolyzing water to produce hydrogen during slack times we have the means of storing wind energy and, in due course, of transporting it through defunct oil and gas pipe lines. Use of natural gas will keep expanding for the present as it is an ideal fuel for the transition from a carbon-based economy to one based on hydrogen. Together, electricity and hydrogen can meet all the needs of a modern society. Other renewable sources of energy will play a lesser role. During the 1990s photovoltaic sales increased by an average of 20% per year, climbing by 43% in 2000, while the capacity of geothermal increased by 4% and hydro by 2%. Energy conservation and efficiency is still the best investment we can make with such items as compact fluorescent lamps having a very rapid pay back. The United States could meet the Kyoto protocol by 2010 simply by moving to Europe's energy efficiency levels, which in turn are not yet taking full advantage of the state of the art technologies.

The second major change will occur in materials handling. Failure to adopt a comprehensive recycling program has resulted in removing New York City's 12,000 ton daily output of garbage in a fleet of vehicles 15 km long, on the 900 km round trip. A simple measure like recycling paper would shorten the convoy by 4.5kms. Metals are a major problem as their mining and processing are environmentally destructive and energy intensive. Redesigning the materials economy to be compatible with the eco-system includes such measures as easy disassembly for recycling, reducing waste generation, banning throw away beverage containers, improved methods of manufacturing, clustering factories so that waste from one acts as an input to another, legislation requiring a minimum percentage of recycled material and setting a zero emissions goal. Most worrying of all is China's rapid rise in standard of living and the world's inability to support a western standard of living with a western way of doing business. As an example if annual paper use in China were to rise to US levels, it would need more paper than the world currently produces. Mr. Brown describes ways to do the same job using far less raw material.

In similar fashion the book deals with agriculture and food, forest products, cities, population stabilization, and leadership.

This book has helped me in two ways. First, I lacked a grand and convincing vision of what a sustainable society might look like and the second was that in a period of such rapid change I feared that an investment today might turn out to be a white elephant tomorrow. I believe that the future painted by Lester Brown is not only possible but is almost bound to happen if each of us do our part, as much is already being put in place. I can adopt his vision as my vision feeling much more confident in my actions and that I can leave a better world to my children and grandchildren.

In Bangkok one evening at 9pm all television stations focused on a huge electricity meter while the announcer asked everyone to switch off unnecessary lights and electrical appliances. Everyone was amazed to see the meter wind down enough to switch out two power stations. We have to remember that building a sustainable economy requires both major structural changes in addition to billions of small actions world wide.


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