World may be on edge of environmental revolution

provided by Worldwatch Institute


s we approach the new millennium, there are growing signs that the world may be on the edge of an environmental revolution comparable to the political revolution that swept Eastern Europe, reports Lester Brown, president of the Worldwatch Institute, in an article in the March/April issue of World Watch. The social revolution in Eastern Europe led to a restructuring of the region's political systems. This global revolution could lead to an environmentally driven restructuring of the global economy.

"Not all environmentalists will agree with me," said author Lester Brown, "but I believe that there are now some clear signs that the world is in the early stages of a major shift in environmental consciousness. What is not clear to me is whether we will cross this threshold in time to avoid the disruption of global economic progress."

Across a spectrum of activities, places, and institutions, the atmosphere has changed markedly in just the last two years. The CEOs of some prominent corporations are now beginning to sound like spokespeople for Greenpeace. Some political leaders are adopting policies long championed by ecologists. And literally thousands of environmental NGOs have sprung up around the world, mobilizing millions of people for change.

For many who track environmental trends, such as collapsing fisheries, shrinking forests, rising temperatures, and the wholesale loss of plant and animal species, it has been clear for some time that economic progress can be sustained only if the economy is restructured so that its natural support systems can be protected.

For those not already convinced of the need to replace the Western, fossil-fuel-based, automobile-centered, throwaway economy with an economy that would be environmentally sustainable, what is happening as China modernizes offers compelling new evidence. For example, a car in every garage in China, American style, would not only deprive China of scarce cropland, but would also drive China's oil consumption to some 80 million barrels a day, well above the current world production of 67 million barrels per day.

"If the western industrial development model will not work for China, it will not work for India, whose population will reach 1 billion later this year, or for the other 2 billion people in the developing world," said Brown. "And in an integrated global economy, it will not work over the long term for the industrial countries either."

Brown argues that there is an exciting alternative economic model that promises a better life everywhere without destroying the earth's natural support systems. The new economy will be powered not by fossil fuels, but by various sources of solar energy and hydrogen. Urban transportation systems will be centered not around the car, but around high-tech light rail systems augmented by bicycles and walking. Instead of a throwaway economy, we will have a reuse/recycle economy.

"Twenty years ago when we first outlined this new model at the Institute, it was seen as pie-in-the-sky," said Brown. "Now that view is changing both because it is becoming clear that the old model won't work and also because we can see the broad outline of the environmentally sustainable economic model emerging."

Nowhere is the new model more visible than in the energy sector. While oil and coal use have expanded by just over 1 percent a year since 1990, the use of solar cells has expanded by 16 percent per year and wind power by a prodigious annual rate of 26 percent. Wind power already supplies 8 percent of Denmark's electricity and 15 percent of the electricity for Schleswig-Holstein, the northernmost state of Germany. In Spain's northern state of Navarra, it has gone from 0 to 23 percent in just three years. Worldwide, the wind power potential is several times that of hydropower, which now supplies just over one fifth of the world's electricity.

A new Japanese solar roofing material promises to revolutionize the electrical generating industry. In Germany, the 100,000 roofs program launched in December of 1998 by the new coalition government is leading to a joint investment by Shell Oil/Pilkington in a solar cell manufacturing facility that will be the world's largest.

The more enterprising corporate CEOs are beginning to see this economic restructuring as the greatest investment opportunity in history. In a speech on February 9, Mike R. Bowlin, Chairman and CEO of ARCO, a major oil company, described the beginning of "the last days of the age of oil" and the emergence of the new hydrogen-based energy economy. He sees ARCO's large holdings of natural gas playing a key role in the transition from a carbon-based energy economy to one based on hydrogen. Within the last two years, British Petroleum has committed $1 billion to the development of wind and solar energy and Royal Dutch Shell has announced a $500 million investment in renewable energy sources.

Governments, too, are changing. Denmark has banned the construction of coal-fired power plants. Costa Rica plans to get all its electricity from renewable sources by 2010. In mid-August 1998, after several weeks of near-record flooding in the Yangtze River basin, Premier Zhu Rongji ordered a halt to tree cutting in the upper basin, arguing that trees standing are worth three times as much as those cut.

If we are indeed approaching a social threshold on the environment that could lead to a rapid restructuring of the economy, will it come soon enough? Is it too late to save the Aral Sea? Yes, its fish are gone. Is it too late to save Indonesia's rain forests? Probably. Is it too late to avoid global warming? Apparently. The Earth's average temperature now appears to be rising. Can we ameliorate future temperature rises? Yes. Can we move fast enough to prevent environmental deterioration from disrupting the global economy? Probably. But only if we cross the threshold soon.

"No challenge in the new century looms greater than that of transforming the economy into one that is environmentally sustainable," said Brown. "This Environmental Revolution is comparable in scale to the Agricultural Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. The big difference is in the time available. The Agricultural Revolution was spread over thousands of years. The Industrial Revolution has been underway for two centuries. The Environmental Revolution, if it succeeds, will be compressed into a few decades."

Brown writes that archeologists have uncovered the sites of earlier civilizations that moved onto economic paths that were environmentally destructive and could not make the needed course corrections either because they did not understand what was happening or could not summon the needed political will.

"We do know what is happening," said Brown. "The question for us is whether our global society can cross the social threshold that will enable us to restructure the global economy before environmental deterioration leads to economic decline."

  The referenced article appears in the March/April 1999 issue of World Watch magazine, a bimonthly published by the Worldwatch Institute. For magazine subscription information or to order other Worldwatch publications, please visit the Worldwatch web site at:, send email to, or in the U.S. call 1-800-555-2028. © Worldwatch Institute 1999.