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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

State of the World 1998

Air Date: Week of

For 15 years, Worldwatch Institute has published "State of the World." It's the groups' annual report card on the health of the planet; noting some of the most pressing global problems and suggesting solutions. In this year's edition, Worldwatch President Lester Brown describes a global economy that's strong, but also straining the earth's natural systems. He calls for a new kind of economy that's both vibrant and sustainable, the antithesis, he says, of the current western business model. Lester Brown is president of Worldwatch Institute in Washington, D.C..


KNOY: For 15 years Worldwatch Institute has published State of the World. It's the group's annual report card on the health of the planet, noting some of the most pressing global problems and suggesting solutions. In this year's edition, Worldwatch President Lester Brown describes a global economy that's strong, but also straining the Earth's natural systems. He calls for a new kind of economy that's both vibrant and sustainable: the antithesis, he says, of the current Western business model.

BROWN: We look at the growth in this economy. Since mid-century it's increased nearly 6-fold. And in the process, the demands of the economy have begun to outstrip the natural support systems on which it depends. For example, we see the demand for seafood exceeding the sustainable yield of oceanic fisheries, and as a result fisheries collapsing. We see the demand for forest products exceeding the sustainable yield of forests, so forests are shrinking. In addition to the environmental trends, we can now see, in looking at China, that a country with 1.3 billion people simply will not be able to adopt the Western industrial development model, the fossil fuel-based automobile-centered, throw-away economy. It is not going to work for 1.3 billion people in China, even though it has worked in the United States. And over the long run it won't work for India, either, or the other developing countries, and indeed the industrial countries themselves over the long term.

KNOY: In the report you call for a new, different type of economic growth. What would that new economy look like?

BROWN: A sustainable economy would get most of its energy from renewable sources. That would be wind, solar cells, solar-thermal power plants, hydropower, biomass, geothermal energy, a number of sources of energy that are beginning to develop very rapidly. It would also be a reuse, recycle economy. It would not be a throw-away economy. It would be an economy that would take advantage of the latest technologies to reduce the use of materials. For example, some developing countries in developing phone systems are bypassing the traditional telephone poles and lines, wires to carry phone messages, and going directly to cellular phones and satellites, saving an enormous amount of material. There are many new opportunities now for technological leapfrogging that will permit us to do things far more efficiently in the developing countries than we did during the earlier stages of development in the now-industrialized societies.

KNOY: As you say in the report, you're optimistic. You mention new technologies, big companies that are taking a turn in that direction. Give us some of your favorite examples, and describe the philosophy that these companies are adopting.

BROWN: Well, one recent example was a speech given by John Brown, the CEO of British Petroleum, one of the world's largest oil companies. He said, "We at British Petroleum now take the risk of global warming seriously. We think we've got to do something about it." He said, in effect, British Petroleum is no longer an oil company. It is now an energy company. "We are committing," he said, "a billion dollars to the development of wind and solar energy resources." And incidentally, shortly after that, Shell followed with a major announcement of committing half a billion dollars to renewable energy resource development. So we're seeing some interesting changes here. We're seeing some exciting new technologies coming on the field. Advances in wind power, for example, are becoming quite attractive to oil companies because whereas the market for oil has been growing at 1% to 2% a year, and the market for coal at less than 1% a year during the 90s, wind power has been growing at 25% a year, and the market for solar cells at 15% per year. And that's going to accelerate sharply in the years immediately ahead. And if a company in the energy business, in the oil or coal business, wants to grow rapidly in the future, it will not be doing it in coal and oil. It has to move into these new areas. So we're seeing a lot of things happening that promise rapid changes in the years ahead. Societies tend to cross thresholds and suddenly change becomes not only possible but it comes very rapidly sometimes. And I sense that we could be on the edge of that in the environmental field based in part on some of these recent examples.

KNOY: Why do you think it's important that corporate leadership is there? Certainly environmentalists have been talking about these problems for a long time.

BROWN: They make the important investment decisions. You or I or the US government may wish we were investing more in wind power, for example, or in solar cells. But it's the corporations that actually control the capital and make the investments. I mean, the bottom line is that converting our existing fossil fuel-based automobile-centered throw-away economy into an environmentally sustainable economy, one based on renewable energy, efficient public transportation, one based on reuse, recycle economic system, represents the greatest investment opportunity in history. And at least some corporate leaders are beginning to sense that. And this I find very exciting.

KNOY: Lester Brown is president of the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, DC.
Mr. Brown, thanks for joining us.

BROWN: It's been my pleasure.



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