“We now have an economy that is destroying its natural support systems. … We are liquidating the earth’s natural assets to fuel our consumption,” Academy Fellow Lester Brown writes in his latest book, World on the Edge, the must-read book of 2011.
He warns: “If we continue with business as usual, civilizational collapse is no longer a matter of whether but when—a time period more likely measured in years than decades.” Before offering a road map for change, he tells a gripping tale of converging trends and missed signals.
Brown writes that “the market does many things well,” and that no central planner could imagine, much less achieve, the efficiency with which it al locates resources. “But as the world economy expanded some 20-fold over the last century, it has revealed a flaw—a flaw so serious that if it is not corrected it will spell the end of civilization as we know it. The market, which sets prices, is not telling us the truth. It is omitting indirect costs that in some cases now dwarf direct costs.”
He asks: “How can we assume that the growth of an economic system that is shrinking the earth’s forests, eroding its soils, depleting its aquifers, collapsing its fisheries, elevating its temperature, and melting its ice sheets can simply be projected into the long-term future? What is the intellectual process underpinning these extrapolations?”
He compares the situation in economics today to that in astronomy when Copernicus arrived on the scene and had to marshal observations and mathematical calculations to dispel the notion that the sun revolved around the earth. We need “a new economic worldview based on several decades of environmental observations and analysis.”
Brown states that the “key to restructuring the economy is to get the market to tell the truth through fullcost pricing…. If we can create an honest market, then market forces will rapidly restructure the world energy economy.”
Throughout the book, Brown marshals a chilling array of facts to document “the ongoing liquidation of the earth’s natural assets. Among the most chilling parts of the book is his graphic description of how the world is hitting peak water.
“Melting glaciers coupled with the depletion of aquifers present the most massive threat to food security the world has ever faced.” Half the world’s people live in the 20-some countries where water tables are falling as aquifers are being depleted. China, India, and the U.S., which together produce half the world’s grain, are in this group of 20.
“Water-based ‘food bubbles’ that artificially inflate grain production by depleting aquifers are starting to burst, and as they do, irrigation-based harvests are shrinking.” Soil erosion, the diversion of irrigation water to cities, the diversion of grain harvests to biofuels, more frequent crop-shrinking heat waves, and population growth all are compounding the problem, making food the “weak link in our 21st century civilization.”
As part of the new geopolitics of food scarcity, numerous countries, led by Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and China, are leasing and buying up land (and therefore water) in Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere. Other buyers include India, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Libya, Qatar, and Bahrain. The details show the enormity of the implications.
One of the two policy cornerstones of Brown’s roadmap for ending this crisis (“Plan B”) is to restructure taxes by lowering income taxes and raising the tax on carbon emissions to include the indirect costs of burning fossil fuels.
Brown ends with a call to action, saying that lifestyle changes won’t be enough. “Restructuring the global economy means becoming politically active…. The choice is ours—yours and mine. We can stay with business as usual and preside over an economy that continues to destroy its natural support systems until it destroys itself, or we can be the generation that changes direction, moving the world onto a path of sustained progress. The choice will be made by our generation, but it will affect life on earth for all generations to come.”
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You can hear Truthout board of advisers member and World Business Academy co-founder Rinaldo Brutoco discuss global economic trends every month on New Business Paradigms: Conscious Commentary on Business and Society.