For 15 Januarys, Lester R. Brown has declared the planet is reaching the end of its resources. Now, the leading environmental researcher says major corporations and governments are listening.
Brown and co-researcher Christopher Flavin sounded like anything but doomsayers in outlining their new report. Both bubbled with enthusiasm over a year of advances in renewable energy sources, corporate moves to shift gears in favor of the environment and increased recognition by governments - notably Denmark and China - of the need for sustainable economics.
“We may be on the threshold of change,” Brown said in an interview on the 250-page report being published today. His staff’s annual global view is translated into 30 languages and used in hundreds of college courses that study environmental trends.
“The thing that’s exciting now is that the world is beginning to come around to recognize that the old model is not going to be viable for the world over the long term.”
He cites Toyota’s new hybrid fuel-cell car Prius, huge increases in wind power generation and photovoltaic cell use, and investments by major corporations like Enron, British Petroleum and Royal Dutch Shell in renewable energy sources.
But the report also preaches a heavy dose of gloom and doom.
“As the economy grows, pressures on the Earth’s natural systems and resources intensify,” it says.
The litany is not new: “Forests are shrinking, water tables are falling, soils are eroding, wetlands are disappearing, fisheries are collapsing, rangelands are deteriorating, rivers are running dry, temperatures are rising, coral reefs are dying and plant and animals species are disappearing.”
From 1950 to 1997, Brown says, “the use of lumber tripled, that of paper increased sixfold, the fish catch increased nearly fivefold, grain consumption nearly tripled, fossil fuel burning nearly quadrupled and air and water pollutants multiplied severalfold.”
All that spells impending disaster, says Brown.
His critics see a different world.
Even before Brown’s Worldwatch Institute held its annual news conference to preview “The State of the World 1998,” the rival Cato Institute was predicting what Brown would predict and saying he was wrong.
“In every single report in 15 years, he has said we are outgrowing the planet’s capacity. For 15 years, that’s proved to be absolutely in every way false,” said Jerry Taylor, assistant director of environmental studies for Cato.
Taylor points to increased life expectancy, child mortality and nutritional intake as statistics that have steadily improved even as populations grow.
Also carrying the debate for a booming world is business professor Julian L. Simon of the University of Maryland, dubbed the “doomslayer” in a Wired magazine profile last year for his exuberance in taking on environmental “doomsayers” like Brown.
“The only problem is that everything he says doesn’t square with the facts as we know them,” said Simon, who challenges Brown to a wager on any of his projections. Simon won $576 in such a wager over metal prices with environmental author Paul R. Ehrlich in 1990.
“If economic growth means anything, it means a cleaner and better planet,” said Simon, who produced a 1995 book for Cato, “The State of Humanity,” that included essays by 64 environmental experts who challenge many of Brown’s conclusions.
Although Brown praises China for some progressive steps, much of Worldwatch’s concern is focused on the challenge posed by China’s rapid economic growth:
China already consumes more pork per person than the United States, and if the Chinese were to develop a similar craving for beef, it would take as much grain as America produces just to raise cows to feed China.
If China were to consume seafood at the rate of Japan, the Chinese would demand all the world’s oceans now produce.
If China follows the Western dependence on the automobile, it would need all the world’s oil production to fuel cars for its citizens.
Worldwatch and Cato both are funded by nongovernment grants, private donations and sale of their publications.
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