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February 15, 2002
Book Review: Eco-Economy
    by William Baue

Pioneering environmentalist Lester R. Brown fuses ecological consciousness into economics to create "eco-economy," an economic system that would preserve natural resources while continuing to generate wealth.


The word "economy" closely resembles the word "ecology"--a difference of only two letters separates the terms. Since the Industrial Revolution, however, economy and ecology have become discrete entities, mutually exclusive of one another.

This does not have to be so, argues Worldwatch Institute founder Lester R. Brown in his most recent book, Eco-Economy: Building an Economy for the Earth. Instead of pitting economy against ecology, Mr. Brown advocates marrying the two. He notes that campaigns which prioritize environmental preservation over economic gain often fail, and that economies will collapse if they deplete the natural resources that serve as their foundation.

"[If] the operation of the subsystem, the economy, is not compatible with the behavior of the larger system--the earth's ecosystem--both will eventually suffer," Mr. Brown writes. "An environmentally sustainable economy--an eco-economy--requires that the principles of ecology establish the framework for the formulation of economic policy and that economists and ecologists work together to fashion the new economy."

Mr. Brown dedicates the first section of the book to a list of ecological emergencies, including rising temperatures and sea levels, melting icecaps, falling water tables, shrinking forests, eroding soil, and disappearing species. After enumerating these and other environmental calamities in detail, he presents his vision of a new economy that incorporates ecological sustainability.

In the book's second section, Mr. Brown outlines numerous components of the eco-economy. He proposes the building of a solar/hydrogen economy, the redesigning of a throwaway economy into a recycling economy, and the transformation of cities designed for cars to cities designed for people.

Finally, in the third section, Mr. Brown offers several tools for building an eco-economy. Tax-shifting represents one solution that maintains tax levels by reducing income tax while increasing taxes on environmentally destructive activities, such as oil production and clear-cutting. Ecolabeling represents another solution that allows consumers to "vote with their wallets" by purchasing environment-friendly products. Mr. Brown also calls on the United Nations, governments, the media, corporations, NGOs, and individuals to accelerate the transition to an eco-economy, before it is too late.

Mr. Brown effectuates the fusion of ecology and economy by intermingling vocabularies. In the first chapter, he speaks of a fishery as an "endowment," using a term usually applied to economics to describe a natural system. In the third chapter, he calls topsoil "natural capital," and in the seventh chapter, he suggests a restructuring of the "protein economy." By mixing terminology, Mr. Brown encourages economists and environmentalists to speak a common language, and therefore to start thinking alike.

The goal of Eco-Economy is nothing short of a paradigm shift, to use Thomas Kuhn's term for scientific revolutions. Mr. Brown likens this shift to Nicolaus Copernicus' overthrow of the Ptolemaic model of an earth-centered solar system with a heliocentric (or sun-centered) worldview. While this comparison may appear inflated, it is in fact modest considering the current situation of worldwide economic recession combined with global environmental crisis. The need for a paradigm shift is more urgent than ever.

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Eco-Economy: Building an Economy for the Earth, by Lester R. Brown. W.W. Norton & Company, 2001.

 

 
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