Worldwatch Briefing
"An Environmental Revolution"


As 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."


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Matters of Scale: Can We Make the Leap?

[Selected signs of progress in the race for a secure future]*

  • Fossil fuel subsidies in developing and former eastern bloc countries in
    1990-91 = $202 billion
    1995-96 = $84 billion

  • Global average price for wind power in
    1981 = $2,600 per kilowatt
    1998 = $800 per kilowatt

  • Average factory price for solar panel (photovoltaic) modules in
    1975 = $70 per watt
    1997 = $4 per watt

  • World production of ozone-depleting chorofluorocarbons in
    1988 (peak year) = 1,260,000 tons
    1996, excluding illicitly produced (black market) CFCs = 141 tons

  • U.S. military expenditures (in 1995 dollars) in
    1952 (peak year) = $410 billion
    1996 = $250 billion

  • World military expenditures in
    1984 (peak year) = $1,064 billion 1996 = $701 billion

*A different set of signs could be assembled showing loss of ground. The point of this exhibit is not to show cumulative significance, but only to provoke thought about the possibilities for rapid change of the kind that may be essential to our future survival or wellbeing.

SOURCE: Vital Signs 1998 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998).

* Note: "Matters of Scale" is reprinted from the March/April 1999 issue of World Watch. If posted elsewhere on the internet, please include a link back to World Watch magazine

Press Release for State of the World 2001

Global environmental trends have reached a dangerous crossroads as the new century begins, according to State of the World 2001, which was released today by the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington-based research organization. Signs of accelerated ecological decline have coincided with a loss of political momentum on environmental issues, as evidenced by the recent breakdown of global climate talks. This failure calls into question whether the world will be able to turn these trends around before the economy suffers irreversible damage.

"Governments squandered a historic opportunity to reverse environmental decline during the prosperity of the 1990s," said Christopher Flavin, President of the Institute and co-author of the report. "If in the current climate of political and economic uncertainty, political leaders were to roll back environmental laws or fail to complete key international agreements, decades of progress could unravel."

New scientific evidence indicates that many global ecosystems are reaching dangerous thresholds that raise the stakes for policymakers. The Arctic ice cap has already thinned by 42 percent, and 27 percent of the world's coral reefs have been lost, suggesting that some of the planet's key ecological systems are in decline, say the Institute's researchers. Environmental degradation is also leading to more severe natural disasters, which have cost the world $608 billion over the last decade-as much as in the previous four decades combined.

With many life support systems at risk of long-term damage, the choice before today's political leaders is historic, even evolutionary, in nature: whether to move forward rapidly to build a sustainable economy or to risk allowing the expansion in human numbers, the increase in greenhouse gas emissions, and the loss of natural systems to undermine the economy.

Unless fossil fuel use slows dramatically, the Earth's temperature could rise to as high as 6 degrees above the 1990 level by 2100, according to the latest climate models. Such an increase could lead to acute water shortages, declining food production, and the proliferation of deadly diseases such as malaria and dengue fever.

One sign of ecological decline described in this year's State of the World is the risk of extinction that hangs over dozens of species of frogs and other amphibians around the globe, due to pressures that range from deforestation to ozone depletion. Co-author Ashley Mattoon describes amphibians as "an important bioindicator-a sort of barometer of Earth's health-more sensitive to environmental stress than other organisms."

Environmental decline is also exacting a toll on people. Even after a decade of declining poverty in many nations, 1.2 billion people lack access to clean water and hundreds of millions breathe unhealthy air. And poor people in countries such as the Philippines and Mexico are pushed to destroy forests and coral reefs in a desperate effort to raise living standards.

"Environmental degradation is worsening many natural disasters," said co-author Janet Abramovitz. "In 1998-1999 alone, over 120,000 people were killed and millions were displaced, mainly poor people in regions such as India and Latin America."

Population growth has led people to settle in flood-prone valleys and unstable hillsides, where deforestation and climate change have increased their vulnerability to disasters such as Hurricane Mitch, which produced economic losses of $8.5 billion in Central America in 1998-equal to the combined GNPs of Honduras and Nicaragua.

"Mobilizing the worldwide response needed to bring destructive environmental trends under control is a daunting task," said coauthor Gary Gardner. "But people have surmounted great challenges before, from the abolition of slavery in the 19th century, to the enfranchisement of women in the early twentieth. Change can move quickly from impossible to inevitable."

Some early signs of progress have emerged in the past year:

* In December, negotiators from 122 countries agreed to a historic legally binding treaty that will severely restrict 12 persistent organic pollutants.

* Iceland launched a pioneering effort to harness its geothermal and hydropower to produce hydrogen, which will be used to fuel its automobiles and fishing boats-an effort that is attracting investments from major oil and car companies.

* Organic farming, which avoids the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, has surged to a worldwide annual market of $22 billion-and may get a further boost from strict organic farming standards issued by the U.S. government in December.

Industry is one key to environmental progress. Last year, Ford Motor Company Chairman, William Ford, questioned the long-term future of both the internal combustion engine and the personal automobile, as his company stepped up its efforts to develop new transportation technologies. At the same time, three oil companies announced that they are moving "beyond petroleum" to a broader portfolio of energy investments.

With oil, natural gas, and electricity prices all rising simultaneously during the past year, the world has had a timely reminder that over-dependence on geographically concentrated fossil fuels is a recipe for economic instability. In many regions, renewable energy is now the most economical and inflation-proof energy source available, and can be installed much faster than the three-year minimum for a natural gas-fired power plant.

Co-authors Hilary French and Lisa Mastny note that failure to enforce many existing international environmental agreements is hampering progress on many fronts. State of the World 2001 calls for stronger enforcement of treaties, and for increased North-South cooperation, particularly among the environmentally and economically influential E9 countries: China, India, the United States, Indonesia, Brazil, Russia, Japan, South Africa, and the European Union. "Globalization must go beyond commercial relationships to embrace strengthened political and civil-society ties between diverse nations if we are to avoid a shared catastrophe," according to the report.

One example of the potential influence of the E9 countries is the effort to slow climate change. These nine nations account for nearly three-quarters of global greenhouse gas emissions. A collective commitment by the E9 to new energy systems could have a dramatic impact on energy markets and reduce the rate of global warming.

"The prospect of a new U.S. President entering office has raised questions about whether the United States will choose to be a leader or an impediment to global environmental progress in the decade ahead," said Flavin. "The U.S. has the world's largest economy and its environmental impact is second to none, so the signal it sends is crucial."

Amid the December 1999 breakdown in global trade talks and the collapse of climate negotiations a year later, it is clear that the world is still searching for consensus on how to forge an environmentally sustainable economy. If the U.S. retreats to a more defensive view of global environmental threats, it would create a leadership vacuum. International negotiators are worried by the anti-environmental rhetoric of the Bush campaign, but hopeful that once in office, the new administration will follow through on the climate treaty and other policies that were launched by the earlier Bush administration a decade ago.

"The question now is one of leadership," Flavin said. "Will the United States help lead the world to a sustainable economy in the twenty-first century-as it led the way through global crises in the last century? Or will it be left to other countries to show the way to a sustainable economy in the new millennium?"


Facts and Findings
Excerpted from State of the World 2001


Recycling: The recycling rate for batteries in the United States has surged from 2 percent in 1993 to 25 percent in 1998.

International Debt: Zambia devoted 40 percent of its national budget to foreign debt payments in 1997, and only 7 percent to basic health and education, clean water, sanitation, family planning, and nutrition.

Economic Growth: The annual output of the world economy has grown from $31 trillion in 1990 to $42 trillion in 2000; in 1950, total world output was $6.3 trillion.

China's Booming Economy: China has the world's third largest economy, with 420 million radios, 344 million television sets, 24 million mobile phones, and 15 million computers.

Debt Crisis: By 1998, the heavily indebted poor countries had international debts of $214 billion-a huge sum for them, but equal to only 4.5 months of western military spending.

Environmental Crime: In 1999, U.K. customs officials confiscated some 1,600 live animals and birds, 1,800 plants, 52,000 parts and derivatives of endangered species, and 388,000 grams of smuggled caviar.

Fuel Cell Cars: DaimlerChrysler is devoting $1.5 billion to fuel cell development, and plans to produce and sell 100,000 fuel cell cars by 2004.

Bicycles: Bicycle production fell to 79 million units in 1998, 25 percent below the peak of 107 million bicycles in 1995.

Technological Vulnerability: The "Love Bug" computer virus caused an estimated $10 billion in damages to computer systems on every continent.

Telecommunications: The number of host computers on the Internet grew from 376,000 in 1990 to 72,398,000 in 1999-an increase of 19,100 percent.

Accelerating Rates of Change: In the United States, it took 46 years for a quarter of the population to adopt electricity early in the twentieth century; 35 years for the telephone, 26 years for television, 16 years for the computer, 13 years for the mobile phone, and only 7 years for the Internet.

Pollution & Resource Use
Global Warming: The transportation sector is the fastest-growing source of carbon emissions. Road traffic, which accounted for 58 percent of worldwide transportation carbon emissions in 1990, claimed 73 percent by 1997.

Transportation: The United States uses more than one third of the world's transport energy.

CFCs: Following the adoption of the Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer, global production of CFCs dropped by 85 percent between 1986 and 1997.

Leaking Gas Tanks: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 100,000 underground storage tanks in the United States are leaking.

Pesticides: In the United States in the 1990s, nearly 60 percent of wells sampled in agricultural areas contained synthetic pesticides.

Groundwater Pollution: Sixty percent of the most hazardous liquid waste in the United States-34 billion liters of solvents, heavy metals, and radioactive materials-is injected into deep aquifers via thousands of "injection wells."

Educating Women: As female education levels rise, fertility falls. At the same time, the nutrition of their children improves, even if their incomes do not rise.

Natural Disasters: Approximately 37 percent of the world's population-more than 2 billion people-lives within 100 kilometers of a coastline. Of the world's 19 megacities-those with over 10 million inhabitants-13 are in coastal zones.

HIV/AIDS: By 2000, HIV infection rates had reached a stunning 20 percent in South Africa, 25 percent in Zimbabwe, and 36 percent in Botswana.

Micro-credit: The system of small-scale micro-credit pioneered by the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh and BancoSol in Bolivia is taking root in various forms in scores of countries, reaching over 10 million borrowers with tiny loans that turn them into entrepreneurs, able to own and operate their own small businesses.

Meat Eating: World meat consumption has climbed from 44 million tons in 1950 to 217 million tons in 1999, an increase of nearly fivefold. This growth, roughly double that of population, raised meat intake per person worldwide from 17 kilograms in 1950 to 36 kilograms in 1999.

NGOs: The number of NGOs has expanded steadily throughout the century, from 176 in 1909 to more than 23,000 in 1998.


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