Earth Policy Institute
January 5, 2006
CHINA FORCING WORLD TO RETHINK ITS ECONOMIC FUTURE
"Our global civilization today is on an economic path that is
environmentally unsustainable, a path that is leading us toward economic
decline and eventual collapse," says Lester Brown in his new book, Plan B
2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble (W.W.
Norton & Company).
"Environmental scientists have been saying for some time that the global
economy is being slowly undermined by environmental trends of human
origin, including shrinking forests, expanding deserts, falling water
tables, eroding soils, collapsing fisheries, rising temperatures, melting
ice, rising seas, and increasingly destructive storms," says Brown,
President and Founder of the Earth Policy Institute, a Washington,
D.C.-based independent environmental research organization.
Although it is obvious that no society can survive the decline of its
environmental support systems, many people are not yet convinced of the
need for economic restructuring. But this is changing now that China has
eclipsed the United States in the consumption of most basic resources,
Brown notes in Plan B 2.0, which was produced with major funding from the
Lannan Foundation and the U.N. Population Fund.
Among the basic commodities--grain and meat in the food sector, oil and
coal in the energy sector, and steel in the industrial sector--China now
consumes more than the United States of each of these except for oil. It
consumes nearly twice as much meat (67 million tons compared with 39
million tons) and more than twice as much steel (258 million to 104
These numbers are about total consumption. "But what if China reaches the
U.S. consumption level per person?" asks Brown. "If China's economy
continues to expand at 8 percent a year, its income per person will reach
the current U.S. level in 2031.
"If at that point China's per capita resource consumption were the same as
in the United States today, then its projected 1.45 billion people would
consume the equivalent of two thirds of the current world grain harvest.
China's paper consumption would be double the world's current production.
There go the world's forests."
If China one day has three cars for every four people, U.S. style, it will
have 1.1 billion cars. The whole world today has 800 million cars. To
provide the roads, highways, and parking lots to accommodate such a vast
fleet, China would have to pave an area equal to the land it now plants in
rice. It would need 99 million barrels of oil a day. Yet the world
currently produces 84 million barrels per day and may never produce much
The western economic model--the fossil-fuel-based, auto-centered,
throwaway economy--is not going to work for China. If it does not work for
China, it will not work for India, which by 2031 is projected to have a
population even larger than China's. Nor will it work for the 3 billion
other people in developing countries who are also dreaming the "American
And, Brown notes, in an increasingly integrated world economy, where all
countries are competing for the same oil, grain, and steel, the existing
economic model will not work for industrial countries either. China is
helping us see that the days of the old economy are numbered.
Sustaining our early twenty-first century global civilization now depends
on shifting to a renewable-energy-based, reuse/recycle economy with a
diversified transport system. Business as usual--Plan A--cannot take us
where we want to go. It is time for Plan B, time to build a new economy
and a new world.
Plan B has three components--(1) a restructuring of the global economy so
that it can sustain civilization; (2) an all-out effort to eradicate
poverty, stabilize population, and restore hope in order to elicit
participation of the developing countries; and (3) a systematic effort to
restore natural systems.
Glimpses of the new economy can be seen in the wind farms of Western
Europe, the solar rooftops of Japan, the fast-growing hybrid car fleet of
the United States, the reforested mountains of South Korea, and the
bicycle-friendly streets of Amsterdam. "Virtually everything we need to do
to build an economy that will sustain economic progress is already being
done in one or more countries," says Brown.
"Among the new sources of energy--wind, solar cells, solar thermal,
geothermal, small-scale hydro, biomass--wind is emerging as a major energy
source. In Europe, which is leading the world into the wind era, some 40
million people now get their residential electricity from wind farms. The
European Wind Energy Association projects that by 2020, half of the
region's population--195 million Europeans--will be getting their
residential electricity from wind.
"Wind energy is growing fast for six reasons: It is abundant, cheap,
inexhaustible, widely distributed, clean, and climate-benign. No other
energy source has this combination of attributes."
For the U.S. automotive fuel economy, the key to greatly reducing oil use
and carbon emissions is gas-electric hybrid cars. The average new car sold
in the United States last year got 22 miles to the gallon, compared with
55 miles per gallon for the Toyota Prius. If the United States decided for
oil security and climate stabilization reasons to replace its entire fleet
of passenger vehicles with super-efficient gas-electric hybrids over the
next 10 years, gasoline use could easily be cut in half. This would
involve no change in the number of cars or miles driven, only a shift to
the most efficient automotive propulsion technology now available.
Beyond this, a gas-electric hybrid with an additional storage battery and
a plug-in capacity would allow us to use electricity for short distance
driving, such as the daily commute or grocery shopping. This could cut
U.S. gasoline use by an additional 20 percent, for a total reduction of 70
percent. Then if we invest in thousands of wind farms across the country
to feed cheap electricity into the grid, we could do most short-distance
driving with wind energy, dramatically reducing both carbon emissions and
the pressure on world oil supplies.
Using timers to recharge batteries with electricity coming from wind farms
during the low demand hours between 1 and 6 a.m. costs the equivalent of
50¢-a-gallon gasoline. We have not only an inexhaustible alternative to
dwindling reserves of oil, but an incredibly cheap one.
"Building an economy that will sustain economic progress requires a
cooperative worldwide effort," notes Brown. "This means eradicating
poverty and stabilizing population--in effect, restoring hope among the
world's poor. Eradicating poverty accelerates the shift to smaller
families. Smaller families in turn help to eradicate poverty."
The principal line items in the budget to eradicate poverty are
investments in universal primary school education; school lunch programs
for the poorest of the poor; basic village-level health care, including
vaccinations for childhood diseases; and reproductive health and family
planning services for all the world's women. In total, reaching these
goals will take $68 billion of additional expenditures each year.
A strategy for eradicating poverty will not succeed if an economy's
environmental support systems are collapsing. Brown says, "This means
putting together an earth restoration budget--one to reforest the earth,
restore fisheries, eliminate overgrazing, protect biological diversity,
and raise water productivity to the point where we can stabilize water
tables and restore the flow of rivers. Adopted worldwide, these measures
require additional expenditures of $93 billion per year."
Combining social goals and earth restoration components into a Plan B
budget means an additional annual expenditure of $161 billion. Such an
investment is huge, but it is not a charitable act. It is an investment in
the world in which our children will live.
"If we fail to build a new economy before decline sets in, it will not be
because of a lack of fiscal resources, but rather because of obsolete
priorities," adds Brown. "The world is now spending $975 billion annually
for military purposes. The U.S. 2006 military budget of $492 billion,
accounting for half of the world total, goes largely to the development
and production of new weapon systems. Unfortunately, these weapons are of
little help in curbing terrorism, nor can they reverse the deforestation
of the earth or stabilize climate.
"The military threats to national security today pale beside the trends of
environmental destruction and disruption that threaten the economy and
thus our early twenty-first century civilization itself. New threats call
for new strategies. These threats are environmental degradation, climate
change, the persistence of poverty, and the loss of hope."
The U.S. military budget is totally out of sync with these new threats. If
the United States were to underwrite the entire $161 billion Plan B budget
by shifting resources from the $492 billion spent on the military, it
still would be spending more for military purposes than all other NATO
members plus Russia and China combined.
Of all the resources needed to build an economy that will sustain economic
progress, none is more scarce than time. With climate change we may be
approaching the point of no return. The temptation is to reset the clock.
But we cannot. Nature is the timekeeper.
It is decision time. Like earlier civilizations that got into
environmental trouble, we can decide to stay with business as usual and
watch our global economy decline and eventually collapse. Or we can shift
to Plan B, building an economy that will sustain economic progress.
"It is hard to find the words to express the gravity of our situation and
the momentous nature of the decision we are about to make," says Brown.
"How can we convey the urgency of moving quickly? Will tomorrow be too
One way or another, the decision will be made by our generation. Of that
there is little doubt. But it will affect life on earth for all
generations to come."
- end -
Media Contact: Reah Janise Kauffman (202) 496.9290 x 12
For more about Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a
Civilization in Trouble go to