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Ecological deficits: An economic toll

Some of the record economic prosperity of recent decades has come from the overexploitation of Nature, says LESTER R. BROWN.


Deserts are claiming large pieces of territory every year.

"IF we have learned anything over the past year, it is that accounting systems that do not tell the truth can be costly," said Lester Brown, senior author of the new book, The Earth Policy Reader.

In the book, co-authored with Janet Larsen and Bernie Fischlowitz-Roberts, Brown says the global economic accounting system is misleading us too, but with potentially more serious consequences. Economic prosperity is achieved in part by running up ecological deficits that do not show up on the books. Some of the record economic prosperity of recent decades has come from overploughing land, overfishing oceanic fisheries, overgrazing rangelands, overcutting forests, and overpumping aquifiers.

At some point, these expanding ecological deficits begin to reinforce each other. In China, for instance, shrinking forests, deteriorating rangelands, eroding croplands, and falling water tables are converging to expand deserts and create a dust bowl of historic dimensions. The weight of 1.3 billion people and their livestock on the land and the rapid pace of economic expansion has put China on the frontline of the deteriorating relationship between the global economy and the earth's ecosystem.

"China is now at war," said Brown. "It is not invading armies that are claiming its territory, but expanding deserts. And China is losing the war. The deserts are claiming an ever larger piece of territory each year."

The flow of refugees has already begun, as villages are overrun by sand dunes in Inner Mongolia, Gansu, and Ningxia Provinces. A Chinese scientist doing grassland research in Xillingol Prefecture in Inner Mongolia estimates that if recent trends of desertification continue, the region will be uninhabitable in 15 years.

The world is also incurring a vast water deficit. It is largely invisible, historically recent, and growing fast. It is a product of the tripling of water demand over the last half-century and the rapid worldwide spread of powerful diesel and electrically driven pumps.

The world's farmers are handicapped not only by falling water tables, but also by rising temperatures. During this past summer, farmers in key food-producing regions were confronted with some of the highest temperatures on record. The U.S. harvest has suffered from a combination of record heat and drought, which dramatically lowered the 2002 grain harvest. India's harvest has also suffered from high temperatures, including a heat wave in which temperatures reached 45 Celsius (113 Fahrenheit) in May, killing more than 1,000 people in the state of Andhra Pradesh alone.

Record temperatures are accelerating the melting of ice as well. Several new studies report that the earth's ice cover is melting faster than projected by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Chance (IPCC) in early 2001. Although less than two years have passed since the completion of the IPCC report, the new data recording the acceleration of ice melting mean that the rise in sea level it projected for this century is already outdated.

"The good news," said Brown, "is that the world is beginning to recognise the dimensions of the threats that our modern civilisation has created for itself. The energy restructuring needed to reduce carbon emissions and stabilise climate is now under way." Cheap electricity from wind now offers the option of electrolysing water to produce hydrogen. Fortuitously, hydrogen is the fuel of choice for the new fuel cell-powered automobiles. Honda and Daimler Chrysler plan to be on the market with fuel cell-powered cars in 2003. Ford plans to enter the market in 2004.

"We have the technologies to build a new economy," said Brown, "an eco-economy, one that is compatible with the earth's ecosystem. The key to building this economy is to get the market to tell the ecological truth." Higher temperatures can wither crops and reduce harvests. They also cause ice melting and a rising sea level, which can lead to the loss of ocean-front property, the loss of beaches, and, most important, the loss of agricultural lands. This is particularly important in low-lying countries such as Bangladesh, where a one-metre rise in sea level would inundate half of the country's rice land with saltwater. We can only speculate as to what the cost of such a massive relocation would be.

Once we calculate these costs, we can incorporate them into market prices by restructuring taxes — reducing income taxes and raising gasoline taxes. If we can get the market to tell the truth, then we can avoid being blindsided by faulty accounting systems that lead to bankruptcy.

Earth Policy Institute, 2002

Lester R. Brown is President, Earth Policy Institute, a non-profit, interdisciplinary research organisation based in Washington D.C.. He is also the founder and former President of the Worldwatch Institute. He is the recipient of the MacArthur "Genius Fellowship", the United Nations Environment Prize and Japan's Blue Planet Prize.

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