The Next Revolution

The emerging eco-economy will transform society


| September/October 2002


The Utne Reader library-stocked with more than 1,300 publications and mounds of recently published books-works for us like a cultural barometer, gauging the pressure and the promise of contemporary thinking. When an idea turns up repeatedly, in different sources from different places, we pay attention.

That's what happened with this issue's section on alternative energy (see p. 62). All over the library, we saw photos of elegant windmills on magazine covers. Even though wind power, solar power, and other forms of renewable energy barely show up on the radar of government officials (as reporter Matt Bivens details in 'Fossil Fools' on p. 66), we think this is a crucial issue that needs to become a centerpiece of national discussion. The future of our energy supply is too important to be left to the judgment of two Texas oilmen. George W. Bush and his corporate pals insist that seeking clean energy and a green environment will threaten America's standard of living and endanger many folks' jobs. But we've seen article after article that refutes these claims, pointing to the economic potential of new energy sources and eco-industries.

On a visit to Denmark a few years back, I found myself chatting with a likable guy named David Gibson, who was bubbling over with enthusiasm about the future of alternative energy. There was nothing unusual in that: Europe is full of articulate environmentalists and research institutes touting ecological innovations. But Gibson, a self-described 'lager lout' originally from northern England, was no green activist, at least not the kind we usually think of. He was a construction worker who headed the Copenhagen local of the waste and power workers' union.

'Twenty years ago it was a hippie, crackpot thing to get energy from windmills,' he boomed between gulps of coffee as we sat in the canteen of his union hall. 'Now it's one of Denmark's biggest exports-almost as much as agriculture.'
Gibson admitted that new environmental measures mean that some of his members, notably those working in coal plants, would lose their jobs. But he foresaw the rise of new ecological industries that will create many more jobs. He reeled off a list of important environmental initiatives that members of his union could carry out: expanding recycling programs, installing energy and water conservation systems, and more.

Denmark's unions, like U.S. labor leaders that oppose the Kyoto global climate change treaty and tougher fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles, once viewed environmental protection as a threat. But after watching the the Danish wind power industry bloom overnight into 10,000 good-paying jobs, they're now embracing ambitious plans to clean up the environment.

A study commissioned by the General Workers Union, Denmark's second- largest trade confederation, identified thousands of potential green jobs. Ole Busck, health and environment director for the largely blue-collar union, told me, 'We looked at proposed plans for cleaning water pollution, for reducing traffic, and greening cities and calculated that 40,000 new jobs could be created. This in a labor market of 2.5 million workers. And that's not counting new eco-industries.'

Danish unions now use their political clout to push for vigorous environmental measures along with new green taxes to help fund ecological clean-ups. 'Rather than dragging our feet on environmental regulation, we found that there are great economic opportunities in being ahead of the rest of the world in pioneering new environmental technology,' Busck said.
Lester Brown, the dean of American environmentalist researchers, says Denmark is farther along than any other nation toward what he calls an eco-economy. 'It has stabilized its population, banned the construction of coal-fired power plants, banned the use of non-refillable beverage containers, and is now getting 15 percent of its electricity from wind,' Brown writes in his recent book Eco-Economy: Building an Economy for the Earth (Norton, $15.95), excerpted in The Ecologist (Jan. 2002). 'In addition, it has restructured its urban transportation network; now 32 percent of all trips in Copenhagen are on bicycle.'

Brown also lauds South Korea for a massive reforestation campaign, the Netherlands for promoting bicycle and pedestrian transportation, China for stabilizing its population, Singapore and Norway for limiting urban automobile traffic, and Costa Rica for committing to all renewable power by 2025. But these, he notes, are just baby steps toward a true eco-economy.
'An eco-economy will affect every facet of our lives,' he writes. 'It will alter how we light our homes, what we eat, where we live, how we use our leisure time, and how many children we have. It will give us a world where we are part of nature, instead of estranged from it.'

This sounds a bit scary. What about our jobs? What will happen to our families and communities? What will we be forced to give up? Brown lays out his vision of the eco-economy in precise detail, first offering a sobering picture of the ecological devastation and economic upheaval awaiting us if we stay on our present course. To ensure a livable planet for future generations, we will need to phase out many major industries: nuclear power, coal, oil, industrialized logging, the manufacture of throwaway products and conventional automobiles.

But along with keeping us healthy and whole, the eco-economy will replace lost jobs with millions of new ones: wind power, hydrogen energy, fuel cell and solar cell manufacturing, sustainable forestry and agriculture, fish farming, recycling, bicycle and light rail manufacturing. Over a period of decades, modern society itself will be refashioned, opening up rich opportunities for many people to apply their creativity as environmental designers, ecological economists, family planning midwives, hydrologists, geologists, foresters, urban planners, and more. Fields like education, the arts, media, health care, and social services will play equally important roles in shaping a sustainable society. Brown declares that making the shift to an eco-economy will transform human civilization on the same scale as the agricultural and industrial revolutions did.
I'm excited about the prospects of this environmental revolution. It offers a brilliant opportunity to sustain the natural world on which we depend, at the same time extending a measure of economic well-being and human dignity to all who share our planet. And I can't help but think that many of the 30 young visionaries profiled in our cover story (see p. 46), and others like them all around the world, will play key roles in making it happen.


Welcome aboard! I am glad to introduce two new members of the Utne Reader editorial team: assistant editor Anjula Razdan (right), a former Utne Reader intern who rejoins us after a stint covering neighborhood issues for the Minneapolis community newspaper Southwest Journal, and Dianne Talmage, our new production manager, who comes from Catholic Digest.