The Next Revolution

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.

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