'Wasters, polluters, and those who do not care for the environment or are unable to adapt would only fall behind and see the fate of the dinosaurs' (Henderson, 2008, p. 83).
This is a quote from the first edition of this book, which was released on June 8, 2008. Less than six weeks later, oil topped $147 a barrel, and the North American automobile industry--happily cruising along on SUV sales--found itself on the brink of disaster. Layoffs and plant closures followed. The SUV was out and the electrical vehicle, in. The problem was, the latter was still in development and years away from hitting the production lines.
General Motors and Chrysler would have declared bankruptcy had it not been for bailouts from the U.S. and Canadian governments. Of course, there was the financial crisis, but the two corporations were already in major trouble before that.
Single-handedly, the sharp rise in the cost of energy changed the whole picture for the environment. Global warming was not the only issue of concern anymore. Resource depletion had reached popular awareness. Most economists, and many environmental deniers, now accept the fact that the era of cheap, abundant oil is coming to an end.
Petroleum is highly replaceable as there are plenty of renewable and relatively inexpensive alternatives. It is not the case for metals. We will not weather their shortage easily if at all. The planet's reserves of metallic resources are surprisingly small given the current--and growing--world population. The earth has been around for five billion years. In less than a century of intense consumption, we wiped out the bulk of petroleum reserves! Metals are not far behind. The problem in their case is that in most instances they cannot be replaced with cost-effective renewable alternatives.
In addition to global warming and resource depletion, contaminants continue to be a significant problem. Recent research in the US and Canada shows newborn babies with dozens of toxic compounds and carcinogens in their tissues (Environmental Defence, 2007, December 15; Houlihan, J., Kropp, T., Wiles, R., Gray, S., & Campbell, C., 2005, July 14). Brominated fire retardant chemicals were widely found in mother's milk samples in an American study (Lunder and Sharp, 2003, September 23), and the presence of a rocket fuel ingredient (perchlorate) was detected in nearly half of U.S. states' drinking water. (Rocket fuel, 2004, June 22).
Cap-and-trade will reduce greenhouse gases but does little with respect to the depletion of many resources (metals, fisheries, etc.) and the continued contamination of land, air, and water with several kinds of toxic compounds and carcinogens. We need a more comprehensive strategy, one that addresses not only global warming but also other major issues on the environmental agenda. This is what this book is about.
Of course, the next question is: If we have difficulties dealing with global warming alone, how can we possibly handle other environmental problems at the same time? Firstly, the cost of not addressing issues (contamination, waste disposal, loss of resources, healthcare, etc.) is increasing rapidly.
Secondly, the use of the structural strategy proposed in this book would see problems being dealt with at the source, meaning much greater effectiveness and lower costs.
Thirdly, the approach discussed here is based on a revenue-neutral plan and would essentially be free, i.e. we could have a much more comprehensive and effective strategy than cap-and-trade at a lower cost. If you are looking for the cheapest and most effective deal, this is it!
The question becomes: Why are we going for cap-and-trade at all? It is a strategy that is narrow in focus and more expensive, that lets the depletion of resources go on unabated--meaning more crises in the near future--and that allows for the continued contamination of land, air, and water with a range of toxic compounds.
The Decline of Modern Civilization
Modern civilization probably reached its peak in the late 1970s and early 1980s, with industrialization at its height and economies benefiting from an abundance of cheap fossil fuels.
Very different factors will define the coming years: disruptions caused by global warming, inflation resulting from the depletion of resources, and higher levels of toxic contaminants and carcinogens in the environment.
We will have to change one way or the other. Global warming is beginning to kill and cost us dearly. It will only get worse as time goes on. Fossil fuels are running out (not to speak of the fact that their combustion produces large amounts of greenhouse gases). As such, shifting to renewable energy is becoming less and less a matter of choice. Metals are being depleted and will follow a pattern similar to that of oil with respect to prices. Either we implement strategies to conserve them now or we will face crises worse than we are seeing with energy.
The current recession provides a break in the trend. Remember the headlines from the summer of 2008 when the price of oil peaked? News reports were talking about a tripling of the price of rice from a combination of speculation, a sudden rise in the cost of energy, and alternative fuels (ethanol) competing with food for agricultural land. Many feared that famine would affect many regions of the world.
Pollution is widespread, hurting us and our children as well as future generations. We are only beginning to pay the price for decades of neglect, be it in the cost of treatment for many diseases (respiratory problems, cancer, etc.), waste disposal, or loss of amenities. World resources such as the oceans fisheries are beginning to be seriously degraded by toxic contaminants.
The fiscal stimulus money recently thrown at the environment is certainly a shot in the arm. However, it is one-time funding and mostly not being spent within the context of a comprehensive and thoughtfully planned long-term initiative.
Cap-and-trade is not enough. It does not address most of the issues on the environmental agenda. Together with the financial crisis money, it only obscures the facts that they both fall sorely short of what is needed and that there are other strategies that could deliver what we need for the environment. Not addressing the problem of resource depletion will mean a chaotic future and economic decline which, in turn, will lower revenues to fund environmental initiatives.
Rather than focusing on ad hoc and trendy strategies addressing only a narrow range of issues, this book looks for more fundamental and structural solutions--ones addressing problems at the source and covering most of the issues on the environmental agenda. With such an approach, we stand a better chance of keeping economies on course while transitioning to a post-modern sustainable society. The comprehensive strategy proposed in this book would make the planet much healthier by the end of the process... all of this coming with the added bonus of revenue neutrality.
Change will happen one way or the other. We can choose to do as little as possible for the environment and pay the costs in terms of erratic, destructive, and deadly weather patterns, skyrocketing resource prices, higher healthcare expenses, and a highly contaminated world. Or, we can opt for a revenue-neutral strategy that would turn a destructive economy into a constructive one and deliver for us and our children a better, healthier, and cleaner world.
The Series, the Book, the Future
For many, Hurricane Katrina and its devastating consequences in 2005 was the first serious environmental wakeup call. Unfortunately, it came after disaster hit.
Today, governments are increasingly moving towards the curtailment of greenhouse gases to slow down global warming. Efforts, however, are at best halting. As already stated, issues are much bigger than global warming alone. The Kyoto Protocol (of which the last round of negotiation was the climate change conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, in December 2009) is not the most effective way to deal with greenhouse gases and falls short. We need to look at much more profound changes.
A more powerful way to approach today's problems is to make market economies work for the environment instead of against it. The billions of dollars we will eventually spend on problems are really to clean up their mess! It does not have to be like this. With specific changes to the incentive structure of economies, we can make manufacturing greener without major disruptions to society or the market system itself.
Waves of the Future
Decades ago, Alvin Toffler wrote about three waves of change that swept over the world and transformed societies on a massive scale. We are now witnessing the fourth one: a transition to a greener world. Whether it happens grudgingly and destructively, through havoc and reactions to disasters or through forethought and in a progressive manner, it is unavoidable.
Most of us woke up this morning assuming that the sun would rise. Beyond that, it is not so clear what can or cannot be assumed. We know far less than we think about what really lies ahead of us. A decade ago, global warming was considered by many but a theory, the fancy of a scientist's imagination. Now, it is an ugly reality that takes life and destroys indiscriminately, that will starve many, and that we will live with for decades.
Undoubtedly, the 20th century saw a staggering number of technological advances. From a social and economic point of view, many positive developments have also occurred. However, we have failed to address several of the problems that plagued societies during that period. Given enough commitment, many could have been solved a decade or more ago.
We have made some progress in terms of world peace, but we have also developed weapons of mass destruction capable of wiping out life on the entire planet. Not enough headway has been made in the fight against unemployment, social disparities, and world poverty given the vast increase in wealth we saw in the second half of the century. Even the richest countries in the world have failed to eradicate homelessness and dire poverty on their own streets.
In a relatively short period of industrialization, we have succeeded in producing a tremendous amount of pollution, some of which reaching just about everywhere including Antarctica, some of which lasting for extremely long periods of time.
There is a problem with the current economic system, at least with the way it is set up. To create jobs, we need to raise consumption levels. However, this also means increasing pollution and the depletion of non-renewable resources. China and India are viewed as vast consumer markets with a huge potential for job creation. But what of the effects that such massive consumption will have on the environment and resources? China's latest Kyoto commitment is to continue to increase its greenhouse gas emissions. Shockingly, it is heralded in the media as a breakthrough for the accord!
Two things are becoming clear. Firstly, the destructive path we are currently on has to change; our impact on the planet is just too devastating. As such, we cannot rely on narrowly focused solutions: fundamental changes must occur. Secondly, our destructive powers have grown significantly in the last one hundred years. That trend is accelerating as world production, consumption, and population continue to increase.
At the beginning of the 20th century, we did not have the technology to cause a lot of damage. Today, we have our pick of ways to destroy ourselves and the planet: weapons of mass destruction, toxic contaminants, the depletion of essential non-renewable resources, etc.
World development has always been determined by both technological and societal advances. Although physical sciences have historically been important, one may think, for example, of the way democracy has fashioned modern societies or the impact of the human rights movement. In the current geopolitical chaos, the world may take a turn for the better or the worse. The stakes are high.
We have reached a point where things cannot continue the way they have in the past. History has shown many an empire crumbling because of their inability to shift thinking and challenge fundamental assumptions when the time had come. In the years ahead, countries will have to decide whether to maintain the status quo and move towards decline and disaster or to challenge their assumptions and trade a little pain now for a much brighter future.
There is generally a lot of resistance to new ideas, and things usually change very slowly. This is often for the better, preventing society from hastily going down disastrous paths. However, we do not have the luxury of time on many environmental issues—unless, that is, we don’t care about future generations. This is the time for audacity, not for delays and denials.
Few new and creative ideas were hatched in the last 20 years. For the most part, we are only rehashing left-right political thinking when what is really needed is a fundamental change of approach, one that will restructure the market system and reconcile it with society and the environment.
The Fourth Wave will force us to change. We will act either grudgingly--as slowly as possible and after a lot of destruction has occurred... just as we have been doing so far--or we will reassess the past and define a new agenda for the future, looking at fresh ideas and exploring more fundamental solutions.
The Fourth Wave
The 21st Century Environmental Revolution is the first book of a series which deals with contemporary issues (the Waves of the Future Series). Its first part provides a historical perspective on current social and economic issues by going back in time through Toffler's first three waves of change. It also outlines the rationale behind a fourth one which will transform society and the world in which we live either constructively or destructively, depending on the choices we make.
The second part of the book deals with the spectrum of environmental issues and the question of non-renewable resources.
The third and most important part lays out a comprehensive structural strategy capable of addressing most of the issues on the environmental agenda: global warming, non-renewable resources, toxic contaminants, etc. Simplicity, economic feasibility, ease of implementation, and integration to the market system are focal points of the approach.
The strategy articulates together a number of tactical changes to the incentive structure of economies. These would result in a reconciliation of the interests of industry with those of society and the environment. Its use of market forces makes it a tool much more powerful than cap-and-trade and one capable of delivering change quickly and effectively, and of doing so in concert with the economic system.
This book is international in scope. One of the main difficulties in its writing arose from the need to reach out to a broad audience: Political changes do not happen without the support of a large number of people. Too many good ideas often die in academic circles. Others take years to break through to popular awareness. We do not have the luxury of time on the environment.
On the one hand, the challenge was to make issues, concepts, and solutions readily understandable to the vast number of those who have political power, the voters. On the other hand, there was a need to also make a solid case to the academic establishment, and this, without getting overly technical and putting off voters.
To that purpose, chapter 2 is designed to be light reading and mostly historical or contextual background information for everybody. Chapters 3, 4, and 5 (a brief review of environmental concepts and issues) are aimed at people not overly familiar with the subject. Academics might want to read chapter 1 and then skip through to chapter 6 where the outlining of the strategy discussed above begins.
The environmental approach proposed in this book could turn the tables on many issues and set us on a new road that would make the massive power of economies work for the environment instead of against it. The other option is to manage-after-disasters as we have done so far: wait until resources are destroyed, land is contaminated, people die or starve, or some disaster strikes... and then act.
Nature is finally catching up to us: one way or the other, change will happen. The only choice is how.
Welcome to the Fourth Wave.
Copyright Waves of the Future, ©2010