Prosperity and sustainability

In his opinions piece assessing the merits of last weekend’s environmental conference, Mike Needham ’04 raised a very important, and often forgotten, point of fact: the quest for environmental sustainability is inextricably bound to the quest to eliminate poverty. I would even argue that they are fundamentally identical quests with the same ultimate goals.

As head organizer of the “Meeting the Environmental Challenge” conference, I couldn’t agree more with Needham’s conclusion that in order “to be a leader on environmental issues, [Williams] needs to lead a dialogue towards eliminating third-world poverty” (“A new environmental focus,” Sept.17, 2002).

The central question then becomes: what is a desirable and viable model for economic development? One model is the fossil-fuel based economy characterized by the linear flow of materials. Resources are extracted from the Earth, processed by industry, consumed by people and eventually buried or incinerated because they are no longer in usable forms.

Business makes huge capital outlays to harvest materials from the Earth and then loses the fruit of that investment because materials are discarded, rather than returned to business for remanufacture into new products. This development model has unquestionably brought the West previously unimaginable levels of prosperity, which are very slowly reaching the poorer regions of the world where this model is also being pursued.

But, this type of development has also produced “the Asian brown cloud,” a haze of pollution two miles thick, which currently hovers over southern Asia and is thought to be the cause of hundreds of thousands of premature deaths.

This type of development is loading the atmosphere with carbon dioxide and warming the planet, which will, by the end of this century, result in untold social and economic costs due, for example, to losses in agricultural output in some regions, damage to shipping infrastructure and coastal economies and the northward expansion of disease vectors and agricultural pests.

This type of development resulted in the loss of approximately 96 percent of America’s old-growth forests and continues to threaten ecosystems worldwide. While I would never dispute the amazing gains in human health and pollution reduction that Needham shows were attained by this development model, we must realize we currently face a whole new set of environmental problems, which have never before been encountered in human history.

The primary challenge is not to reduce the discharge of dangerous chemicals into the air and water. We have largely figured out how to do this as evidenced by the extraordinary success of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. As Needham suggests, once poor countries develop their economies sufficiently, they too will likely be able to afford the technologies necessary to reduce air and water pollution.

Our unprecedented challenge is to provide energy, food, housing, transportation and durable consumer goods to six billion people without changing the global climate, causing species extinction or depleting fisheries, fresh water reserves and soil fertility.

Contrary to Needham’s claim, the intention of last weekend’s conference and that of the “Tufts, Oberlin and Kyoto crowd” is not to “attack American prosperity.” Rather, the intention is to increase prosperity by finding ways to transform current modes of economic production such that they are aligned, rather than at odds, with the planet’s biogeochemical cycles. This is the second model for development.

This model is an economy powered by hydrogen, wind and sunlight and characterized by the cyclical flow of materials. Like natural processes, industrial processes are designed to be closed loop cycles. The concept of waste thus ceases to exist. Products are designed so that they are easily broken down by microorganisms, thereby enriching the soil, or easily disassembled and recycled for the manufacture of new products. The world’s leading environmental architect, William McDonough, calls this the separation of two nutrient cycles, one biological and one technical.

This new model for development is taking form due to the innovation of designers, engineers and architects, such as McDonough, as well as corporate executives, such as Ray Andersen, CEO of Interface, Inc., a one billion, multi-national carpet supplier developing infinitely recyclable carpeting materials. Although he had never before thought about the environmental impacts of business until reading in 1994 a book entitled The Ecology of Commerce, Andersen has since committed Interface to becoming “the first sustainable corporation in the world,” which means a corporation that produces zero waste and zero harmful emissions.

In short, the choice before us is not between prosperity and no prosperity. A country generating electricity from wind turbines is no less prosperous than a country generating electricity from coal-fired power plants. Both have electricity and can run their computers, lights, appliances, hospitals and factories.

In fact, the country using wind energy is actually measurably more prosperous than the one generating electricity from fossil fuels. The wind-powered country neither bears the social and economic costs of expensive wars in oil-exporting countries in order to secure oil supplies nor the costs of premature deaths due to respiratory illnesses.

The question with which the Williams community must engage is: what sort of prosperity do we (i.e. humanity) want for ourselves and for our children and how enduring do we want it to be?