By Donella Meadows
–January 15, 1987–
If you pay attention to the environmental news, you can easily get the impression that the waters and air and soils of the earth are deteriorating and that nobody’s doing much of anything about it.
You can also conclude that protecting the environment is a tough, expensive job. There’s a choice — a healthy environment or a healthy economy. You can’t have both.
But when I look around, I see a lot of environmental progress. There are plenty of problems — acid rain, hazardous waste, soil erosion. But there are also examples of people treating resources with care, wasting less while producing more, and making money in the process.
For example, here’s a collection of environmental good-news stories I have run across just in the last few weeks.
– The World Bank has gone into the national park business. While financing a large dam on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia, the Bank insisted on protecting 800,000 acres of forest on the watershed above the dam. The trees regulate water runoff and prevent the dam from silting up. Since many endangered species live there, the forest has become a tropical research station, bringing in foreign exchange from visiting scientists.
– In arid Senegal a program of interplanting millet and peanut crops with nitrogen-fixing acacia trees is doubling crop yields, and at the same time improving soil fertility, reducing erosion, and catching and holding more water.
– Israel has pioneered water-use technologies so efficient that over the decade 1968 to 1978 agricultural output nearly doubled, while water use per acre of irrigated land fell 21%.
– Companies are learning that they can make money cleaning up their environmental act. The 3M Corporation in St. Paul Minnesota has redesigned its manufacturing processes to eliminate each year 90,000 tons of air pollutants, 10,000 tons of water pollutants, a million gallons of waste water, and 15,000 tons of solid waste. In the process the company saved $200 million. A Goldkist poultry plant came up with procedures that used 32% less water and generated 66% less waste and saved $2.33 for every dollar spent to institute the changes.
– The average new house in Sweden requires only half as much energy to heat and cool as the average American new house (per square foot, under identical climatic conditions), and it costs less and is more solidly built. Sweden imposes stricter energy standards on construction than the U.S., but is more flexible in letting builders attain those standards by any structurally-sound method.
Some of the best news comes in the field of energy, both in technologies to save it and in renewable, solar-based ways to obtain it.
– The typical top-mount-freezer automatic-defrosting refrigerator on the U.S. market in 1972 required almost 2000 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year. The most energy-efficient model now available, with the same features, uses only 800 kilowatt-hours per year. Research prototypes are in operation that use only 250 kilowatt-hours.
– The average 1986-model car in the United States travels twice as far on a gallon of gas as the average new car of 1973.
– Since 1973 the U.S. has saved the equivalent of 10 million barrels of oil per day through simple conservation measures. Even at today’s low oil price, that saves us $30 billion every year. The amount of oil saved by conservation since 1973 is 5 times the amount saved by shifting to coal-burning and 10 times the amount taken up by nuclear power.
– Since 1980 13,000 windmills have been installed in California. Together they generate over 1000 megawatts, the equivalent of one nuclear power plant (and they were built much more quickly than a nuclear power plant could be).
– Low oil prices have not killed off solar technology. Production of solar collectors in the United States is rising at the phenomenal rate of 30% per year. Shipments of sun-powered photovoltaic generators tripled between 1982 and 1984.
– Industrial cogeneration — the joint production of electricity and steam, which is twice as efficient as electric generation alone — now amounts to 15,000 megawatts in the U.S., or the equivalent of 15 nuclear power plants. At least 16,000 more megawatts of cogeneration are currently under construction.
I conclude from stories like these that the environment can indeed be improved and some ingenious people are working hard to improve it. High productivity in a healthy environment is certainly possible. But it isn’t guaranteed, not until this kind of good news is multiplied manyfold everywhere on earth.
The news items here were selected from three sources (which contain plenty of bad news too). If you want to read more, they are:
Lester Brown et al., State of the World 1986, W.W. Norton, 1986. Robert Repetto, World Enough and Time, Yale University Press, 1986. “New Alchemy Quarterly”, Winter 1986 issue, New Alchemy Institute, 237 Hatchville Road, East Falmouth MA 02536
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1987