One promising idea is the Global Green Deal, a practical yet transformative program to environmentally retrofit human civilization from top to bottom. Led by governments?but making full use of market mechanisms?the Global Green Deal would put people and corporations to work at tasks essential to our future: leaving fossil fuels behind in favor of energy efficiency and renewables; averting the looming global water crisis by installing drip-irrigation systems; halting the catastrophic epidemic of species extinctions (and the forest destruction that drives them) by reducing our demand for wood; and so on.
The idea is to renovate human civilization from top to bottom in environmentally sustainable ways?retrofitting everything from our farms to our factories, our garages to our garbage dumps, our schools, houses and offices?and to do so both in the wealthy North and the impoverished South. Such a program would not only generate a great amount of economic activity, it would be ecologically restorative activity, the only kind the Earth can afford anymore. Moreover, this activity would be labor-intensive, and thus create the millions of jobs needed to maintain living standards in the North while also tackling poverty in the South. And make no mistake: poverty is central to our environmental predicament. Most people around the world care about saving the environment, but for the poor in particular, putting bread on the table comes first. In a world where at least one billion people lack gainful employment, an environmental restoration plan that does not create jobs has no chance of success.
The perilous state of Earth's ecosystems leaves humans little alternative but to pursue this kind of environmental transition, but the good news is, if we're smart, we can actually make money in the process. Such establishment voices as AT&T and Japan's Energy Planning Ministry have predicted that a global environmental retrofit would be the biggest economic enterprise of the 21st century: a huge source of jobs, profits and poverty alleviation. A Global Green Deal is also a winning strategy for domestic American politics. The anti-globalization movement's success in Seattle was based largely on what it was against: a global trading system that elevates corporate freedom and profitability above human rights, decent working conditions and a healthy environment. But to maintain its momentum, the movement must now make clear what it is for: a healthy environment and a prosperous economy. This is a crucial strategic point. Even the strongest defense can never yield more than a draw. If our side wants to start winning for a change, we need to take the initiative and think big.
The Global Green Deal starts from a fact well-known to environmentalists but much less appreciated by opinion leaders and the general public: we have in hand most of the technologies needed to chart a new course. In particular, we know how to use oil, wood, water and other natural resources much more efficiently than we do now. Increased efficiency?doing more with less?will enable us to use fewer resources and produce less pollution per capita, buying us the time to bring solar power, hydrogen fuel cells and other futuristic technologies online.
Here's another little-known fact: increasing efficiency produces far more jobs than anti-environmental behavior does. Building railroad tracks generates 50 percent more jobs per dollar invested than building highways does. Incinerating a million tons of solid waste requires 80 workers, and putting it in a landfill takes 600 workers, but recycling it takes 1600 workers.
The environmental transition will not happen by itself, however. Too many entrenched interests stand in the way. While Ford and General Motors often talk green, they have made only token efforts to develop "green cars," for the simple reason that their gas-guzzling SUVs are hugely profitable. But every year, the U.S. government buys 56,000 new cars from Detroit for official use. Under the Global Green Deal, Washington would require that these cars be hybrid-electrics or fuel-cell-powered vehicles. Washington could thus boost market demand for green cars?demand that private capital could then step up to accommodate.
The Global Green Deal must not be solely an American project, however. Rich and poor nations alike must participate. China or India, with their gigantic populations and ambitious development plans, could by themselves doom everyone else to severe global warming and ozone depletion. Already, China is the world's largest consumer of coal and second largest producer of greenhouse gases. But China would use 50 percent less coal if it simply installed the energy efficiency technologies now available on the world market, especially better lights, insulation and motors. Under the Global Green Deal, governments in Europe, America and Japan would help China buy these technologies, not only because this would reduce global warming but because it would create lots of jobs and profits for workers and companies back home.
Governments wouldn't have to spend more money under a Global Green Deal, only shift subsidies away from environmentally dead-end technologies like coal and nuclear power. If even half of the estimated $500-$900 billion in environmentally destructive subsidies now being doled out by the world's governments were pointed in the opposite direction, the Global Green Deal would be off to a roaring start. Equally important, governments must reform skewed tax and accounting systems to correct the market's environmental blindness. If the price of paper, for example, were forced to reflect the social costs of clear-cut forests, the price would go up?thus discouraging consumers from buying it while encouraging alternative approaches to producing paper. In this way, the Global Green Deal would enlist the awesome power of the market to enhance, rather than assault, environmental values.
Americans?and, in fact, most people around the world?know that the environment needs fixing but they are afraid of the economic consequences. The message of the Global Green Deal is that we can have both environmental health and economic prosperity, if we're willing to take on entrenched interests and do what's right for the human majority.
Mark Hertsgaard is a commentator for NPR's "Living on Earth" program and the author of four books, including Earth Odyssey: Around the World in Search of Our Environmental Future, now available in paperback from Broadway Books.