A Renewable Economy as a Global Ethic

In a song dedicated to martin Luther King Jr., James Taylor sings:

We are bound together

By our desire to see the world become

A place where our children can grow

up free and strong.

For more than three decades, the world movement for sustainable development has been driven by that aspiration. The vision of a plant-based economy is a new way of offering a more concrete vision of sustainable development to create a world safe for children and all life.

For many groups that now work separately, the vision of a plant-based green economy also provides opportunities to work together. In the United States, nonprofit networks operate principally in separate silos on green economy issues such as environmental health, climate change, sustainable agriculture, sustainable consumption, forest preservation, smart growth, environmental justice, and the like. Each of these networks is, in itself, far too small to drive transformative economic change. The green economy, by contrast, is a comprehensive social agenda that can achieve many of the goals of all of these diverse groups.

The green economy can attract allies in the government and for-profit sectors. It makes deep sense from a geopolitical and strategic perspective for the United States to take this decisive step toward energy independence. The green economy makes political sense in many “red” as well as “blue” states, and suggests a new bipartisanship. It is in the interest of the farm states to grow our energy, fuel, and materials feedstocks.

A bio-based economy is the only scalable alternative to a global economy addicted to oil and petrochemicals. At current rates of growth, China and India alone will outstrip the entire global demand for oil and other key raw materials within 30 years.

In the United States, with vast acreage available to plant crops, a bio-based economy, in which we “grow” green energy, green materials, and green chemistry feedstocks, is also the best hope for a new industrial production base for good jobs. Bio-based production represents the marriage of the goals of sustainable agriculture, green energy, and the broader environmental health movement.

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One central question is: who will own and control this technological revolution? The petrochemical industry has controlled the heights of the global economy and global geopolitical strategies for the last century. This has led to global climate destabilization, the poisoning of the entire web of life with toxic chemicals, and a foreign policy that requires sustained hostilities in the Middle East and support for undemocratic regimes wherever there are remaining gas and oil reserves.

The bio-based economy can and should be based on larger democratic and “open source” values and strategies. Opportunities exist for local and regional interests to take substantial ownership of these new technologies, to help promote an economy that supports health, environment, and community interests.

Above all, the green economy is self-evidently linked to a sustainable world that will support human health. Human health is fundamentally dependent on a stable climate and crops that can be grown in a stable climate. Human health is equally dependent on the reversal of a century of buildup of toxic chemicals in the body of all life. In humans, more than 100 diseases, disorders, and conditions are linked in leading toxicology texts to manmade chemical contaminants. The revolution in environmental health sciences described by Pete Myers [see “Good Genes Gone Bad,” page A13] is generating a large body of evidence that many of the epidemic conditions of our time are related to these contaminants.

Clean air, clean water, and safe foods are historically issues that have animated voters. Now voters show a growing concern about visible evidence of climate change and of the pervasive, pernicious impact of chemicals on health.

Patient and health professional groups concerned with cancer, birth defects, asthma, heart disease, learning and developmental disabilities, infertility and pregnancy, Parkinson's disease, and endometriosis have already begun to engage to fight for a healthy environment and a phaseout of toxic chemicals. As the concerns of these health groups converge, a set of issues that were once considered “environmental” are being reframed as fundamental to the health and safety of families. This is a profound transformation.

A parallel development is the growing involvement of faith communities. Faith groups have become critical leaders in the struggle for climate-friendly energy policies. Increasingly, these same faith groups are engaging the issue of toxic chemicals. Just as patients' groups bring human health to the table, faith groups bring an indispensable moral voice to the dialogue.

The specifics of how we frame the green economy debate, and the strategies and tactics we pursue, deserve careful attention. The goal would be to substantively unite the key health, environment, faith, labor, justice, and nongovernmental organization communities who share these concerns, in conjunction with the many enlightened corporate interests who embrace a green economic future.

The environmental health movement, which over the past decade has brought together a formidable range of interests concerned with chemicals and health, is a good example of the extent to which such alliances are achievable when a constructive new frame, such as environmental health, is widely adopted.

The green economy is not the ultimate frame, since there are important issues it does not address. But it is a practical and achievable next step that could bring together progressives and conservatives in an alliance to build a healthy and sustainable world.

Michael Lerner is president of Commonweal, a health and environmental research institute in Bolinas, California. He acknowledges the contributions of Gary Cohen and Pete Myers to this article.