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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Beyond the Dow Jones

Air Date: Week of

Steve talks with Worldwatch Institute president Lester Brown about Brown's push for a new set of indicators which measure and reflect the both world's environmental and economic health. Brown's new book Vital Signs is a compilation and analysis of more than 50 such trends.


CURWOOD: When adding up banana profits or the progress of a nation, standard balance sheets don't consider environmental degradation as a cost, or preservation as an investment. In modern industrial economics, ecological values are left out of the equation. Lester Brown thinks this is a mistake, a mistake that's compounded by the media every day by paying too much attention to traditional economic indicators and ignoring the more environmentally sensitive ones. Brown is president of the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, and is co-author of a new book called Vital Signs 1992. It's an almanac of environmental indicators.

BROWN: Much of the information that we now get on a regular basis - whether it's radio, newspapers, or television - is economic data. We find stock prices reported daily in great detail, the highs, the lows, the change from the day before, etc. We regularly get data from governments around the world on such things as interest rates, exports, changes in inventory, employment rates. These are all economic data, and they are not unimportant. But a whole new set of issues has arisen that may be even more important in shaping our future, such as soil erosion, or the fact that we're losing perhaps a fifth of all the plant and animal species on the planet within the span of a generation. We can't continue to destroy the other plant and animal species with which we share the planet at the current rate without finding ourselves in serious, serious trouble. We can't continue to pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere without eventually facing economically disruptive climate change. We can't continue to deforest the planet. And one could go down the list. This book, Vital Signs, is an effort to get some of the most important environmental indicators organized and published in a form that's accessible to people everywhere.

CURWOOD: You've picked 36 key indicators for your book, and I'd like to talk about some. Let's start with food. I believe you think that the ecological crunch will come around food, that such trends as rising population and lower yields from unsustainable agricultural practices, and crop losses from the ozone hole and too much ultraviolet radiation that starts coming through - that all these trends will meet at the dinner table. What's the important index here?

BROWN: Well, I think we all realize that the environmental degradation of the planet cannot continue without eventually undermining the economy. And as we look at the economy, it seems to me that the sector that is most vulnerable to environmental degradation is the agriculture sector. It is the one most directly dependent on natural systems. So I think the bottom line indicator of environmental degradation is in some ways per capita grain production.

CURWOOD: Per capita grain production...

BROWN: Because grain is the staple food of all of humanity, it's either wheat or rice or corn or rye or barley or what have you. What we've seen is that between 1950 and 1984, per capita grain production for the world was expanding about three percent per year. Well ahead of population, and therefore contributing to substantial improvements in diets throughout the world. But since 1984, the per capita trend has been down. Total grain production has been expanding about one percent per year. No longer expanding as fast as population, which is still close to two percent a year. So we're seeing per capita food production, which for much of humanity is the most important indicator, now headed in the wrong direction.

CURWOOD: Why do you report on bicycle production here in your book?

BROWN: Well, in the western industrial societies, particularly in the United States, we think the world travels by automobile. But the reality is that for the world, the bicycle is far more important as a means of personal transportation. Twenty years ago, world production of bicycles and automobiles was almost exactly the same: 22 million cars versus maybe 24 million bicycles. Last year, that gap had widened to 95 million bicycles and 35 million cars - almost 3 to 1 in favor of bicycles. Bicycles are finding a place in the transport systems of many countries, including industrial ones such as Japan and the Netherlands. In addition, we obviously see enormous dependence on the bicycle throughout Asia, most obviously in China, where the ratio of bicycles to automobiles is 250 to 1.

CURWOOD: This may sound like a silly question, but why is bicycles a positive sign?

BROWN: A positive sign because bicycles respond to many problems simultaneously. They reduce air pollution, they don't take up very much space, so they reduce traffic congestion, they also provide exercise for those of us who live in a sedentary society, where we don't get enough exercise. I think for these reasons we're going to see the role of the bicycle continuing to expand throughout the world for the foreseeable future.

CURWOOD: Lester Brown is the president of the Worldwatch Institute and co-author of Vital Signs, an almanac of environmental trends. He spoke to us from Washington.



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