Hot World, Cooler Growth

Can humans progress and still preserve the home planet? A hot summer, oil merger, and Asian slump focus debate

Econ- and Eco- are the sound-alike prefixes scholars and politicians love to affix to their new millennium pronouncements.

Broadly, the two are set against each other. They're the perceived bookends of mankind's future. Economic growth (read improved living standards) supposedly causes ecologic decline (read hotter, less green, fewer species). Conversely, eco-preservation means econo-decline. Pop wisdom says you can have one or the other, not both.

We refuse to buy that equation.

This subject snaps into focus at the moment, not because of millennium chatter but because of three global events that demand more than usual attention:

1. The hottest summer month on record plus other climate anomalies.

2. Asian slump II. Spreading concern that Asia's slowdown is, after all, going to affect people and businesses everywhere.

3. The giant BP-Amoco oil company merger, and what it says about future fuel supplies, costs, greenhouse gases, and green energy alternatives.

The three, taken together, constitute a powerful argument for the mouth-full concept of "sustainable development." Those readers already well versed in what this means may skip a paragraph.

Sustainable development broadly describes an array of steps that would allow billions of hungry, resource-poor, shelter-deprived, education-poor, overworked or unemployed people to gain an acceptable standard of living through economic growth, while still preserving our planet's ecosystems in a self-sustaining balance.

In practical terms this means redesigning thousands of industrial processes to make them pollution reduced, if not pollution-free. It means designing transport (cars, motorcycles, tractors) whose exhaust is cleaner than their air intake. Ditto, heating and cooling. Ditto, chlorine-compound insecticides, herbicides, and household products.

Skeptics base their scenario of inevitable econ-eco collision on what they see as either (1) the technical impossibility of, or (2) the lack of human focus on, achieving sustainable development. We said we refuse to buy that skepticism. We do so because we have faith in mankind's ability to solve problems once fully alerted to them.

The hottest summer weather since the advent of record keeping and the spread of Asia's slump constitute a vigorous alert. BP's giant leap in influence on petroleum exploration and use is an interesting move on the sustainability front.

BP's CEO, Sir John Browne, made a splash two years ago when he announced at his alma mater, Stanford, that he was pushing his firm to do a billion dollars worth of business in solar energy devices by 2000. He continues to parley with Greenpeace and other environmental organizations in an effort to find common ground on sustainable, environmentally sound growth. And he's not the only captain of industry seeking to profit from shifting world industry to sustainable processes - in cooperation with governments, universities, and groups espousing both the environment and human betterment in food, housing, and work conditions.

Let's be blunt and realistic. Such sustainable development and better living standards will need petroleum and the steel, plastics, power, fertilizer, and the other output oil supports into the foreseeable future. But the uses to which such fossil fuels are put will have to be cleaned up as noted above. That means far greater efficiency of manufacturing, heat/cooling, transport, so as to curb toxic output and steadily reduce greenhouse gas buildup. It also means more urgency on shifting to alternative energy technology.

Is this hot-tin-roof summer certifiable evidence of global climate change? Not definitively. But growing more likely. Obviously climate records dating only from 1870 tell us little. But deep glacier samples, ancient tree rings, suboceanic core samples and other evidence warrant caution. And that caution should take the form of a sensible global insurance policy.

If we assume, as economic logic urges, that the Asian-slump spread is temporary and that the desire for a better life throughout the developing world persists, we must prepare for renewed worldwide growth.

That, surely, is a goad to speeding research on sustainable processes in every area of manufacturing, transport, construction, and general energy use. It surely is a goad, also, to leaders of industry, environmental groups, politicians, universities, and developing nations' human rights advocates to work cooperatively in the fashion gingerly explored by BP's Browne and Greenpeace's Lord Peter Melchett.

Many such leaders are already quietly engaged in cooperation based on research and global realities. That, not the political clich, is the true bridge to the 21st century.

Growth, better standards of living, and an ecologically stable planet require rivals to cooperate.

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