Strategies for a Resourceful World

Environmental expert shares ideas on saving global resources and improving quality of life. INTERVIEW: JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS

`IT'S changing faster than anything I've ever seen change.'' Jessica Tuchman Mathews isn't talking about her office at the World Resources Institute (WRI), awash with loose folders during what she describes as a redesign of her filing system. She's talking about a much larger redesign: the wholesale shift in the public's attitude toward global environmental issues.

``When we started this institute in 1982,'' says Dr. Mathews, who is vice-president of the highly regarded 85-member environmental research and policy organization, ``there was no public concern about this global agenda. None of the other environmental groups had it.''

Now, apologizing for resorting to clich'es, she uses phrases like ``a sea change'' and ``a turning point'' to describe the last two years. The change, she feels, has come in part from the increasingly worldwide flow of information. In part, too, it has come from last summer's heat and the discussions it prompted of the global-warming trend.

But much of it, she says, has to do with broader shifts on the international landscape. The winding down of the cold war, the plans for a united Europe in 1992, the change of the United States from a creditor to a debtor nation, the steady democratization of Latin America - these and other developments, she recognizes, have ``nothing to do with the environment.'' But the effect, she adds, is ``almost like throwing all the cards up in the air. We have the context for redesigning the whole system. So it's not as though you had to deal with the environment in the framework of a rigidly defined, familiar system: Everything is different.''

The result, she says, is that ``this next 10 years could be a time of crucial innovations - maybe even on a scale like that between 1945 and 1955, when our whole system got created.''

If such changes do come, it will be none too soon for Mathews. In an article in the spring issue of Foreign Affairs, which is being widely cited in environmental circles, she states the case tersely in her lead sentence.

``The 1990s will demand a redefinition of what constitutes national security,'' she writes. National security in the future, she reasons, will shift from defending against other nations to defending against environmental degradation.

Expanding on that point in a recent interview, she notes that ``there are some fairly fundamental changes needed in the international system.'' That post-World War II system, she explains, was ``basically set up to contain and manage conflict.'' Today's need is for ``a system that fosters cooperation.''

In the early years of the environmental movement, she says, successes often came through confrontation between activists and large corporations. Now, with the movement maturing and the issues becoming more global, the need is for cooperation - not only among contending groups within each nation, but among nations as well. And that will require significant changes in attitude, especially for Americans.

In the relations between government and the private sector, she says, ``we only seem to be able to think in terms of conflict. We think that's the natural order.''

Instead, environmental groups need to work to ``influence'' corporations to become environmentally aware. ``You've got to suck them in,'' she says. ``And the only way to get that change is to engage them, almost against their will, in cooperative (efforts).''

How to do that? ``To me the powerful arguments are the self-interest ones,'' she says. To be sure, she notes, there is a broader moral framework for the discussion - an ``ethical sense'' of ``not leaving the planet substantially more impoverished and less able to support human life at a reasonable quality'' than it is today.

In practical terms, however, she feels that public support for environmental issues is not so much ``an ethical thing or a sense of right and wrong as it is a sense of self-interest and fear - and also a quality-of-life thing.'' For that reason, she notes, ``the whole thrust of almost all the research we've done (at WRI) is that you can guarantee yourself a better life style if you use natural resources wisely.

``Governments all over the world are both wasting money from their federal treasuries and encouraging poor resource use - cutting down forests, overfishing, causing soil erosion that's very basically irreversible - without getting a return from it.'' By contrast, she calls the policies urged by WRI ``a free lunch'' and ``a positive-sum game,'' in that they save resources and improve the quality of life at the same time.

Among the examples:

Population growth. ``I don't think that there is any chance of an even reasonably acceptable level of human welfare if the global population levels off at 14 billion,'' she says, using the estimate often cited by demographers for the upper limit of 21st-century growth, ``or probably even 12 billion.'' Needed, she argues, are birth-control measures to contain that expansion in ways that benefit all of humanity, without harming anyone.

Energy efficiency. ``I never use the word `conservation,''' she says. ``I always use the word `efficiency,' because conservation for most people means freezing in the dark.'' What she calls the ``energy efficiency resources'' - the amount that can be saved by more efficient use of energy - are ``much, much bigger than people yet understand.''

Yet for some reason, she says, it is ``difficult for Americans to grasp'' the fact that ``a fire you don't burn is a real resource. I think it must go back to the frontier and the fact that we just don't value efficiency - we think that somehow means getting poorer.''

Non-carbon-based energy resources. Even with the threat of the greenhouse effect causing people to look more seriously at nuclear power as a carbon-free source of energy, she says, ``I don't think nuclear has much of a future.'' Within 20 years, she says, ``solar is going to out-compete nuclear'' both for centrally located, electrical generating plants and as a source of photovoltaic energy used to extract hydrogen from water. (Not all energy experts agree. For a somewhat different forecast, see the chart, which shows the BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH projection for the change in emphasis on sources of world energy by the year 2000.)

Fuel taxes. Mathews has proposed a $1-per-gallon gasoline tax, phased in at 10 cents a year over a decade along with mandated increases in automobile mileage. The result: As fuel economies rose, consumers would buy less of a more expensive product, spending no more money than they do today. They would, however, generate extra funds to help reduce the federal budget deficit, while maintaining a fuel price that would make research and development of alternative energy sources more attractive. ``I genuinely think that if Congress wasn't so terrified of the public reaction, they'd pass it,'' she says.

``Every part of the political spectrum understands that this is the largest, most attractive revenue-getter - easy, painless, one that has all sorts of positive benefits.''

Is Mathews, then, an optimist? ``Oh, absolutely!'' she says, although she notes that, paradoxically, ``the points of encouragement are in finding how wrong most of what we're doing is, and what the big horizon is for better results just by correcting what we're doing.

``The more you look at it, the more convinced you become that the barriers are neither economic nor technological, but political. And I find that optimistic, because clearly, if we choose, in our physical impact on the planet, we can tread far more lightly as a species, even with today's technology.''

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