Could a bad economy save the planet?

By Hal Brill

Those of you who have followed my columns over the years know that Allison and I started a green “intentional neighborhood” here in Paonia back in 2001 ( Since my name, Hal, is forever associated with the computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey, I should have suspected that I was embarking on a green development odyssey. After nine years of jumping through hoops, we’re finally moving some dirt. This year’s project is a super-insulated, earth-bermed garage and upstairs studio, crowned with a 3 kilowatt solar system. We’re psyched!

Before we design and build the main house, we need to get up to speed on what’s new in the world of eco-home building. So I signed up for a Natural Building conference focused on creating high-performance homes using earthen, plant- based, or recycled materials. What I came away with was not so much new building techniques, but a renewed commitment to living lightly on the planet.

Energy activist Randy Udall came to speak fresh off a backpacking trip. He reminded us that it would only take two degrees of global warming to change Colorado’s alpine wonders (and the planet) into a bleaker habitat than we enjoy today. Randy’s outlook was sobering: Science magazine reported that even if we stopped building new CO2-emitting infrastructure today (no new cars, no new fossil-fuel power plants…an impossible scenario!), we’re still cooked. The “inertia” from using what is already built will raise CO2 levels to the point that we’ll be perilously close to that 2 degree rise in temperature. In other words, everything new that we add to the planet really needs to be carbon neutral. In the context of natural building, this means building smaller, smarter homes that conserve resources and produce their own energy.

Of course buildings are just one piece of the solution. Pretty much every human activity needs to undergo a similar trans- formation. This seems enormous – and it is! – but I humbly offer one insight about how this could happen: Everything we see in the human-made world began as an investment. The tools of Natural Investing, if widely applied, would shift the economy towards one that values long-term ecological health. To paraphrase Gandhi, we need to invest in the change we wish to see in the world.

Udall next touched on other trends that might alter the bleak greenhouse gas forecast. Economists assume that economic growth will continue forever, but what if it doesn’t? What would that do to energy consumption? Here in the U.S., the recent economy has been giving us some clues. Use of fossil fuels has been dropping. For the first time in recent history, total vehicle miles driven is in decline. Our local coal mines complain that there is less demand due to reduced industrial output. It’s a strange idea, but I’ve been thinking that maybe a lousy economy is the planet’s way of self-preservation!

I said it this way to make a point, but today, more people are contemplating what a world without ever-increasing economic activity would look like. Way back in the early 70’s, a book came out called The Limits to Growth. Using primitive computers, their models showed that resource consumption and population growth would eventually hit a wall on this finite planet. One of the authors, Dennis Meadows, has been speaking about how things have unfolded in the ensuing 40 years. Eerily, their predictions were that economic growth would continue about 40 years. Uh-oh, that’s right around now!

After that point, the authors predicted we’d be forced to curtail our material appetites. For more than a century, economic growth in the U.S. was super-charged by cheap energy and abundant resources. It was easy to imagine that exponential growth could continue forever. Today, poverty rates are increasing and millions are jobless. Policy-makers are desperately seeking ways to jump-start the economy, in hopes of returning to the go-go days gone by. But it may be that that these are early, painful “detox” symptoms warning us that we’re hitting some limits and need to change course.

Though difficult, these are exciting times. At the Natural Building conference, I was pleased to meet with early pioneers who now achieving mainstream success. Here at Natural Investments, we are networking within our field to design the next generation of investment vehicles that will foster a sustainable world. Slow Money is starting to roll, and fledgling sectors like “community resilience” and “appropriate technology for the newly poor” are emerging. Opportunities abound, and we’ll be there.

This article first appeared in the Fall 2010 edition of the Natural Investing newsletter.

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Hal Brill

Welcome to my archive of newsletter articles and blog posts. For more information on my service offerings, please go to my advisor webpage.

Comments (1)

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    Thank you for sharing this article. It certainly provides a refreshing perspective on economic growth/sustainability.


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