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Journal of Political Ecology: 
Case Studies in History and Society

 

 

VOLUME 2 (1995)

The Future of the Environment: Ecological Economics and Technological Change, by Faye Duchin and Glenn-Marie Lange, with Knut Thonstad and Annemarth Idenburg. New York: Oxford University Press (1994). xiii, 222 pp.

 

Reviewed by Jae Edmonds, Senior Research Scientist, Pacific Northwest Laboratories, Washington DC.

The principle of "sustainable development," as articulated in the Brundtland Commission report (1987) encompasses the pursuit of economic well being in the present without compromising the ability of future generations to provide for their own well being. But while the general principle of "sustainable development" is one to which everyone subscribes, it is by no means clear how this principle should be implemented in the real world of scarcity. At the very heart of the problem of achieving "sustainable development" is the essence of the economic problem, the allocation of scarce resources to competing ends in the present and over time. It does not make the problem easier that one of the resources to be allocated is the environment.

In The Future of the Environment, Duchin and Lange therefore set out to explore this intellectual territory, and specifically the problem of simultaneously providing economic goods and services in increasing measure to an expanding fraction of the worlds people and the protection of the environment for ourselves and future generations. The authors are well qualified for this undertaking. Faye Duchin is the Director of the Institute for Economic Analysis at New York University, and Vice President of the International Society for Ecological Economics. She has taken up the work that was initiated by her Institute's founder, Nobel Laureate, Wassily Leontief. Glenn-Marie Lange is a colleague of Duchins at the Institute for Economic Analysis.

The work presented in this book was carried out over the three years leading up to the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992 (Duchin et al., 1992). To understand and appreciate this book, the reader should recognize from the outset that the bounds of the problem that Drs. Duchin and Lange have taken on, although broad, are not unlimited, and somewhat different from what one might imagine from the book title alone. The central focus of the book is the interactions of the economy, technology and industrial emissions of carbon, sulfur, and nitrogen oxides. The three gases are used as indicators of anthropogenic impacts on global and regional environmental systems, but the mechanisms by which anthropogenic by-products affect the environment are left outside the boundaries of the book. For example the issues of demographics, the interaction between human activities, land-use change and anthropogenic emissions, or agricultural emissions, are not considered. Neither are the impacts of anthropogenic activities, such as on biodiversity, climate change, acidification, or CO2 fertilization. The boundary of the work is the industrial smokestack. This is an observation and not a criticism. Research without boundaries descends into uninteresting generalities. The book also limits its focus to the next thirty years, 1990 to 2020. This is a period in which important changes will be taking place, and it is therefore a critical slice of time. From the perspective of long-term environmental issues such as climate change, however, this focus is rather shorter than most global studies have adopted. The book is laid out in two parts. The first part, entitled Methods and Results, presents an overview of the Our Common Future (OCF) scenario which was developed to explore the implications of changes in technology for the economy and emissions of three gases.

The power and usefulness of this book comes from three sources, the discipline of the global modeling system the authors have adopted, the data base that undergirds it, and attention to detail as demonstrated in the case studies that populate the second and largest part of the book. The book is very strong on its presentation of data including both the assumptions that go into scenario development and model results.

The authors have assembled a wealth of information, which is made available here for fellow researchers and decision makers alike. The authors employ a Leontief model of the global economy-- specifically; Leontiefs model as set out in Leontief et al. 1977. This framework offers tremendous insights into the interconnectedness of economies, and insures a consistency that cannot be guaranteed outside of a framework in which physical and financial accounts are forced to balance.

Although the book is rich in detail about the potential evolution of the global economy, the authors in letting the results speak for themselves, leave the reader the task of assessing what to make of all this work. But it is easy to get lost in the details. Drs. Duchin and Lange are clearly closer to this issue than anyone else, and their opinions and assessments would be most welcome. In contrast, many books on similar subjects contain nothing but opinions, and their lack of analysis and research leave serious readers feeling empty. Duchin and Lange offer some thoughts in the early chapters of the book that serve to whet our appetite for more. For example, the authors put forward a conclusion that there are serious problems with achieving sustainable development. But the leap from the book's details to the final conclusion is too great. Why does this research lead the authors to that conclusion? What are the tradeoffs between economy, technology and the environment? At the end of the 13 data-rich chapters the book simply ends with a case study of transportation, and moves immediately to technical appendices and references without stopping to sum up. A concluding chapter rewarding the reader for persevering through the preceding ten score pages would have been a valuable addition.

Nevertheless, the book has a great deal to offer to the reader interested in a serious, detailed discussion of the forces shaping the first quarter of the next century.

References Cited:

Brundtland Commission.

1987. Our Common Future. World Commission on Environment and Development. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Duchin, F., G. Lange, K. Thonstad, and A. Idenburg.

1992. Environmentally Sound Strategies for Economic Development: An Input-Output Analysis. Final Report to the United Nations under contract #CTPS/CON/112/91.

Leontief, W., A. Carter, and P. Petri.

1977. Future of the World Economy. New York: Oxford University Press.