MULTIBILLION DOLLAR GLOBAL MARKETS AREN'T THE ANSWER
"Vermont to Grab Its Share of Multibillion Dollar Global Environment Market,"
said the press release announcing a meeting I attended last weekend. The
organizing body (Partnership of Environmental Technology & Science, or POETS)
was more modest in its brochure. "From the Industrial Revolution to the
Ecological Revolution," it said. "New Business Opportunities for Vermont."
There is indeed a multibillion-dollar market in environment-friendly products
and services. It will grow as more people and things have to share fewer
planetary resources. Fifty years from now, if we're around at all, we will run
vehicles with hydrogen, generate electricity from sunlight, recycle materials
with exquisite efficiency, grow high-yield food with no chemicals, and purify
wastes in beautiful pools and gardens. These technologies will be worth
trillions of dollars or "ecos" or whatever we call money then. I hope and
expect that Vermont will get a good share.
But I have a problem with "grabbing" and "global markets" and "multibillions."
I know that's how the business world talks. Unless you're operating in 50
countries and growing at 20 percent per year, you're nobody. Cast your intent
over the planet, beat others to the future, think in billions -- a thrilling
game. But not a path to the ecological revolution. Rather a relic of the
industrial revolution, even when applied to environmental products and
The global business game has three problems. It aims at false goals. It has
lost important steering mechanisms. And it wastes not only natural resources,
but human resources, the creative participation of the people.
Market share is an abstraction. It's not something anyone wants FOR ITSELF,
any more than we want kilowatt-hours or GDP or even money. You can't eat or
hug, breathe or dance to these things. They are means, not ends. What we WANT
is healthy children, good food, clean air and water, friendly communities, fun
and joy and secure jobs that use our talents well.
If we lose sight of those real goals, we find ourselves trashing the ends in
order to pile up the means. Just listen to corporate leaders explaining why
they must addict our children, put untested substances in our food, pour toxins
into air and water, abandon communities and downsize or underpay us, all for
the sake of dollars, stock values, market share.
Author Wendell Berry says (in the June 1998 issue of Resurgence magazine), "We
have many commodities, but little satisfaction.... The industrial economy's
most-marketed commodity is satisfaction, [but] this commodity, which is
repeatedly promised, bought, and paid for, is never delivered." That's because
the economic game, as currently structured, focuses on symbols instead of life.
Even if the goals are right, no economy can home in on them without accurate
information. That's why "globalization" becomes a problem. Says Berry, "It is
virtually impossible for us to know the economic history or the ecological cost
of the products we buy; their origins are typically too distant and too
scattered, and the processes of trade, manufacture, transportation and
marketing too complicated.... Where there is no reliable accounting and
therefore no competent knowledge of the economic and ecological effects of our
lives, we cannot live lives that are economically and ecologically
Global trade, like stock values, dollars, market share, isn't bad or good in
itself. It is also a means. It cannot serve any end properly if it does not
charge the buyer the full costs of production, including the costs of
supporting workers decently, the costs of non-polluting factories, the costs of
sustaining rather than depleting resources. We would never buy the "cheap"
goods that flood in from around the world if we knew their costs to workers,
communities, nature, and the future.
"Externalizing" costs -- imposing them on someone who does not benefit from the
product -- is a classic market failure. There are two ways to fix it. The
simplest is, insofar as possible, to buy local, so we can see and reward the
producers who treat people and nature with respect. Says Berry: "Only a
healthy local economy can keep nature and work together in the consciousness of
the community. Consumers who understand their economy will not tolerate the
destruction of the local soil or ecosystem or watershed as a cost of
production." Buying local also means buying fresh, reducing transport,
recycling money close to home and building neighborly relationships.
Some things cannot be produced locally; they will always be traded. So we must
ensure -- by regulation or tariffs or taxes -- that prices count full costs.
That will protect responsible producers from the unfair competition of
irresponsible ones. It may make some things look more expensive, but they
won't actually be so. Invisible costs will just become visible and be charged
to the right party.
Then there's the problem with "multibillions." No one needs a billion dollars
or even a lowly million. Income or ownership beyond six zeros is not about
material need, it's about keeping score, proving worth, feeding ego, seizing
control, walling off fears. And huge accumulations in the hands of a few come
at the expense of the security, ownership and participation of others.
If the multibillions available from environmental technologies flow through
many businesses, farms, decision-makers, innovators and owners, they will
stimulate the widespread creativity we need for the great transition to an
ecological economy. If they are "grabbed" by a few, no matter how bright and
hard-working those few, the contributions of the rest of us will be dulled.
It's the difference between growing your own garden and working on someone's
Well, POETS put on a spectacular meeting. By happy geological and historical
accident, Vermont is off the beaten track of the global economy, endowed with
beautiful land and forests that people still treasure, full of honest,
innovative people, and unaccustomed to multibillions. If an ecological
revolution can happen anywhere, it can happen there.
(Donella H. Meadows is an adjunct professor of environmental studies at