A Taxing State of Affairs Lester Brown's New Group Links the Media and Economy

Lester Brown is excited but cautious. Since May of 2001, when the world welcomed the birth of the Earth Policy Institute (EPI), the co-founder and president has already witnessed enough to make him both laugh and cry.

Lester Brown. Credit: Rebecca Harms, FlickrCC

Brown, described by the Washington Post as “one of the world’s most influential thinkers,” is known, among a plethora of other accomplishments and awards, for founding the Worldwatch Institute in 1974, a nonprofit research organization dedicated to the global environmental movement. The purpose of his new organization is not to compete with or replace Worldwatch or any other environmental group, but rather to complement its research and information dissemination. “Many battles have been won, but we are losing the war,” he says.

The goal is to create a vision and to map out a plan for an economically sustainable global economy, or eco-economy, where human production and activity will “mesh with” the environment rather than destroy it. Brown sees some bright spots, and says the ever-increasing interest in the eco-economy has been “exceptional and encouraging.” He points to the impressive growth of the global wind industry, which has recently become a relatively inexpensive and competitive source of energy. “The important thing is to give people a sense of what’s out there, to let them know the scope of such possibilities,” he says.

The Washington, D.C.-based EPI wants to raise public awareness through the media, and Brown is doing just that, with the help of his small core of six staff and four board members. “The media is the only institution that has the capacity in the time available to quickly disseminate information to guide the transition to a sustainable economy,” he says.

Since the publication of Eco-Economy: Building an Economy for the Earth last year, excerpts have been printed in newspapers and magazines globally. EPI’s eco-economy updates, which can be found on the group’s website, are in constant reprint in publications throughout the world and are mailed out to a faithful following of 7,000, plus a press list 2,000-strong. EPI is working on developing relations with BBC, Voice of America and CNN, and has been able to work with the Associated Press World Service and various networks such as NPR and ABC.

Brown himself has just returned from a multi-country journey, the purpose of which was, of course, to raise public awareness. And these trips are succeeding. For example, the Xinhua News Agency, the Chinese government’s official news source, closely follows Brown and EPI’s ongoing publications.

A recent EPI eco-economy update covers environmental tax reform, which, according to the Center for a Sustainable Economy (CSE), refers to “measures that use the revenue from taxes on pollution or natural resource depletion to lower taxes on valuable economic activities, such as employment or investment.” The idea is to lessen such burdens as taxes on personal income, payroll, property and sales by shifting the weight of these costs onto products and activities that harm the environment—for example, a tax on pesticides or carbon dioxide emissions. Carbon emissions is one area that Brown says has not been a bright spot in current trends because of the lackluster efforts of the U.S.—and, indeed, of the world as a whole—to control the use of dirty fossil fuels.

Since 1990, eight European countries, namely Denmark, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom, have passed environmental tax reforms. Denmark, for example, has raised taxes on carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide emissions, which has resulted in more than a seven and 24 percent respective decrease in the gases. Revenue raised has allowed cuts in the personal income and public education taxes.

Although the U.S. is just beginning to give notice to tax shifting, several states, especially in the Northwest, have begun to call for tax reform. The Legal Environmental Assistance Foundation, a nonprofit public interest law firm focused on environmental issues, is currently investigating clean energy and tax-shifting possibilities in Florida, using the state’s dependency on tourism and its subsequent money shortfalls from September 11, 2001 to create opportunities and educate the public. According to EPI staff researcher Bernie Fischlowitz-Roberts, tax shifting thus far accounts for only three percent of tax revenues worldwide. But as small as this percentage is, many are nonetheless encouraged and agree with J. Andrew Hoerner, director of research for CSE, who believes, “Environmental tax reform is the most flexible, least-cost approach to solving the climate problem. The European example shows that it is possible to use a market-based approach to reduce greenhouse gas emissions without harming the economy.”

Brown’s hope is that once the reforms and their benefits have been made known to the public, general interest and action will snowball as a result. In making his own appraisal of the current state of the global environmental situation and the ever-present possibility of major reform, Brown quickly draws parallels, explaining that when society crosses a certain threshold, social change can come quickly and unexpectedly. “With the Berlin Wall and the American tobacco industry, many people wanted radical change to happen for a long time, but despite the workings of certain organizations and individuals, not much occurred. Then one day, people just woke up and realized the current system could no longer function and that drastic change was inevitable,” he says.

Brown is optimistic that the same process will occur with climate change, which is gradually receiving more press coverage as the situation deteriorates. Brown says, “I”m always hopeful. Everyday I wake up excited and come to work early thinking, “Today might be the day.”” He believes strongly that a crisis is looming, and that we will no longer be able to ignore it. The question is simply whether or not we”ll move fast enough.