Gary Gardner and Thomas Prugh

To critique the dominant economic system of the twentieth century would seem a fool's errand, given the unprecedented comfort, convenience, and opportunity delivered by the world economy over the past 100 years. Global economic output surged some 18fold between 1900 and 2000 (and reached $66 trillion in 2006). Life expectancy leaped ahead—in the United States, from 47 to nearly 76 years—as killer diseases such as pneumonia and tuberculosis were largely tamed. And labor-saving machines from tractors to backhoes virtually eliminated toil in wealthy countries, while cars, aircraft, computers, and cell phones opened up stimulating work and lifestyle options. The wonders of the system appear self-evident.1

Yet for all its successes, other signals suggest that the conventional economic system is in serious trouble and in need of transformation. Consider the following side effects of modern economic activity that made headlines in the past 18 months: • Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are at their highest level in 650,000 years, the average temperature of Earth is "heading for levels not experienced for millions of years," and the Arctic Ocean could be icefree during the summer as early as 2020.

• Nearly one in six species of European mammals is threatened with extinction, and all currently fished marine species could collapse by 2050.

• The number of oxygen-depleted dead zones in the world's oceans has increased from 149 to 200 in the past two years, threatening fish stocks.

• Urban air pollution causes 2 million premature deaths each year, mostly in developing countries.

• The decline of bees, bats, and other vital pollinators across North America is jeopardizing agricultural crops and ecosystems.

• The notion of an approaching peak in the world's production of oil, the most important primary source of energy, has gone from an alarming speculation to essentially conventional wisdom; the mainstream World Energy Council recently predicted that the peak would arrive within 15 years.2

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