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Noted Environmentalist Addresses Graduate Degree Candidates
(Released: 05/20/01)

By Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu, Office of University Communications

STORRS, Conn. -- The global economy must be restructured, if economic progress is to continue, according to an internationally renowned environmentalist.

Speaking during the University of Connecticut's graduate school ceremonies at Storrs this afternoon, Lester R. Brown, founder and chair of the board of the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington-based non-profit research institute devoted to the analysis of global environmental issues, urged about 1,200 master's and doctoral degree candidates "To work together to build a new economy."

The economy Brown envisages would respect rather than destroy the environment.

Brown, who is president of the newly established Earth Policy Institute, said the world is today in need of a shift in world view as radical as that of the 16th-century scholar, Copernicus, who proposed the then "rather radical idea" that the earth revolves around the sun.

"Most of us," he told the graduates and their families, "think the environment is part of the economy. In reality, the economy is part of the environment. Unless we understand the need to make this shift, it is difficult to develop an economy that's compatible with the earth's ecosystem."

Brown said deforestation, expanding deserts, soil erosion, disappearing species and increased pollution are all "symptoms of growing stress between the economy and the ecosystem of which it is a part. "And he emphasized that the problems are having a global effect that is unprecedented in world history.

He said around the world, the demand for water is outrunning the sustainable supply. Countries experiencing severe shortages are diverting water from agriculture to the cities and, as a result, have to import grain from other nations. "Water shortages are going to be crossing national boundaries in ways we have not seen before," he said.

He also recalled that when a ship reached the North Pole last year, it found not snow and ice but water. Had the early Arctic explorers been trying to reach the North Pole this year, he said, "they would have had to swim the last few miles."

Melting ice is likely to have a significant impact on sea levels around the world, he said. "We're looking at a future that is very different from anything since agriculture began," he added.

Brown advocated a new approach that would allow economic progress to continue without destroying environmental support systems. This "eco-economy" would, for example, tap into wind power to generate electricity. Once sufficient cheap electricity is produced, he said, it can be used to produce hydrogen, the fuel of choice for a new fuel cell economy.

This approach will enable the economy to make "The transition from the fossil fuel age to the age of renewable energy," he said. "We now have within sight, within our lifetimes, the possibility of ending our overdependence on Middle East oil," he said.

Brown said there are hidden costs in the use of fossil fuel, such as the cost of providing health care to those whose health is damaged by pollution. He advocated restructuring the tax system by lowering the income tax and raising taxes on environmentally destructive activities.

In order to achieve a new economy of the type he envisions, a "major shift in thinking"is required, Brown said.

But, he suggested, it is well worth the effort. "The new economy is exciting," he said. "It is about building something that can endure, rather than an economy that can eventually self-destruct."

During the ceremony, Brown received an honorary Doctor of Science degree.

Among those receiving graduate degrees this year was a cohort of 54 Pharm.D. students, the first class to graduate from UConn's new, six-year professional degree program in pharmacy.

A number of the graduating students, as well as some of the attending faculty who earned their doctorates from UConn, were sporting new graduate gowns for the first time. The gowns, distinctive academic regalia specific to UConn, are of deep navy blue wool and velveteen, with an oak-leaf symbol embroidered in gold on each front panel. The gowns are complemented by navy blue caps, and dark blue hoods edged in the color appropriate to the particular academic degree.

Also during the ceremony, four UConn faculty were honored for their research: Robin Cote, an assistant professor of physics; Margaret Gilbert, a professor of philosophy; Steven Suib, a professor of chemistry; and Peter Turchin, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.

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