An independent research organization devoted to global environmental concerns, the Worldwatch Institute (WI) was founded in 1974 by economist and farmer Lester Brown, who holds a degree in agricultural science and has authored or co-authored more than 50 books on the environment. Working to “accelerate the transition to a sustainable world that meets human needs,” WI seeks to promote “universal access to renewable energy and nutritious food, expansion of environmentally sound jobs and development, transformation of cultures from consumerism to sustainability, and an early end to population growth through healthy and intentional childbearing.” According to WI's current president, Robert Engelman, human population growth contributes heavily to global warming and the decline of worldwide “sustainability.” As a possible remedy, Engelman suggests that “increasing women’s reproductive rights should be at the heart of the climate discussion, in the same basket as strategies like increasing energy efficiency and researching new technologies.”
WI currently administers 3 major program areas:
(1) The Climate & Energy program, proceeding from the premise that greenhouse gases emitted by human industrial activity are the chief causes of global warming, exhorts businesses and public officials alike to “de-carbonize the global economy ... and reduce local environmental pollution.”
(2) The Food & Agriculture program highlights the benefits that farmers, consumers, and ecosystems can uniformly derive from “food systems that are flexible enough to deal with shifting weather patterns, productive enough to meet the needs of expanding populations, and accessible enough to support rural communities.”
(3) The Environment & Society program explores “how we can ... shift today's economies, cultures, and societies toward sustainability.” Key to this effort will be the curtailment of industry and free-market consumerism.
In September 2011, WI released a special report titled Creating Sustainable Prosperity in the United States: The Need for Innovation and Leadership. This publication maintains that “U.S. output continues to be characterized by linear flows of materials, heavy dependence on fossil fuels, disregard for renewable resources, and resource use that is strongly connected to economic growth.” Adding that “environmental degradation and resource depletion threaten the capacity of the U.S. economy to generate wealth for the indefinite future,” the report warns that the country will “declin[e] into sustained impoverishment” if it fails to “steward its assets” in a responsible manner.
Such stewardship, says WI, will require a “thoughtful and strategic” set of national, state, and local policies that “essentially remake the economic playing field” under the following principles:
“Renewable resources cannot be consumed faster than they are regenerated.”
“Non-renewable resources must be reused or recycled to the greatest extent possible, creating a circular economy.”
“Ongoing development should focus less on ever-higher levels of consumption and more on increased quality of life.”
“A sense of fairness, especially around wealth distribution, is needed to generate social and economic stability across society.”
“Deceleration of population growth will make the creation of a sustainable economy far easier.”
Another key WI booklet, titled Green Jobs: Working for People and the Environment, contends that “green jobs”—i.e., employment which “contributes to protecting the environment and reducing humanity's carbon footprint”—will be a major economic driver of the 21st century. Such jobs, the publication says, will depend heavily on “massive and sustained investments in the public and private sectors” and will be ubiquitous in such industries as wind, solar, and biofuels. In addition, says WI:
Retrofitting existing buildings to make them more energy-efficient offers “huge job potential” for construction workers, architects, energy auditors, engineers, and others.
Substantial green employment opportunities exist in the development of bus rapid transit systems, and in retrofitting old diesel buses to reduce air pollutants.
Many green jobs will be available on small organic farms, which are “more labor- and knowledge-intensive” than agro-industrial farms.
Afforestation and reforestation projects will create a demand for large numbers of tree-planters.
"Efforts to adapt to, and cope with, climate change"—e.g., building flood barriers, terracing land, and rehabilitating wetlands—will also open up a host of job opportunities.
Many trainers will be needed to help workers get the education and qualifications that a new energy economy will require.
Green jobs, WI emphasizes, need to be “decent jobs” that offer “good wages,” “income security,” “dignity at work,” and “adequate workers' rights.”
WI is best known for its annual State of the World reports, which target political decision-makers and advisors with information on how environmental factors are shaping a “rapidly changing world.”
WI also disseminates its pro-sustainability message via its in-house publication, Vital Signs, which was launched in 1992 as a semi-annual report. Now available in an online format, Vital Signs today is an interactive, subscription-based tool that provides data on “sustainability trends” in various places around the world.
WI's global influence as an opinion-shaper is magnified by its network of more than 150 partners in 40 countries who translate the Institute's published work and present its findings to overseas government agencies and academic institutions.