Anyone who has read any of the 50-plus books that Lester Brown has authored or co-authored (in any of the 40-odd languages into which they’ve been translated) might easily imagine him to be another gloomy environmentalist.
At least that was the kind of person I half-expected to encounter when we met at his invitation for breakfast with Junko Edahiro earlier this month in Tokyo.
Brown — whose latest book, 2011’s “World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse,” has just come out in Japanese — is president of the Washington- based Earth Policy Institute and one of the world’s top environmental policy experts.
Edahiro, a long-time colleague of Brown, is a well-known environmental journalist whose insights on Japan’s energy situation will be covered in this column next month.
Contrary to my expectation, Brown turned out to be humorous and entertaining — as well as a visionary intimately conversant with the facts and figures to support his concerns and policy suggestions. He was especially sanguine about developments in the United States, in particular the recent campaign to close its coal-fired power plants.
“This may be the most important thing happening in the world of climate, because the U.S. is the world’s largest economy, and if the largest economy stops using coal that’s a huge step forward,” said Brown.
In particular he was heartened that Michael Bloomberg, billionaire mayor of New York City, has made a $50-million contribution to the Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal” campaign. The Sierra organization is one of America’s oldest and most influential environmental NGOs.
“When Bloomberg lays $50 million on the table and says ‘Coal has got to go,’ he reaches people that environmentalists can’t. He’s one of the most successful businessmen of his generation, so this kind of action is exciting,” Brown observed.
But Brown is excited about more than just the death of coal.
“More fundamentally, carbon emissions in the U.S. are declining. They have dropped 7 percent in the last four years. That started out as a result of the economic downturn, but it’s continuing. The two principal sources of carbon emissions are coal plants and burning gasoline, and we’re making enormous progress on both fronts,” he noted.
New regulations are one source of change and people’s preferences are another, according to Brown. “Fuel-efficiency standards are going up. The ones now on the books mean that new cars sold in 2025 will use half as much gasoline as cars made in 2010. In fact, cars in 2025 will have to average 56 miles per gallon [23.8 km per liter], and today’s Toyota Prius is rated at 50 mpg [21.3 kpl], so the new standards are pretty ambitious,” Brown explained.
At the individual level, too, the demographics of automobile use are changing, he noted. “The number of cars in the U.S. is actually beginning to decline, and even if it’s only by 2 or 3 percent it’s a trend. Young people are not part of the car culture in the same way older generations were, when cars were part of our socializing. Now young people socialize with smartphones and the Internet,” he observed.
“On the other end of the age spectrum, the baby boomers are beginning to retire, and when people retire their gasoline consumption drops between 30 and 50 percent because they end their daily commute,” he pointed out.
“I’m really bullish on the potential for cutting carbon emissions, and I don’t think the analysts have picked up on this yet, partly because they deal with economic models — so they miss some social trends,” Brown added.
“Once it becomes clear that the U.S. is cutting its carbon emissions at a pretty substantial rate — a reversal of direction which is not the common view the world has of the U.S., or indeed Americans have — I think that’s going to affect how the world thinks. It will change perceptions worldwide.”
Brown is also very bullish about wind power, which he sees scaling up quickly across the U.S., Europe and China.
“Three states in northern Germany have between 40 and 60 percent of their energy coming from wind. Two U.S. states — Iowa and South Dakota — are at 20 percent and climbing. Texas, too, is about to take off with a new transmission line slated to be finished in a year or so,” he noted.
In China, especially, Brown sees the potential of wind being realized. “There are eight new mega-complexes being built in China today and they will average nearly 20,000 megawatts. The largest will generate 38,000 MW, and when it is completed it will produce enough electricity to supply a country the size of Poland,” he explained. In comparison, the largest coal-burning plants generate up to 5,000 MW — while nuclear power facilities might reach 7,000 MW.
Nuclear, though, Brown sees declining worldwide. “The economics of nuclear energy are really becoming difficult as the real, full costs are being realized. Most people don’t realize that the nuclear industry has almost disappeared, so when you want to build a plant you have to search to find the people with skills, the parts, the manufacturing needed. That’s one reason why costs are going up. There just aren’t many plants being built in the West, and there’s not much of an industry to do that sort of construction,” he pointed out.
On other fronts, though, bad news prevails. Brown has crunched the numbers and his latest book lays out the very serious challenges we face as our economic system continues driving Earth into bio-bankruptcy.
“No previous civilization has survived the ongoing destruction of its natural supports. Nor will ours. Yet economists look at the future through a different lens,” he writes.
“A century ago, annual growth in the world economy was measured in the billons of dollars. Today, it is measured in trillions. In the eyes of mainstream economists, the world has not only an illustrious economic past but also a promising future,” says Brown, pointing out the ironic and dangerous divergence we face, with the planet’s vital signs plummeting while global economic indicators continue to climb.
“The market, which sets prices, is not telling us the truth. It is omitting indirect costs that in some cases now dwarf direct costs. Consider gasoline: Pumping oil, refining it into gasoline and delivering the gas to U.S. service stations may cost, say, $3 per gallon. The indirect costs, including climate change, the treatment of respiratory illnesses, oil spills and the U.S. military presence in the Middle East to ensure access to the oil, total $12 per gallon. Similar calculations can be done for coal,” he writes.
“Mainstream economics pays little attention to the sustainable-yield thresholds of the Earth’s natural systems. … How can we assume that the growth of an economic system that is shrinking the Earth’s forests, eroding its soils, depleting its aquifers, collapsing its fisheries, elevating its temperature and melting its ice sheets can simply be projected into the long-term future? What is the intellectual process underpinning these extrapolations?” Brown asks.
The answer is that we are a society in denial; one that’s out of touch with the reality of the ecosystems that underpin our economic survival.
“Judging by the archeological records of earlier civilizations, more often than not food shortages appear to have precipitated their decline and collapse. Given the advances of modern agriculture, I had long rejected the idea that food could be the weak link in our 21st-century civilization. Today, I think not only that it could be the weak link — but that it is the weak link,” Brown writes.
He expanded on this over breakfast, saying: “The world food-price index hit an all-time high a year ago, and has stayed up — and I think it is going to go higher. Meat prices are going up as grain prices rise. Food prices in China are up about 4.5 percent since a year ago.”
Soybeans are one commodity Brown watches closely. He noted that in 1995 China grew 14 million tons of them and consumed the same amount. In 2010, however, it again grew 14 million tons — but consumed 70 million tons.
“Partly as a result of this, in the western hemisphere today, there’s now more land in soybeans than any other crop — more than wheat, more than corn,” he noted.
This might help balance trade with China, but with increasing water shortages worldwide and climate changes impacting weather and agriculture, it is not surprising that Brown sees food as the weak link in global stability. Indeed, food and water have now become key national-security issues.
Brown’s book is divided into four sections. Parts I and II detail the causes and consequences of our deteriorating biosphere and the ecosystems we depend on. Part III lays out “Plan B” — Brown’s blueprint for a “fast shift away from business as usual.” Part IV is the prognosis for success.
The heart of the book, “Plan B,” has four components: “A massive cut in global carbon emissions of 80 percent by 2020; stabilization of the world population at no more than 8 billion by 2040; the eradication of poverty; and the restoration of forests, soils, aquifers and fisheries,” explains Brown.
Of these, dramatic cuts in carbon dioxide emissions seemed the least plausible until I read Brown’s plan, which calls for tax restructuring to systematically raise energy efficiency, restructure transportation and shift generation from fossil fuels to wind, solar and geothermal.
Inevitably, though, the key question is not whether we can cut CO2, but whether we have the collective wisdom, and political will, to recognize that we must do so.
“The situation in which we find ourselves pushes us to redefine security in 21st-century terms. … The threats now are climate volatility, spreading water shortages, continuing population growth, spreading hunger and failing states. The challenge is to devise new fiscal priorities that match these new security threats,” insists Brown.
“Can we move fast enough to avoid economic decline and collapse? Can we change direction before we go over the edge?” he writes.
A gloomy outlook, perhaps, but read the book. The threats we face are very real, but Brown has a cogent, achievable and optimistic blueprint for human sustainability on a global scale. In fact, this book should be required reading in schools worldwide; a primer for students of all ages and disciplines.
And when you finish reading it, pass it on — to your children, colleagues and political leaders. After all, what might seem to some like a pipe dream today is already showing signs of becoming the new reality.
Lester Brown’s book in Japanese is titled “Chikyu ni Nokosareta Jikan: Hachijuokunin wo Kibo ni Michibiku Saishu Shohosen.” For more about Brown and the Earth Policy Institute, visit www.earth-policy.org. Stephen Hesse is a professor in the Law Faculty of Chuo University and director of the Chuo International Center. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.