Lester R. Brown's Plan B: Rescuing a Planet
under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble

by John Blunt

Book Review

July 19, 2004   

Pic: Cover photo of 'Plan B: Rescuing a Planet<br>under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble' - size: 6k

Lester R. Brown, PLAN B: Rescuing a Planet under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble, W.W. Norton, New York, 2004; ISBN: 0-393-32523-7 (pbk): 285 pages, $15.95.

(Swans - July 19, 2004)  This just in from the Pentagon:
"If abrupt climate change is on the way, the driving force will probably be a great ocean current one scientist calls the 'Achilles' Heel of our climate system.' The current, known as the Great Conveyor, sweeps north through the Atlantic, carrying warmth from the tropics to the eastern U.S. and northern Europe before looping south. If the current shuts down -- which apparently can occur rapidly during times of global warming -- the huge heat pump goes off, potentially causing drastic weather change in just a few years."

"Scientists used to think that major climate changes, like the onset of an ice age, took thousands of years to unfold. Now they know [after studying temperature indicators embedded in ancient layers of Arctic ice] such dramatic transitions can occur in less than a decade. Global warming is likely pushing the climate to a tipping point -- like a canoe that's gradually tipped until it flips over."

"Their findings predict that at first the changes will be easily mistaken for normal weather variation -- allowing skeptics to dismiss them as a 'blip' of little importance. But by 2020, there could be little doubt that something drastic is happening."

"In the scenario, Megadroughts will afflict the U.S., especially in the southern states, along with winds 15% stronger than average, causing widespread dust storms and soil loss. Turning inward, it will seek to build a fortress around itself to protect its resources. Borders are strengthened to hold back starving immigrants from Mexico, South America, and the Caribbean. Tensions rise when the U.S. reneges on the 1944 treaty that guarantees water flow from the Colorado River into Mexico. America is forced to meet its rising energy demand with nuclear power and onerous Middle Eastern [oil] contracts. Yet it survives without catastrophic losses."

"Europe, hardest hit by the temperature drop, struggles to deal with [mass] immigration from Scandinavia. Southern Europe is beleaguered by refugees from Africa and elsewhere. But Western Europe's wealth helps buffer it from catastrophe."

"China's huge population and food demands make it particularly vulnerable to increasingly unpredictable monsoon rains, which cause devastating floods in drought denuded areas. Bangladesh becomes nearly uninhabitable because of rising sea levels, which contaminates inland water supplies. India and Indonesia are hard pressed to maintain internal order while coping with the unfolding changes."

"As the decade progresses, facing starvation, nations start raiding. Eastern Europe invades Russia from the west, and Japan from the east, for access to its mineral and energy supplies. Nuclear-armed Pakistan, India, and China skirmish at the borders over refugees, shared rivers, and diminishing arable land. Oil supply is stretched thin by falling temperatures. Many more countries seek atomic power, making widespread nuclear proliferation inevitable."

"As the planets 'carrying capacity' shrinks, ancient patterns reemerge with the eruption of desperate, all out wars over food, water, and energy supplies. Warfare, again, as in centuries past, comes to define human existence"
This study, which was assigned last year by Donald Rumsfeld to long time Department of Defense (DOD) intelligence guru Andrew Marshall, the balding, bespectacled, "yoda" of Pentagon policy, was shared with Fortune Magazine for its February, 9th David Stipp article titled "The Pentagon's Weather Nightmare." Since the article's publication, the report has created quite a buzz in international circles. Not only for its content, (which is dire), but for the fact that DOD Intelligence seems to be the only official Washington institution willing to accept Global Warming as an inevitable fact.

So now let's talk about Lester Brown's book.

I was introduced to Lester Brown in February, shortly after reading the Stipp article. He presented his book in a forum event I was invited to that inaugurated the new Schuyler Lecture Fund at the UC Santa Barbara School for Environmental Studies.

Lester Brown began developing environmental policy fresh out of school in the Eisenhower administration, when the concept was still pretty ethereal. He has been, ever since, among the vanguard of the movement since Rachel Carson's Silent Spring was published 40 years ago and marked the birth of modern environmentalism. Most people are familiar with him through the World Watch Institute, which he founded in 1974 to publish his research bimonthly in WorldWatch magazine, and his annual State of the World Report. In a revision of his work, he founded the Earth Policy Institute in 2001, whose stated mission is "providing a vision of an environmentally sustainable economy -- an eco-economy -- as well as a road map of how to get from here to there." In fact, what becomes clear as you penetrate his book, is that Mr. Brown has been steadily moving the environmental cause from the ideological rant of a minority fringe, to the mainstream of global economics.

The book's presentation is very well crafted. Mr. Browns's experience publishing nearly 30 books in policy making has schooled him wisely in the powers of organization. Nearly every argument and supporting case is concisely introduced and summarized in the book's opening and closing dozen or two dozen pages. I'm sure this discipline was sharpened by a long career in Washington where fellow policy makers usually only read these two sections anyway. However, the construction throughout is compact, and the language respectfully conversational; making passages easy to read aloud, (which, of course, we are all prone to do when gettin' the Jesus of new policy ideas).

As with any successful narrative, the payoff of "Plan B" comes with a setup. "Plan A" refers to the long evolution of status quo policies on the global environment and world economy. Everywhere in the book the environment is framed in the language of economics. This is to erase abstractions that serve to falsely separate the two. The economy, insists Brown, cannot be abstracted from the environment anymore than money can be abstracted from the central bank. Ultimately, all currencies trade in the market of the earth's abundance.

Under the heading "A Civilization in Trouble" he details how a history of stress to the planet's water, soil and air systems has begun to challenge international politics, and human survival. (Interestingly, rather than discuss the relative health and/or illness of the planet, he focuses instead on the health and/or illness of the planet's ability to fulfill civilizations many needs. Nowhere does Lester argue that global drought, or planetary wildfire, or the return to a sudden ice age might be harmful to the planet. That view would characterize, instead, the human ideological perspective of "environmentalism" that has been gridlocked against "free market" advocates since that battle began.)

Analysis of the global water, soil and air systems leads the reader from an evaluation of our current overtaxation of natural resources to its implied future for civilization once those systems begin to collapse. Some of the same projections were used by the researchers of the Pentagon report excerpted above.

First, the book examines falling aquifers. Not just scattered local aquifers, but vast regional, even continental aquifers. Drilling, across the globe, has steadily deepened over recent decades as over-pumping exceeds the rate of their natural replenishment. Water tables in many key areas are more than a mile deep now, depths near the bottoms of their natural pools, or at the end of our technological means to retrieve them economically.

Vast food supplies are generated in these areas, supporting whole continental populations. The effects of these kinds of shortfalls are already beginning to appear. For instance, wheat production in Northern China, which peaked at 392 million tons in 1998, has fallen back to 338 million tons in 2003, and is still dropping. That 50 million ton drop is equal to the entire annual Canadian wheat harvest. As aquifers across the planet are being drained relatively quickly, it's natural to assume that water systems may start to dry up in a cascade, making it impossible to offset losses with foreign supplies.

Brown explains,
"Throughout history, humans have lived on the earth's sustainable yield -- the interest from its natural endowment. But now we are consuming the endowment. In ecology, as in economics, we can consume principal along with interest in the short run, but in the long run it leads to bankruptcy."

"In 2002, a team of scientists led by Mathis Wackernagel, an analyst at Redefining Progress, concluded that humanity's collective demands first surpassed the earth's regenerative capacity around 1980. Their study, published by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, estimated that demands in 1999 exceeded that capacity by 20 percent. We are satisfying our excessive demands by consuming the earth's natural assets, in effect creating a global bubble economy."
Once again, due to Brown's superb organization and layout of his arguments, it's easy from this point to either read in depth about the ensuing deforestation and overgrazing of land, leading to accelerated top soil erosion, or to skim more lightly over this material if you're already familiar with these studies -- which leads you on to atmospheric systems increasingly unable to absorb growing greenhouse gases, which exacerbates global warming, and/or global cooling -- reducing arable lands to deserts, which are subject to larger scale dust storm soil erosion, which exacerbates greenhouse gases, which puts more demand on collapsing aquifers, on and on...

Brown closes this section with how the syndrome is compounded when these environmental shifts put such great strain on national economies that much larger populations are driven into desperate poverty and hunger, further burdened by rising disease -- such as HIV, and illiteracy.

All in all, "Plan A" is nasty business, and a very bad future, indeed. All the more reason to move with haste into the second half of the book, "the payoff" of PLAN B!

The brilliance in Lester Brown's vision for returning the world to an eco-environmentally sustainable future doesn't lay so much in the rudimentary policy actions necessary for reversing the overuse of water, misuse of arable lands, or poisoning of the air, (though he does diligently spell those measures out in fairly exacting and pragmatic detail). The brilliance is in the devices of economic reform he advocates that will bring those changes about.

The conditions that have caused our collective societies to plunder the earth's resources have not been driven so much by destitute morality, misinformed values, or even rampant greed, (though, certainly, the halls of our governments and courthouses have rung out with these accusations for many years). The cause, more simply, is that we have engineered a global market place that has so blindly incentivized our overconsumption of resources, that no amount of wisdom or good intent can possibly stem the tide.

Brown explains it this way:
"The key to restructuring the economy is the creation of an honest market, one that tells the ecological truth. The market is an incredible institution-- with some remarkable strengths and some glaring weaknesses. It allocates scarce resources with an efficiency no central planning body can match. It easily balances supply and demand and sets prices that readily reflect both scarcity and abundance. The market does not, however, incorporate the indirect costs of providing good and services, it does not properly value nature's services, and it does not respect the sustainable-yield thresholds of natural systems such as fisheries, forests, range lands, and aquifers."

"As the global economy has expanded and as technology has evolved, the indirect costs of some products have far exceeded their fixed cost on the market. The price of a gallon of gasoline, for instance, reflects the cost of production but not the expense of treating respiratory illness or the repair bill for acid rain. Nor does it cover the cost of rising global temperature, melting ice caps, more destructive storms, or the relocation of millions of refugees forced from their homes by rising seas. As the market is now organized, the motorist burning the gasoline does not bear these costs."

"Something is wrong. Unfortunately we have a faulty economic accounting system at the global level. Economic prosperity is achieved in part by running up ecological deficits, costs that do not show up on the books, but costs someone will eventually have to pay."
In another example, he cites a 2002 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study that fixed the real cost of cigarettes at $7.18 a pack. The issue is not whether that additional cost is paid, because it is, by someone; employers and taxpayers who fund Medicare.

These are fairly microcosmic examples. On larger scales, for instance, if real costs were fixed to more global resources, like Colorado River irrigation water, (which is relatively free), then rice farming in Nevada would be transferred to regions that can naturally sustain them.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has been discussing this for years. At the West Virginia Conference on the Environment at the University of Charleston, October 18, 2001 he said:
"Economic prosperity versus environmental protection is a false choice. We measure how the economy functions but not the dignity of the jobs. We treat the planet as if it's in liquidation. Environmental injury is deficit spending and loaded onto the backs of future generations."

"I'm the biggest advocate there is of the free market. However, we don't have a free market. Polluters evade the free market by making themselves rich at the expense of us. They destroy the value of the asset and rob value from communities."

"There have been huge subsidies for the nuclear power industry. But what are you going to do with these plants and their waste in 30 years? Now the cost is falling on the American public. It's the biggest subsidy ever."

"True free market capitalism would be the best thing for the environment. Show me a polluter and I'll show you a subsidy. They're industrial fat cats using their political pull to get subsidies and avoid the discipline of the free market."
Much of the answer, argues Brown, is in a new program called "Tax Shifting" -- which is a concept currently being implemented incrementally in many European countries. Fairness is achieved by abolishing income taxes that are offset by user taxes. In this way, real costs of the products we consume become transparent, and therefore, naturally correct a market place that artificially incentivizes unsustainable consumption. Already these nations are showing declines in wasteful energy and water use.

Mr. Brown asserts that to reverse the catastrophic fate he details in the status quo "PLAN A" course we are now careening, (not to mention the fate described in the Pentagon report), a WWII war effort has to be implemented internationally. Our first duty is to our educational institutions, and especially to those schools of economics that have populated our free market institutions to date. Consciousness has to be raised, and new accounting systems must established that measure and fix the real values of our natural resources.

As with the first half of the book, special care is given to all the comprehensive steps needed to lead us back to a harmonious existence together on the planet, from population control, to deep reforms in water allocation, to land use, and atmospheric policies. These measures also promise to advance many of our other immediate fixations, like moving to sustainable energy resources to avoid prolonged dependence on Mideast oil, and the oppression of peoples who threaten us today with terrorism.

Admittedly, I find I'm most drawn to the economic reforms. It appears to me the additional benefits of this new accounting are difficult to overestimate. Surely social policy making would be greatly enhanced if we could avert our current ideological gridlock by being guided instead by the real economic costs of poverty and crime, and the real value of education and health care -- in the same way we might reform the value of the planet's water, land and air resources. These are practices, I suspect, that could profoundly transform the governance of our Republic. I find this aspect of his book extremely compelling.

Two years ago I bought a couple dozen copies of Eric Schlossers's Fast Food Nation, and passed them out to friends and colleagues everywhere. Not so much for its exposé of the hamburger industry, but for its deconstruction of the entire franchise retail machine, and especially in how they maximize profits by offsetting the larger social costs inflicted on the society by their business practices. Likewise, I will recommend and pass out copies of Lester Brown's PLAN B: Rescuing a Planet under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble, not only for its face-on confrontation of the fate of our planet, should we continue to resign ourselves to the status quo -- but for the far reaching implications of the solutions he provides, to our democracy and society -- and our planet -- as a whole. It's the road map that gets us from here to there.

Lester R. Brown, PLAN B: Rescuing a Planet under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble, W.W. Norton, New York, 2004; ISBN: 0-393-32523-7 (pbk): 285 pages, $15.95.

The book can be ordered from your local independent bookstore through Booksense.
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John Blunt is an artist and a carpenter who lives in Oakland, California.

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Published July 19, 2004
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