Lester Brown's plan to stop climate change | The Optimist Daily
Today’s Solutions: June 21, 2024

Pioneering environmentalist Lester Brown has a plan to stop climate change, and save civilization in the process.

Marco Visscher | June/July 2009 issue

Lester Brown has always been skilled at taking the lay of the land. As a teenager, he grew tomatoes in New Jersey and went on to earn a degree in agricultural science, which he put to use by becoming an analyst with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 1974, Brown founded the Worldwatch Institute, a research center aimed at promoting “ideas that empower decision-makers to build an ecologically sustainable society.” Brown has led the debate on everything from deforestation to food shortages through the Worldwatch Institute’s annual State of the World reports. In 2001, he founded the Earth Policy Institute to provide a practical vision of a sustainable future. He has written many books, most recently Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, Third Edition

You started publishing the State of the World reports in the 1970s. So what’s the state of the world today?

“We’re seeing eroding soils, falling water tables, collapsing fisheries, shrinking forests, expanding deserts and deteriorating grasslands. We’re also seeing rising temperatures, which affect crop yields and lead to rising sea levels and an accelerated melting of the glaciers in the mountains—particularly in the mountains of Asia and on the Tibetan plateau. If we lose those glaciers, major river systems and irrigation systems will become disrupted and the harvest of wheat and rice in countries like India and China will be reduced. Such trends come on top of a new trend: the growing number of hungry and malnourished people. For most of our lifetimes, that number was declining, but now it’s going up. That’s the most disturbing socio-economic trend in the world. We may be in an economic crisis that has resulted from the breakdown of the financial system, but we’re heading for a much more serious crisis as a result of the breakdown of the economy’s natural support systems.”

What are the potential political consequences of such a crisis?

“With the dramatic rise in wheat, rice, corn and soybean prices in the last few years, we’re already seeing more political instability in a number of countries and a growing global sense of food insecurity in the importing countries. Because the food sector is the one most affected by the deterioration of the natural support systems, we’ll see more of this. Since there will be more failing states as a result of food scarcity, the question arises: How long will it take before we have a failing civilization?”

The end of civilization? Sounds extreme.

“I often read the latest reports and journal articles on earlier civilizations that declined and collapsed to try to better understand how it happened. More often than not, it was food shortages that brought down the earlier civilizations whose archaeological sites we study. We can now see the same thing again. It’s hard to grasp because throughout our lifetimes we have lived in a world where, on average, food production has always been increasing. And let’s not forget the likelihood that peak oil is on our doorsteps. Suddenly, we’re going to live in a world where both food production and oil production are declining—and it’s going to be a very different world. No country can get more food or oil unless another gets less.”

How do we avoid that scenario?

“You don’t have to be a genius to understand that if these negative environmental trends continue, and we go on with business as usual, we’re toast. The energy guru Amory Lovins [chairman of the Rocky Mountains Institute] was once asked about how to think outside the box, and he said, ‘There is no box.’ That’s exactly the thinking we need to deal with these new problems. The kind of thinking that got us into the mess we are in is not the kind of thinking that is going to get us out. The exciting thing is that we are beginning to see people think about renewable sources of energy on a scale that we have never seen before. I find that very exciting.”

Can you give an example?

“Texas, which for the last century has been the leading source of oil in the U.S., is now our leading generator of electricity from wind. What we have in operation, under construction and under development is at least 45,000 megawatts of wind-generating capacity. Think 45 coal-fired power plants. I mean, this is huge. We’ve never seen thinking on this scale before in either the fossil fuels or with nuclear power. When these wind farms are finished, they will produce more energy than the 24 million people in Texas can consume. Soon, Texas will be exporting wind-generated electricity. Just years ago, this was unthinkable.”

You mean, change is accelerating.

“Yes, and we know so much more. Hardly a month goes by that we don’t discover a new effect of climate change or find evidence that some things we could see only vaguely in the past are becoming much clearer. Take rising sea levels. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report of a couple years ago mentioned that during this century, sea levels would rise by something like a foot and a half. The most recent reports are saying it could be five feet by the end of this century. There’s a big difference in how you think about a problem. With each new report, it seems the problem is more serious and more threatening than we realize. So we need a continual updating of how serious the problems are, and of how we are addressing them. Ultimately, we need to be focusing on solutions so we can provide people with a sense of what can be done.”

If you could introduce one piece of worldwide legislation, what would it be?

“It would be a restructuring of tax systems—not a change in the amount of tax, but a reduction of income taxes combined with a rise in the carbon tax. By doing that, we would tell the market the environmental truth. After all, the costs of climate change, of burning fossil fuels, of damage from acid rain, of breathing polluted air on health care and so forth would be reflected in the increase in the carbon tax. That’s crucial. I think it was Oystein Dahle, a former vice-president of Exxon in Norway, who once said that socialism collapsed because it did not allow the market to tell the economic truth and that capitalism may collapse because it does not allow the market to tell the ecological truth. In that pithy statement, he summed up a key issue we’re facing in the world today.”

State of the World Forum

Lester Brown, together with other leading thinkers and innovators, will speak at the State of the World Forum, a three-day conference taking place from November 12th to 14th in Washington, D.C. The State of the World Forum was established in 1995 to create a global leadership network committed to discerning and implementing those principles, values and actions necessary to guide humanity wisely as it gives shape to an increasingly global and interdependent world. In Washington, the Forum will launch a 10-year Global Transition Initiative to green the global economy. Over the next few months, Ode will profile some of the 2009 Forum participants. For our profile of Ken Wilber, another Forum speaker, go to odemagazine.com/wilber. To find out more about the State of the World Forum, go to worldforum.org.
Interview by Marco Visscher, Ode’s managing editor.

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