First off, a disclaimer: Lester Brown has been a hero of mine (and featured on TreeHugger TV interviews as well as posting himself on climate refugees) at least since 2003, when in front of a gathering of sustainability experts in a Portland conference room I asked him why he didn't help us all out and run for U.S. president. Brown laughed with the rest of the crowd, then moved right on to the next question. He obviously had a much bigger agenda in mind - such as saving the entire planet.
At that time, Brown was just publishing the book Plan B, which in its first edition was subtitled "Rescuing A Planet Under Stress And A Civilization In Trouble." In that first and subsequent two editions Brown does a commendable job of spelling out and interconnecting all the stresses on the Earth - eroding soils, falling water tables, rising temperatures, poverty and population pressures. After all, as president of the Earth Policy Institute (and founder and former leader of Worldwatch Institute) Brown has been studying the big picture for a while. By the time Brown updated Plan B to version 3.0 this year, however, the subtitle had changed to "Mobilizing to Save Civilization." Why the change? Well, unfortunately, the complex picture of the Earth's vital signs has continued to worsen, Brown explains. In studying the relationship between the economy and the environment he says the list of "failing states" - i.e. countries whose governments cannot cope with its basic responsibilities - such as ensuring personal security and providing social services - is expanding alarmingly. Brown asks in Plan B 3.0 how many failing states it will take before the entire fabric of civilization starts to unravel.
Brown is impassioned and convincing when talking about the world's ills and what he considers the four great goals to restoring civilization's equilibrium: stabilizing climate (he believes the magic number to cut greenhouse gas emissions is 80 percent by 2020), stabilizing population, eradicating poverty and restoring the world's damaged ecosystems. These four goals are interdependent, Brown says - failure to reach one means the others are also at risk.
But as a reader, by the time you've gotten through the depressing first portion of Plan B and are ready for the plan, Brown's prescriptions, while logical and well-stated, initially don't seem radical enough. Eating lower on the food chain, switching to compact fluorescent bulbs, planting trees - those are the types of actions lots of treehuggers have already taken. And Brown is depending on governments (and in record-fast, WWII-style mobilization time frames) to summon up that ever-scarcer commodity, political will, to get the rest of the job done - from instituting $20 per ton carbon taxes to banning deforestation to rapidly ramping up the clean energy revolution. When thinkers (no matter how admired) mention political will, my alarm bells start ringing. The 2008 candidates for U.S. president - Republican or Democrat - seem hardly to acknowledge any of the interconnected, scary picture Brown paints. So far, for example, the top Sunday news hosts have asked the candidates nearly 3,000 policy questions, and mentioned global warming just six times (see whataretheywaitingfor.com).
There are also a few bright spots. Brown sees wind energy supplying 40 percent of the world's energy needs - he envisions 1.5 million turbines being erected worldwide over the next dozen years - and wind is growing fast and furiously, especially in the U.S., hampered mostly only by its own turbine supply issues. And Brown doesn't rely on any future gee-whiz techno breakthroughs to get the job done. So perhaps his message of depressing global vital signs with still-cheerful optimism about mobilizing us all is exactly the right prescription, and just needs its own tipping point into the mainstream to work.
::Download the book here, or click through to Earth Policy Institute.
[Update: Earth Policy Institute now has all of the backup data for Plan B 3.0 posted online--which the institute calls a "data mine for folks who enjoy numbers."]