Books: saving the planet while we still can

In the face of devastating climate change, Lester R. Brown rejects “business of usual” and spells out his updated plan for human survival. Maryann Bird reviews Plan B 3.0, a detailed path to sustainable economic progress.

Plan B 3.0 – Mobilising to Save Civilisation
Lester R. Brown
W W Norton & Company, 2008



Lester R. Brown doesn’t just write books about the environmental challenges facing the planet. He rewrites and updates them in a race both to keep up with the speed of changes and to persuade the world to pay attention before it is too late. Brown even acknowledges that there is “nothing sacred” about his “Plan B” (now issued in version 3.0 and due to be published in Chinese in June). It is simply his “best effort to lay out an alternative” to business as usual and that hopefully it “will help save our civilisation”.

It may already be too late, in the eyes of some environmentalists, including James Lovelock. But Brown is battling on to achieve his four overriding goals: to stabilise climate, stabilise population, eradicate poverty and restore the earth’s damaged ecosystems.

As if each of the four goals might not be enough of a challenge on its own, Brown says that failure to reach any one of these targets will likely mean the failure of all of them. And they all have to be undertaken simultaneously and quickly. It’s all or nothing.

Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, a Washington-based research organisation, has been exploring and analysing the interaction between global environmental and economic trends for more than four decades.

In his latest work — his second revised and expanded version of Plan B (published in 2003) — Brown notes that when his Plan B 2.0 went to press in 2006, “the data on ice melting were worrying. Now they are scary.” He adds: “Two years ago, we knew there were a number of failing states. Now we know that number is increasing each year. Failing states are an early sign of a failing civilisation. Two years ago there was early evidence that the potential for expanding oil production was much less than officially projected. Now, we know that peak oil could be on our doorstep.”

In the last two years alone, oil has doubled in price and the price of grain is – as Brown predicted – moving upward “toward its oil-equivalent value”.

Perhaps the most revealing difference between Plan B 2.0 and Plan B 3.0, Brown suggests, is the change in the book’s subtitle from “Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilisation in Trouble” to the snappier, more compelling “Mobilising to Save Civilisation”. The new subtitle reflects a shift, a toughening, in Brown’s thinking; it carries a bit less optimism and a lot more urgency. As he explains it, the revised wording “better reflects both the scale of the challenge we face and the wartime speed of the response it calls for.”

The challenge, argues Brown, is to construct a new economy, “one that is powered largely by renewable sources of energy, that has a highly diversified transport system, and that reuses and recycles everything. And to do it with unprecedented speed.”

Plan A – continuing with “business as usual” – is not an option on a resource-depleted planet in which (for example) China is expected to be consuming, by 2030, twice as much paper as the world produces now. If, in just over two decades, China has 1.46 billion people and 1.1 billion cars (three vehicles for every four people, as in the United States), the county will require 98 million barrels of oil each day. That is more oil than is currently produced in the world. Where would it come from?

In Brown’s words: “The western economic model – the fossil-fuel based, automobile-centred, throwaway economy – is not going to work for China. If it doesn’t work for China, it won’t work for India or the other 3 billion people in developing countries who are also dreaming the American dream. And in an increasingly integrated world economy, where we all depend on the same grain, oil and steel, it will not work for industrial countries either.”

“At the heart of the climate-stabilising initiative,” Brown writes, “is a detailed plan to cut carbon dioxide emissions 80% by 2020 in order to hold the global temperature rise to a minimum.” His initiative involves raising energy efficiency, developing renewable sources and expanding the earth’s forest cover.

Brown’s conclusions and solutions are stark and simple. Massive change is coming to the planet in a relatively short time period. The question is: will change come in a positive way because governments mobilise and restructure quickly, or in a negative way because they fail to act and civilisation begins to collapse?

“We are in a race between tipping points in nature and our political systems,” writes Brown. “Can we phase out coal-fired power plants before the melting of the Greenland ice sheet becomes irreversible? Can we gather the political will to halt deforestation in the Amazon before its growing vulnerability to fire takes it to the point of no return? Can we help countries stabilise population before they become failing states?”

The answers are unknown today, in 2008, and the future is genuinely frightening. It will take far too long, Brown argues, for the nations of the world to negotiate, ratify and enact a post-Kyoto international accord on carbon-emissions reduction. Individual countries need to act on their own, he argues, by boosting their use of renewable energy, sequestering vast amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2), expanding their forest cover and providing sustainable transport systems.

All of this requires — as has been argued often – political will to carry out. “But political will is a renewable resource,” said Al Gore, the former US vice president and environmental guru, in his Nobel lecture in December 2007. Such courage and leadership — coupled with the vision, technology and know-how about climate change that mankind already possesses may be able to head off the worst of what is to come in a warming world.

Elements of the new, sustainable economy that Brown envisions can be found around the world – in energy efficiency, in recycling, in hybrid vehicles, in innovative urban transit systems, in reforestation projects and other ecologically sophisticated endeavours. But can mankind bring itself back from the brink of disaster fast enough? Can we really eradicate poverty, stabilise the planet’s population, and provide safe food and water to eight billion people? Can we reduce greenhouse gases and deforestation before the Himalayan glaciers melt and the Amazon dries out?

It’s a steep climb and may not be possible, particularly as so many governments and individuals are still in deep denial about the consequences of climate change and what they can actually do to ameliorate them. Other governments (such as Britain’s) play both sides, setting carbon-reduction goals and inaugurating renewable-energy projects, while also approving or seriously considering expanded airports and road networks, as well as the construction of coal-burning power plants.

But Lester Brown’s Plan B is an evolving mobilisation scheme for the planet, devoid of hand-wringing and intellectual paralysis. While his book may be frightening, it also is optimistic. With the entire planet on a war-time footing to fight off the negative effects of climate change, Brown believes that “once we get enough trends headed in the right direction, they will reinforce each other”. 

It is decision time for mankind, he asserts; a shift of one-sixth of the world’s military budget to Plan B goals “would be more than adequate to move the world onto a path that would sustain progress.” Brown seeks nothing short of “a wartime mobilisation, an all-out response proportionate to the threat that global warming presents to our future.

“No one can argue today that we do not have the resources to eradicate poverty, stabilise population and protect the earth’s natural resource base,” he contends. “We can get rid of hunger, illiteracy, disease and poverty, and we can restore the earth’s soils, forests and fisheries. … We can build a global community where the basic needs of all the earth’s people are satisfied – a world that will allow us to think of ourselves as civilised.”

To the question “can we avoid economic decline and the collapse of civilisation?” Brown says “it depends”. In this case, that seemingly vague reply is neither simplistic nor ambiguous. “It depends on you and me, on what you and I do to reverse” current harmful economic and political trends. “It means becoming politically active.”

Away from the larger, national- and international-level issues, Brown explains what each and every person can do to join his Plan B fighting force. Small steps – educating yourself on environmental issues and sharing that knowledge with others, or becoming active on a community level – are important in creating change from the bottom up. Brown invites everyone to download the chapters of his book free of charge from the Earth Policy Institute website. For information on earlier civilisations that faced environmental peril, he recommends Jared Diamond’s Collapse and Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress.

“The choice is ours – yours and mine,” Brown concludes. “We can stay with business as usual and preside over an economy that continues to destroy its natural support systems until it destroys itself, or we can adopt Plan B and be the generation that changes direction, moving the world onto a path of sustained progress. The choice will be made by our generation, but it will affect life on earth for all generations to come.”

It’s time to get a move on, earthlings. As Brown says, “Saving our civilisation is not a spectator sport.” If we treat the challenge ahead as such, we’re likely to see our team more than metaphorically obliterated.

Maryann Bird is associate editor of chinadialogue.