World on the Edge

By Bryan Walker 06/01/2011

Lester Brown has for years been unwavering and persistent in drawing attention to the gathering environmental dangers humanity faces and pointing to the alternative practices which might yet save us from the worst effects. His widely read Plan B books have appeared at regular intervals throughout the last decade. I reviewed the fourth of them on Hot Topic in 2009. A new book now published is shorter but no less urgent, as its title indicates: World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse.

He points to three areas where the foundations of human civilisation are under severe threat, particularly because of the effects on food production. Water is being overpumped from aquifers and the world’s farmers are losing the water war, with dangerous consequences for food production as harvests consequently shrink.  Soils are eroding and deserts expanding on an alarming scale, resulting in lowered soil fertility and contraction of land available for farming. Global warming is bringing a climate instability to which agriculture is not adapted, the threat of sea level rise which will shrink rice harvests in vulnerable areas, and changes to water supply from mountain glaciers already affecting farming negatively in some places.

Three consequences are selected and highlighted for a world where the human population continues to soar. The first is the emerging politics of food scarcity. We are adding 80 million people a year. Three billion of us who are already here are trying to move up the food chain, consuming more grain-intensive livestock products. The massive ethanol distillery investment in the US has added an epic competition between cars and people for grain. Some of the more affluent food importing countries are now buying or leasing large blocks of land in other countries on which to produce food for themselves. The countries doing the buying or leasing include Saudi Arabia, South Korea, China, India, Egypt, Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE. Brown writes of an unprecedented scramble for land that crosses national boundaries. A dangerous geopolitics of food scarcity is in the making.

The second consequence Brown dwells on is the phenomenon of environmental refugees, people displaced by rising seas, more-destructive storms, expanding deserts, water shortages and other environmental factors. As the impacts of climate change begin to bite it will be rising-sea refugees who will likely dominate the flow. The book details some of the places where people are already moving as refugees within their own countries and warns of the potentially massive and chaotic movement of people across national boundaries as the pressures intensify.

The third consequence he considers is the increase in the number of failing states. Virtually all of the top 20 of them are depleting their natural assets — forests, grasslands, soils and aquifers — to sustain their rapidly growing populations. Failing states not only cause misery to their citizens but also threaten the international cooperation necessary in an age of increasing globalisation. It is in all our interests that the causes of state failure are addressed with urgency.

This is the world at the edge to which our environmental heedlessness has brought us. We don’t have to go over that edge, but to avoid doing so we need a monumental effort undertaken at wartime speed. This is Plan B. It has four components: the stabilisation of the climate, the restoration of Earth’s natural support systems, the stabilisation of population, and the eradication of poverty.

To stabilise climate we need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 80 percent by 2020.The first step is raising energy efficiency. This can entirely meet the projected growth in energy use between now and 2030. The second step is replacing all coal- and oil-fired electricity generation with that from renewable sources, meaning wind, solar and geothermal. Nuclear is too expensive if full-cost pricing is applied. Carbon capture and sequestration from coal-fired plants is also excluded, given the costs and lack of investor interest within the coal community itself.  Brown sees wind as the early leader and calls for a crash programme to develop 4000 gigawatts of wind generating capacity by 2020. That’s 2 million wind turbines of 2 megawatts over the next ten years. Not really an intimidating target when compared with the 70 million automobiles the world produces every year. The third step is to end deforestation and engage in a massive campaign to plant trees and stabilise soils.

Brown’s writing is never just exhortation. He looks everywhere for evidence of movement in the directions we need to take, and details it. It is not the case that Plan B solutions are untried. There is a great deal to encourage the concerned reader as Brown points to hopeful developments already taking place. Whether it be Scotland announcing in September that it was adopting a new goal of 80 percent renewable electricity by 2020 and expecting 100 percent by 2025, or the explosive growth in solar cell production in recent years, or the seemingly miraculous rebirth of forests from barren land in South Korea since the end of the Korean War so that nearly 65 percent of the once denuded country is now covered by forest, or the rapid reduction in fertility rates some developing countries have shown achievable, there are many signs that Plan B is not pie in the sky.

But we have to move with speed. Brown insists that the key to restructuring the economy is to get the market to tell the truth through full-cost pricing. An honest market will reflect the full cost of burning gasoline or coal, of deforestation, of overpumping aquifers, and of overfishing. If we can create an honest market, then market forces will rapidly restructure the world’s energy economy. Wind, solar and geothermal will be revealed as much cheaper than climate-disrupting fossil fuels.  At present we are being blindsided by a faulty accounting system that will lead to bankruptcy.

When Brown is beginning to feel overwhelmed by the scale and urgency of the needed changes he reminds himself of the economic history of the US during the war, when within three years from 1942 the US turned out an astonishing 229,000 aircraft and added more than 5000 ships to the American Merchant Fleet.  The conversion to a wartime economy happened within months. But it took a Pearl Harbour to motivate the turnaround. He trusts a cataclysmic event on the climate front, such as the break-up of the West Antarctic ice sheet, will not be needed to galvanise action, since it might also unfortunately indicate that we were too late. He hopes rather that the rapid changes needed can result from a dedicated grassroots movement pushing for change that is strongly supported by political leadership as, for example, civil rights change in the 1960s was achieved in the US.

Brown understands the precariousness of human civilisation as the time of environmental reckoning draws ominously closer. He expresses it in patient and telling detail that addresses the intelligence and humanity of the reader. He equally buttresses his outline of the solutions with solid information as to how and why they can work. Whether sanity and clarity carry weight in the halls of power may be moot, but Brown well represents the thinking of the substantial body of people who see the perils ahead and want their governments to mobilise to avert them.

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