Lester Brown and the water lilies

By Bryan Walker 06/04/2011

When I was reviewing Paul Gilding’s book The Great Disruption I was frequently aware of similarities with Lester Brown’s writing, most recently World on the Edge. The parallels were highlighted further for me when I viewed an excellent recent documentary on Lester Brown’s advocacy which has recently screened on PBS in the US. I recommend the film as providing a clear overview of Brown’s thinking. It is available streamed during the month of April. For those who don’t have the time to look at it I’ll briefly highlight one or two significant points which are echoed by Gilding and which sound themes that are surely central to any hope of preventing the full danger inherent in climate change.

Brown uses the infamous Enron Corporation as analogous to what we are doing. Enron was leaving costs off the books, everything looked great, but the procedures were fraudulent and the company was bankrupt.

Economist Paul Krugman comments at this point in the documentary on the exclusion of environmental costs from market operations:

’What we have now is a situation in which the most pressing problems of the world, which are environmental and ecological, are ones that the market has no incentive to deal with.’

When is the reckoning? Brown speaks of the 29th day. Water lily pads in a pond have been doubling in number each day for 29 days and the pond is now half-covered. There’s still plenty of room for wildlife. But on the very next day it is fully covered and will soon become a choking mass of dying vegetation unable to provide a safe haven for wildlife. ’Has our planet reached the 29th day?’ he asks — rhetorically, so far as one commenter is concerned who considers we are well into the 30th.

Brown is not one for half measures. We must reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2020, a figure even more radical than Gilding’s hopes of 50 percent by 2023. Does he really think that can happen? Can we change that fast?

’I sometimes go back and re-read the economic history of World War II,’ he says, and the documentary produces clips from old news film, starting with the bombing of Pearl Harbour. We hear extracts from the 1942 state of the union address from President Roosevelt announcing the astonishing goals for building planes, tanks, ships and armaments.

’Our task is unprecedented and the time is short … Let no man say it cannot be done. It must be done and we have undertaken to do it.’

The point of this example, says Brown:

’It did not take decades to restructure the US industrial economy. It did not take years. We did it in a matter of months.’

He thinks we can make the necessary carbon emission reductions in the time that’s available. But we’re going to have to move very fast.

And it doesn’t need a Pearl Harbour to produce the will for change. Bruce Bobbitt, a former Secretary of the Interior, at this point in the film attests:

’My personal experience in my lifetime with the dynamics of change was the civil rights revolution that began in the 1960s.  Remarkably in the course of five years we went from 100 years of complacency through a civil rights war that culminated in the Voting Rights Act of 1965… Change which seems impossible suddenly becomes quite real very rapidly, driven by a massive change of understanding and attitudes.’

Brown and Gilding are far from lone voices. Many others have written and spoken in similar terms. But the themes which stand out bear regular and frequent repetition:

  • Things are already much worse than is immediately apparent. We are carrying on in denial of the underlying reality not only of climate change but of many other looming environmental threats. We have passed the limits of the planet’s capacity, but we are hiding the fact.
  • In the case of climate change urgent action is now required to reduce emissions drastically. Both Gilding and Brown turn to World War II for demonstration of the feasibility of the kind of dramatic turnaround in our economies that is required. The technology is available. It needs only to be employed.

The advocates say it needs to be done and it can be done. One doesn’t need to be a hardened cynic to find oneself adding, ’But it won’t be done’. Yet to say that now is to accept defeat before we have to. All honour to those who keep battling.