I spent Earth Day 30,000 feet up and I must admit that there was a tiny part of me that felt guilty. So to make myself feel better, I read “World On The Edge,” by Lester Brown. The book focuses on how to prevent environmental and economic collapse and operates on the assumption that it’s not “if” global warming will change business as usual, but when. It should be noted that Brown is the founder and president of Earth Policy Institute and has been advocating for change relating to environmental concerns such as climate change for more than 30 years.
In the first part of the book, Brown lays out the problems at hand including falling water tables and shrinking harvests, eroding soils and expanding deserts and finishes with a discussion about the effect of rising temperatures including the melting of ice and glaciers and food security. He notes that several researchers conducted a study whereby they aggregated the use of earth’s natural resources including CO2 and discovered that we first surpassed the earth’s regenerative capacity around 1980. In 1999, global demands on the earth’s natural systems exceeded sustainable yields by 20 percent and today it would take 1.5 Earths to sustain our current consumption.
Next Brown begins a discussion of the consequences as a result of our foundation in peril. He discusses rising food prices and food scarcity, environmental refugees (think Hurricane Katrina where more than 300,000 people were displaced and many never went back) and failed states such as Somalia and Iraq. During the first part of the book, the big link, or the big disaster, is failed agriculture. He notes that many archeologists have determined that many civilizations that disappeared did so because of food shortages and he believes this is the weak link for today’s civilization.
He uses the 2008-2009 “food bubble” as an example. This was when energy prices hit record highs and food prices also hit record highs. He explained that with countries producing fuel from food crops, such as the U.S. producing ethanol from corn, energy prices/fuel prices are now directly tied to food prices.
“The question is not whether the food bubble will burst but when,” says Brown. “While the U.S. housing bubble was created by the overextension of credit, the food bubble is based on the overuse of land and water resources. It is further threatened by the climate stresses deriving from the excessive burning of fossil fuels. When the U.S. housing bubble burst, it sent shockwaves through the world economy, culminating in the worst recession since the Great Depression. When the food bubble bursts, food prices will soar worldwide, threatening economic and political stability everywhere. For those living on the lower rungs of the global economic ladder, survival itself could be at stake.”
Now, understanding the role food plays in our future, Brown offers up a response that he calls Plan B – what the Earth Policy Institute believes needs to be done to save civilization. “It is a monumental effort to be undertaken at wartime speed,” writes Brown. The plan has four components: stabilizing climate, restoring the earth’s natural support systems, stabilizing population, and eradicating poverty. The plan calls for a 80 percent reduction in CO2 by 2020. This, Brown says, can be achieved through three actions. First raise the efficiency of the world energy economy while restructuring transportation. Second, cut emissions in the energy sector by replacing fossil fuels with wind, solar and geothermal. Third, end deforestation while engaging in a massive campaign to plant trees and stabilize soils. (I wonder if he is a fan of biochar?)
When Brown offers up ways to achieve the goals, for the transportation sector, he is not a fan of biofuels. Rather, he would like to see a movement to vehicles run with electricity (aka electric vehicles), that is created from wind, solar and geothermal energy. He is also a proponent of pubic transportation such as rail and advocates for conservation.
In the end, Brown answers the question, “What can I do?” While recycling and conservation are good places to start, he says for success people need to become more politically active and concludes, “Saving civilization is not a spectator sport.”