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An Interview with Lester Brown
Founder of Earth Policy Institute and author of Plan B 3.0

by Dennis & Janice Hughes

Key changes are needed to prevent environmental catastrophe before we reach the tipping point!

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In 1974 Lester Brown founded Worldwatch Institute, the first research institute devoted to the analysis of global environmental issues. While there he launched the annual State of the World reports, which have strongly affected thinking about problems of overpopulation and diminishing global resources. A widely published and accomplished writer, Lester has authored or coauthored over 50 books. In 2001, he left Worldwatch to found the Earth Policy Institute, which focuses on providing a vision and road map for achieving an environmentally sustainable economy.

The Share Guide:
The title of your newest book is Plan B 3.0, which is unusual. Can you explain what that means?

Lester Brown: We decided about 5 years ago to sketch out where we thought the world ought to be going in various broadly defined areas: population, food, energy, modern environment. We decided to call the book Plan B, because Plan A is business as usual, which is not working too well. And then a couple years later we decided we should update it, so our publisher said why don't you call it Plan B 2.0? Two years later, when we decided to do another major update, it was Plan B 3.0.  We've shortened the subtitle with this edition to "Mobilizing to Save Civilization," because I think that's where we are now. It's the future of civilization that's at stake and unless we get our act together quickly, civilization is in trouble.

The Share Guide: In this new book you've written, "What we need to do is doable." What do you think are the biggest obstacles to saving civilization?

Lester Brown: I suppose the biggest obstacles are the sense of social inertia and a failure to realize the gravity of the situation we're in. As one who's been tracking these issues for over 30 years now, it seems to me that we're in trouble--almost all the environmental trends are headed in the wrong direction. Forests are shrinking, deserts are expanding, water tables are falling, fisheries are collapsing, species are disappearing, temperature is rising, and associated with that are a whole series of climate related trends. We probably don't have to go beyond ice melting to see that we're in serious trouble.

The Share Guide: What trend in the world is of most concern?

Lester Brown: If I were to pick one environmental trend right now, it would be rising CO2 levels and the sub-trend of ice melting. But if I were to pick a single indicator to tell us where we're headed, it would be the number of failing states in the world, which is increasing each year.

The Share Guide: How serious is the problem of melting glaciers?

Lester Brown: In late summer 2007 there was a report on the melting of Arctic sea ice. It's melting faster than we've ever seen before and there's now a growing sense that it's only a couple of decades before the Arctic sea ice could disappear entirely in the summertime. And that, of course, will affect the Greenland ice sheets because of what meteorologists call the Albedo Effect. When incoming sunlight hits snow and ice, about 80% of it bounces back into space, and 20% is absorbed as heat. But if you have lots of open water, which is dark, and incoming sunlight hits that, only 20% is bounced back into space and 80% is absorbed as heat. So as the area of Arctic sea covered by ice diminishes in the summertime, then that Albedo Effect begins warming the area very rapidly. And this is one reason why the Greenland ice sheet is melting so fast.

There was a report in September 2007 about a large glacier flowing off the Greenland ice sheet into the Atlantic. This particular glacier is about three miles wide and about a mile thick. Typically glaciers flow at 80 to 120 meters a year. In the late summer of 2007, this glacier was flowing at two meters an hour. And periodically huge chunks of it would break off and slide into the sea. These chunks are huge; they weigh billions of tons. When they break off they actually create a seismic reaction, because of the release of so much weight. It's astounding scientists, because they just didn't think that glaciers could melt so fast. A similar thing is happening with the West Antarctic ice sheet. It won't happen overnight, but if the Greenland ice sheet melts, the sea level will rise about 23 feet and most of the west coast cities will be under water.

The Share Guide: How many years until we pass the tipping point?

Lester Brown: It may already be too late now to save Arctic sea ice. We have to hope we can save most of the Greenland ice sheet, but that's going to take an enormous mobilization. The other area of ice melting which is particularly dangerous is the melting of glaciers on the Tibetan plateau. These are the glaciers that feed the major river systems of Asia: the Indus, the Ganges, the Mekong, the Yangtze, the Yellow River and so forth. One of China's leading glaciologists says the glaciers on the Tibetan plateau are melting at 7% per year. These are the glaciers that provide the snowmelt that feeds the Yellow River and the Yangtze River during the dry season.

Then there's the Gangotri glacier that feeds the Ganges. It's a huge glacier, but scientists are now saying it could be gone by mid-century. If so, then the Ganges becomes a seasonal river, flowing during the rainy season, but not during the dry season. This is serious business, because these are the rivers in Asia that irrigate the region's wheat fields and rice fields. This is a threat to food security on a scale we've never seen before, considering that four billion of the world's people live in Asia.

The Share Guide: When Al Gore gave his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech he said: "We have the ability to solve this crisis and avoid the worst, though not all, of its consequences if we act boldly, decisively and quickly." How do we deal with these problems quickly enough?

Lester Brown: I think the single most important thing we can do is to get the market to tell the environmental truth. For example, right now when we burn a gallon of gasoline, we pay the cost of getting the oil out of the ground, the cost of refining the oil into gas, and the cost of getting that gasoline to local service stations. We do not pay the cost of the air pollution from burning the gasoline, or the rise in atmospheric CO2 levels, or the climate change as a result of burning that gallon of gasoline. So what we need to do is restructure the tax system--lower income taxes, raise the carbon tax, and raise taxes on environmentally destructive activities, of which carbon emissions is the dominant one.

The Share Guide: How would that affect the price of gas?

Lester Brown: Rather than being $3 a gallon, if you did these things it would be closer to $12 a gallon. But we should reduce income taxes at the same time, so we won't be spending any more money than we are now. It's really a price on the future of civilization. How much is it worth to us? This way, the market will be telling the truth, so we'll know when we pay $12 a gallon for gas, we're paying the full cost of it. What that will do, if we extend this to coal as well, is discourage the use of oil and coal and encourage investment in developing wind energy, solar energy, geothermal energy, tidal power, wave power, and so forth.

The Share Guide: Do you see this as being more important than reducing population growth?

Lester Brown: Yes, and you can extend that thinking to cutting trees also. To illustrate this point, in the summer of 1998 there was extensive flooding in the Yangtze River basin. It went on for weeks and weeks and in the end it did $30 billion worth of damage. It really affected the rice harvest in China, so this was huge. The principal reason for the flooding was the deforestation of the upper regions of the Yangtze River basin. But for many weeks the Chinese kept saying, "This is an act of nature, and there's not much we can do about it." Finally, in mid-August, they held a press conference in Beijing and admitted that the flooding was caused in part by human activities, specifically deforestation. They also said that the value of trees standing is three times the value of the trees cut. So what they were finally recognizing was that the flood control services provided by forests in China are three times as valuable as the timber in those forests. So what they did was, they stopped cutting, and hired the same people who'd been cutting the trees to start planting trees to try and restore the flood control that had historically existed.

The point is that before this the market was assigning a value to trees based on the lumber in the trees. After all the flooding the government said, "Wait a minute, the value of these trees in terms of flood control is far greater than their value as lumber." That was one of those "Aha!" moments. We have a situation like this with so many of the things that we consume, whether it's fossil fuel or trees or what have you. The challenge is to get the market to tell the truth and then things will begin to fall into place.

The Share Guide: What do you think about the reforesting movement? Wangari Maathai won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for mobilizing tens of thousands of women to plant 30 million trees across Kenya.

Lester Brown: That's extremely important work. When we deforest the earth it contributes to climate change, because forests replenish oxygen while removing carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. So we need major tree planting efforts around the world. In fact, in Plan B 3.0 we call for a ban on deforestation in the United States. China has already imposed a ban on deforestation. So has Thailand and the Philippines. We now have to look at deforestation not only in terms of local effects, but in terms of its effect on global climate change.

The Share Guide: Is the electric car a practical solution to reducing emissions and slowing global warming?

Lester Brown: The technology that I think is going to dominate is plug-in hybrids. There's the potential to look to grain-based ethanol as a solution to peak oil, but I don't think it's going to play a very important role. If you take a hybrid car like the Toyota Prius, which is by far the most popular, and add a second storage battery and a plug-in capacity so you can recharge those batteries at night while you're asleep, then we can do most of our short distance driving (commuting to work and grocery shopping and so forth) almost entirely with electricity. If at the same time we're developing a fleet of plug-in hybrids, we are also investing in thousands of wind farms across the U.S. and around the world, then we can run our cars largely on cheap wind-generated electricity at a gasoline equivalent cost of less than a dollar a gallon. This is where I think we're going to be headed, because there's so much wind power in the world, especially in this country. We could run the whole economy on wind energy alone and not come close to tapping it.

The Share Guide: So wind energy is an extremely important trend?

Lester Brown: Yes! In terms of economics, we're moving toward a new energy economy where wind will probably supply 40% or so of all the electricity. The net energy gain on producing ethanol from corn is really very small. It's an illusion as far as it being a petroleum replacement.

The Share Guide: How do we give the car industry the incentive to change quicker?

Lester Brown: I think we're going to see a real sense of urgency develop around these issues. Just look at what happened back in 1942. That's the year that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. We were just coming out of the Depression, and on January 6, 1942 President Roosevelt gave his State of the Union address in which he laid out US arms production goals now that we were at war. He said we needed to produce 45,000 tanks, 60,000 planes, 20,000 anti-aircraft and artillery guns, and 6 million tons of shipping. We needed thousands of ships because we were fighting two major wars on the far side of two oceans, so the logistical challenge of doing that was just enormous.

What Roosevelt and his colleagues realized was that at that time the largest concentration of industrial power in the world was in the US automobile industry, because even during the Depression years we had been making 2 or 3 million cars a year. So after he laid out these arms production goals, he called in the leaders of the automobile industry and said, "Because you guys represent such a large share of our industrial capacity, we're going to rely heavily on you to help us reach these arms production goals." And they said, "Mr. President, we're going to do everything we can, but this is going to be a real stretch, producing cars and all these arms, too." He said, "You don't understand. We're going to ban the sale of private automobiles in the United States." And that's exactly what happened. And we exceeded every one of those arms production goals. We saw a threat and we did what we needed to do. It was a complete restructuring of the US industrial economy.

The Share Guide: But the government doesn't yet see the environmental problems at the same level of threat.

Lester Brown: It doesn't yet, but more and more individuals do. And a number of scientists are also beginning to realize that civilization is in trouble. The question is whether or not we can turn the trends around that are undermining our future. It's going to take a mobilization at wartime speed to restructure the world energy economy in order to cut carbon emissions. We estimate it's going to take an 80% cut in carbon emissions by 2020 to have a chance of reversing the climate change trends before they overwhelm us.

The Share Guide: Do you see any presidential candidates out there who are even talking about these issues seriously in their campaigns?

Lester Brown: Not on this scale. They're beginning to--some of the Democratic candidates and John McCain have talked about the need to quickly cut carbon emissions--but they're not yet thinking on a timetable comparable to the one we need. They'll talk about cutting carbon emissions 80% by 2050, but that will be way too late if we stay on this trajectory. But at least they are far ahead of the current administration. George Bush really doesn't think we need to do anything!
I think we're going to see the pressures to change keep mounting as people begin to realize how serious the problems are. I think we face the prospect of a social fracturing along generational lines for the first time in history. For example, if five years from now, because we haven't done anything, scientists conclude that we can't save the Greenland ice sheet and the sea level's going to rise 23 feet and we can't save the West Antarctic ice sheet, which will add another 16 feet, we're looking at a potential 39 foot rise in sea level. That means inundating most of the world's coastal cities--certainly all the rice-growing river deltas and flood plains in Asia. That would be chaos; there would be hundreds of millions of refugees. Civilization would totally break down under that kind of stress and we would be back to the law of the jungle. So once it became apparent that's what was happening, the next generation would say to us, "Why didn't you do something?"

The Share Guide: There is still a lot of misinformation out there, with people questioning whether global warming is really happening. That certainly makes it more difficult to effect change.

Lester Brown: The oil and coal companies have been funding a major disinformation campaign for many years now, trying to confuse the public about whether the climate is changing--or if it is, what is responsible for it. It reminds me of the situation with cigarettes that existed 10 or 15 years ago when the tobacco industry was denying there was any proof of the link between smoking and health. They had an enormous investment in an organization in Washington called the Tobacco Institute. It had 60 full-time employees available to lobby on these issues, with a bunch of health and legal experts on retainer. Every time someone did a study linking smoking with emphysema, cancer, or some other health problem, they would always have a medical expert who would try to discredit the study. But we finally reached a tipping point where there was an indisputable link between smoking and health. At that point the industry simply lost its credibility.

That's when we saw state governments begin to win lawsuits against the tobacco companies, to recapture the cost of treating so much smoking-related illness. The industry caved in, because they realized that fighting lawsuits with 50 different states would be totally destructive to their business. So they agreed to a settlement, which was that they would pay a total of $253 billion dollars to the state governments over a period of time. Partly as a result of that and all the other things that have happened, cigarette consumption has dropped by more than half since the peak, which I think was 1972. The same thing is happening now with the oil companies and climate change.

The Share Guide: You think they're losing credibility?

Lester Brown: No question. I think most people now believe we're facing climate change.

The Share Guide: It seems like all along big business has chosen short-term profit over long-term health of the planet.

Lester Brown: That's the way the system works, and that's why it's so important to restructure the tax system so that they are responding to market prices that tell the truth.

The Share Guide: So we are left with poor public transportation, not enough alternative energy, cars built with planned obsolescence, and suburbs that require cars to get everywhere. Don't you think we need to change this type of thinking before we can make any real progress?

Lester Brown: Yes, but at the root of this type of thinking is the market is not telling the truth. The market says that gasoline is cheap, so you can burn as much of it as you want. But if we can get the market to tell the truth, all these things will begin to change. The whole system will begin to restructure.

The Share Guide: You've written that wind power is the number one alternative power source. What about solar power?

Lester Brown: Solar is coming on fast. There's roughly a decade or so between wind power and solar power, in terms of falling costs. Wind power got off to a much stronger start and is now becoming a major source of electricity in many parts of the world, with 60 million Europeans now getting their electricity from wind farms. But solar is developing, and it comes in more than one form. There's the solar cells that convert sunlight into electricity that we can put on our rooftops and use to run our household appliances. But there's also rooftop solar water heaters, which can play an important role, because a water heater is one of the big energy users in the typical household. 

It's exciting about what's happening in China. There was a young engineer a dozen years ago who worked for one of China's state oil companies. But he had a real passion for solar energy, so he ended up designing a rooftop solar water heater for his own home. And then his friends and relatives saw it and asked him to build one for them. So he started a small factory and began manufacturing them, and now today it's a huge operation. He has 5,000 sales outlets in China, and there are several hundred other companies now manufacturing these rooftop solar water heaters. By the end of this year, 40 million Chinese homes will be getting their hot water from rooftop solar water heaters. This is one of the major untold stories in the energy field.

Another exciting development in the solar field is in Algeria, where they have a plan to develop 6,000 megawatts of solar thermal power plants in the desert to generate electricity, which they will export to Europe via a cable going under the Mediterranean. This is enough power to satisfy the residential needs of countries the size of Switzerland. And they've already started building the first of these solar thermal power plants.

A third example is in the United States, in the government sector. Republican Rick Perry has worked with state legislature and a couple of utilities to build transmission lines. They are putting together a package of wind farms located in West Texas and in the Texas Panhandle and are linking those with the major load centers in Dallas, Houston, and so forth. They're planning to develop 23,000 megawatts in wind generating capacity. This is huge--that's like 23 coal-fired power plants. Within a matter of years, close to half the people in Texas will be getting their residential electricity from wind farms. If it can happen in Texas, it can happen anywhere.

The Share Guide: The water tables are falling globally, and it doesn't seem like there's enough attention being paid to this. How big of a problem is access to good drinking water, especially in the coming decades?

Lester Brown: There's not nearly enough attention being paid to this. I think one of the answers is going to be urban water recycling. We're going to have to increase the efficiency of irrigation water use, because 70% of all the water that we use in the world is for irrigation. And then there's a supply question. Population growth becomes an important issue. But we also have to think about how to purify water that is polluted. The two options we need to look at are filtering and boiling. Those two technologies together can usually provide safe water for people in developing countries.

The Share Guide: A great quote in your new book is "Saving our civilization is not a spectator sport."  But many people feel powerless to do anything on an individual level. What are the most important things you recommend people do to help with the environmental situation?

Lester Brown: I'm asked that question often when I'm speaking around the world, and I think people expect me to say things like, "Recycle your newspapers and change your light bulbs." Those things are important, but we're in a situation now where we have to fundamentally change or restructure the world energy economy. And that means people need to become politically active. It means actively opposing the construction of any more coal-fired power plants, and then beginning to close down the ones already in operation. It means supporting tax restructuring to get the market to tell the environmental truth. It means restructuring the transportation system, creating what's now called the Complete Streets movement, where streets are designed to accommodate not just cars but people and bicycles as well. It means developing comprehensive recycling programs. Anyone can get involved in that at the community level.

The Share Guide: What is the Complete Streets movement?

Lester Brown: A lot of states now are passing legislation that requires incorporating bicycle lanes and pedestrian walkways and so forth if you're building anything new. And if you already have a system that only accommodates automobiles, then they need to be modified. There are a number of major groups now supporting this movement, ranging from the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) to the American Association for Retired Persons (AARP), which is a huge organization. The reason they're becoming concerned is that in communities where there are no sidewalks and bike lanes, if you reach the point where you can no longer drive, you're kind of imprisoned. There is a lot of information about this movement at www.completestreets.org. It's something that we can all work on at the local level.

The Share Guide: What would your ideal society look like?

Lester Brown: It would be a society that was powered largely by renewable sources of energy. That could be wind, solar, or geothermal. In an ideal society there would be a strong sense of community. Food production would be much more localized. We would see a reversal in the world energy economy. During the last century, as we became more and more dependant on oil, the energy economy became more and more globalized. Now in this century, as we turn more and more to local energy resources, we're going to see the localization of the world energy economy. And we'll see our diets begin to change to reflect more local food production. Right now, if you go into a supermarket almost anywhere in the world, it's hard to know what season you're in, because produce and other products come from all over. But there's an enormous investment in energy to do this. So we'll have a much more seasonal diet, that's more attuned to the local food supply. This would be healthier too.

In an ideal society, we'd build an economic system that can last as long as the earth itself. Right now we are totally overtaxing the earth, and we are on a path to climate collapse. This is the challenge for this generation--but only for this generation, because if we don't do it now, time will run out for the next generation. But it is possible to do it. If you look around the world, there are countries doing virtually everything we need to do. We simply need to make this a global process.

To learn more about the state of the world from Lester Brown, visit the Earth Policy Institute at www.earth-policy.org


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