On February 14, environmentalist Lester Brown, the founder of the Worldwatch Institue and the Earth Policy Institute, returned to The Bookworm to discuss his latest book World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse.
In the book, Brown warns that the world is facing issues of near-overwhelming complexity and unprecedented urgency and outlines his plan to think globally and develop policies to counteract environmental decline and economic collapse. Join us as Brown discusses the question of can we change direction before we go over the edge?
Pick up a copy of World on the Edge at The Bookworm bookshop.
Mengfei Chen:The world in 2012 is facing a lot of issues. Which is the one keeps you up at night? Why?
Lester Brown: The issue that keeps me up at night is looming food shortages. Even while world demand for grain, driven by population growth, rising affluence, and the growing use of grain to produce fuel for cars, is generating record growth, farmers are faced with new constraints on efforts to expand production. These include spreading water shortages, rising temperatures, and a shrinking backlog of unused agricultural technologies. In more agriculturally advanced countries, such as Japan with rice or France with wheat, grain yield per hectare has plateaued for more than a decade now. Farmers in these countries would like to raise the crop yields, but scientists do not have anything more to offer.
MC: What is a “food bubble?” What leads to one and have there been any recent examples? What happens when one bursts?
LB: The food bubble with which I am most concerned is the one based on overpumping. As we attempt to keep expanding food production through the use of irrigation, we eventually find ourselves overpumping aquifers. Food production continues to climb, but eventually when the aquifer is depleted the rate of pumping is necessarily reduced to the rate of recharge of the aquifer. When this reduction in pumping comes, the bubble bursts and production shrinks.
The most dramatic example of a bursting bubble is in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis were self-sufficient in wheat for more than 20 years, relying exclusively on irrigation water from a fossil aquifer, i.e. one that does not recharge naturally. In early 2008, the Saudis announced that the aquifer was largely depleted and they would be phasing out grain production. As a result, their wheat production at nearly 3 million tons a year has dropped to 1.1 million tons and will soon disappear altogether. Because this involves a fossil aquifer (instead of the more common renewable aquifer), it is a particularly dramatic example of what happens when a water-based food bubble bursts.
MC: Should those living in developed countries be worried?
LB: Yes. Those of us living in developed countries need to be worried. We need to be worried because our food prices will also be rising along with those in the rest of the world. Beyond this, rising food prices can create political instability in many countries. That instability can affect us all wherever we live. For example, political instability in oil exporting countries such as Nigeria or Iraq can drive up world oil prices, affecting either directly or indirectly the cost of almost everything we consume.
MC: In WOE, you suggest Plan B — a four-prong strategy for preventing the “ultimate recession” aka the collapse of civilization as we now it: massive cut in global carbon emissions, stabilization of the world population, the abatement of poverty, restoration of natural landscapes. If you could add a fifth prong what would it be?
LB: If I were to pick a fifth prong for Plan B, it would be public education on global environmental issues, including climate change. There is a desperate need for a better understanding of what is happening in the world and what the consequences will be if we continue with business as usual.
MC: What are the biggest obstacles to implementing Plan B?
LB: The biggest obstacle to implementing Plan B is a failure to understand the consequences of failing to do so. The alternative to Plan B, or something very similar to it, is civilizational decline and collapse.
MC: What gives you hope?
LB: The thing that gives me the most hope in the world today is the Beyond Coal campaign launched in the United States by the Sierra Club with the support of many other groups. At present in the United States we have 492 coal-fired power plants. Of these 73 are already slated to close. The goal of this campaign is to close every coal-fired power plant in the United States.
MC:If you were a betting man, what are the odds you’d give that the world will act in time?
LB: For what? If the question is can we act in time to prevent climate change, the answer is no. We are already slated to experience some climate change regardless of how quickly we respond. Is it too late to save civilization from all the environmental stresses that are building? I hope not, but there is not much time left. Time is our scarcest commodity.