A Review of Lester Brown’s “Plan B 2.0”


Plan B 2.0, Rescuing a Planet under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble, by Lester R. Brown; W. W. Norton and Company, 2006; paperback, $16.95.


By David L. Brown

In the Autumn of 2003, the eminent authority on the environment, climate change and agriculture Lester R. Brown published the landmark book Plan B. In that work he outlined the global threats of climate change and in particular the effect of warming, desertification, and all the other dire dangers that loom over humankind. One might ask, then, why just 28 months later early last year, did he issue a revised edition, Plan B 2.0?

This may seem puzzling to many — but not if you have kept up with the rapidly developing news about global change. In my opinion the answer is obvious: The situation is changing so fast that the first edition quickly became outdated.

The accelerating tsunami of bad environmental news that has been washing over the Earth offers evidence that we have entered a mind-boggling period of dramatic change, change that may be about to alter the face of our planet beyond recognition while undermining and destroying human civilization. Not only are these dangers real, and coming more clearly into focus almost with each passing day, they are moving toward us from the future like a runaway freight train. Events that were expected to take place in the relatively distant future, such as the melting of the Arctic ice cap, are moving into our immediate future.

We have written before about subjects raised in this book, notably in reference to my article “Overshoot-and-Collapse: A Model for Our Future?” posted here on August 6, 2006 and “Water Shortages Threaten World with Famine,” which appeared October 3, 2006. Both of these essays drew from particular sections of Plan B 2.0. I have promised to give a broader review of the book, and have finally found the time to do so.

First here is a little background on the author, as found on the web site of his non-profit organization, Earth Policy Institute. Here is his capsule biography posted there:

LESTER R. BROWN, founder and President of Earth Policy Institute, has been described by the Washington Post as “one of the world’s most influential thinkers”and as “the guru of the global environmental movement” by The Telegraph of Calcutta. The author of numerous books … he helped pioneer the concept of environmentally sustainable development. His principal research areas include food, population, water, climate change, and renewable energy. The recipient of scores of awards and honorary degrees, he is widely sought as a speaker. In 1974, he founded Worldwatch Institute, of which he was President for its first 26 years. As President, he launched the World Watch Papers, the Worldwatch/Norton books, the annual State of the World report, the bimonthly magazine World Watch, the annual Vital Signs, and the Institute’s News Briefs. For relaxation, Lester runs.

In Plan B 2.0 Brown attempts to paint a positive picture to the possibilities of addressing the environmental threats that face humanity, but it is not an easy task to be optimistic in view of facts that seem to grow more grim with the weekly arrival of each issue of Science or New Scientist. Brown begins his book with a lengthy review of the problems we face, and since we expect that readers of Star Phoenix Base are already quite familiar with these subjects I will not spend time plumbing them in any depth. Suffice it to say that in this section Brown reviews such issues as the coming oil peak and decline, looming water shortages, rising global temperatures, the decline and collapse of natural systems, and “early signs of decline,” including social, economic, population, environmental and terrorism trends.

In the next section, Brown introduces his program to address these problems, the elements required for his “Plan B” (version 2) through which he suggests that the catastrophe that is looming over us all could be faced and mitigated. Here is a brief summary of his thesis:

  1. Attacking the problems of poverty and population growth. Brown posits that until human poverty is addressed and the growth of human numbers is checked, no progress can be made on turning around the downward path on which we find ourselves.
  2. Healing the wounded Earth. Brown outlines ways in which forests can be saved, precious soils preserved, water resources conserved, ocean fisheries rebuilt, and plant and animal species protected from extinction. To this end he proposes an “Annual Earth Restoration Budget” of $93 billion that he says would allow us to begin the process of repairing the damage to our planet.
  3. Gearing up to adequately feed the seven billion people soon to be alive on Earth. This is not an easy challenge in view of the fact that resources of soil, water and energy are declining just as demand for food continues to soar. The ominous development of ethanol and biofuels industries in the U.S. are threatening world food security, and in the opinion of Star Phoenix Base a massive global famine is more likely than not.
  4. Putting the brakes on climate change. In this section Brown discusses the potential of developing alternative energy sources such as wind, solar, and geothermal to reduce emissions of greenhouse gas. The economics favor rapid development of alternatives, he writes, using as an example the fact that a quarter acre of prime farmland in the Corn Belt can be used to site a high-tech wind turbine that could produce $100,000 worth of electricity per year, or to grow 40 bushels of corn that could be used to make 100 gallons of ethanol worth perhaps $200. Economics may be favorable, but the incentives to continue burning fossil fuels remain strong.
  5. Finally, he addresses the need to re-think the world’s cities, many of which have become cesspools of poverty, crime and despair. One idea is to encourage small-scale “farming” in the cities, turning empty lots, rooftops and balconies into mini-gardens. Not only would this supplement declining food supplies, it would help people become reconnected with the land.

In the third and final section of the book, titled “An Exciting New Option,” Brown describes his plan to create a new direction for human civilization. His first priority is to create a “new economy,” one in which taxes and subsidies are directed to create incentives for change rather than helping hold the status quo. The program demands what Brown calls “an Environmental Revolution,” an enterprise that he calls “the greatest investment opportunity in history. In scale, the Environmental Revolution is comparable to the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions that preceded it.”

In his final chapter, Brown spells out details of “Plan B,” asking two linked questions: “Is civilization decline under way? And how can we tell?” He addresses these questions with statistics that show growing numbers of hungry people and failing states. For the first time in modern history, he says, “life expectancy for a large segment of humanity — the 750 million people living in sub-Saharan Africa — has dropped precipitously, falling from 61 years to 48 years” as a result of AIDS. He mentions that during the last half of the 20th century hunger was on the decline, but has recently reversed. He asks the pertinent question, “could food supply be the weak link in our modern civilization as it was for the Sumerians, the Mayans, and the Easter Islanders?”

Perhaps most ominous of all is the growing number of nations that are tumbling into chaos. He quotes an article in Foreign Policy magazine that lists “some 60 countries that have failed, are failing, or are at risk of failing.” Governments are being “overwhelmed by demographic and environmental forces,” he says. “With leaders unable to cope with ever-growing populations, environmental life-support systems are disintegrating and social services are breaking down.”

Brown concludes that if we are to mobilize the resources of our threatened civilization to address these problems, “the scarcest resource of all is time.”

“The temptation is to reset the clock, but we cannot,” he asserts. “Nature is the timekeeper.”

Acknowledging the many loud and clear wakeup calls that are resounding around the globe, Brown concludes his book with a call for action, although he admits that “this chapter is frustratingly difficult to write because it is not about what we need to do or how to do it, but rather about how to mobilize support to do it.”

He continues, “How do we convince ourselves of the gravity and urgency of the situation we face? It is partly a matter of overcoming vested interests and social inertia, and partly a matter of raising public understanding of the threats facing civilization.”

He includes among the major threats: Terrorism; population growth; climate change; poverty; growing water shortages; rising oil prices; and potentially soaring food prices and availability that can lead to political instability.

Brown questions our basic approach to economics, quoting Ray Anderson, a successful Georgia entrepreneur who says that “we continue to teach economics students to trust the ‘invisible hand’ of the market, when the invisible hand is clearly blind to the externalities, and treats massive subsidies, such as a war to protect oil for the oil companies, as if the subsidies were deserved. Can we really trust a blind invisible hand to allocate resources rationally?”

I do not have the time or space to fully explore Brown’s outline for a call to action, what he describes as “a wartime mobilization” such as was geared up during World War II. He says that the key elements of “mobilizing to save civilization means restructuring the economy, restoring the economy’s natural support systems, eradicating poverty, and stabilizing population.”

I will leave this with one observation, and that is that much of what Brown says needs to be done is unlikely to be embraced by the world’s leaders or the masses of humanity, at least not anytime soon. Cynical though I may be, I find it hard to believe that any politician will be elected by telling voters that they will need to make significant personal sacrifices. I find it even more unthinkable that those who control giant corporations such as oil companies and automobile manufacturers will easily or willingly turn from their courses. These companies have too much invested in the status quo, and they are not likely to change until they are forced to do so.

Without leadership from government and business, we must wait for economic and social forces to make change a necessity. By that time, it may well be too late to mitigate the threats. Too much fossil fuel will have been burned, too many forests cut down, too much topsoil lost to careless and rapacious farm policies, too many nations collapsing into chaos.

Plan B 2.0 is well worth reading, and the author’s call to personal commitment to “save the planet” offers perhaps the only direction that has much if any hope of success. Until there is a growing and vocal base of individuals who are speaking out loud and stridently, nothing will happen.

To date, the possibility that this will occur seems slim. Scientists who warn of global warming and other threats are routinely negated by politicians and the press on the basis of false pap churned out by Judas goat “experts” who are much more likely to be concerned with earning payoffs from ExxonMobil than with bringing clarity to the subject. Al Gore is a lonely voice that is being heard by at least a few, due to his high profile as a former vice president, but it is a travesty that he is more often jeered than cheered.

In the end, the motivation to action will come down to necessity, the fabled “Mother of Invention,” for when the hard truth becomes undeniable and the dire threats are upon us, then action (or at least reaction) is sure to follow. The problem with that is that by then it may be entirely too late to do much about it — civilization may be careening into a new Dark Age and our planet may be undergoing an environmental crash which could drive humankind into extinction.

Call me cynical, but it is difficult to accept that any “Plan B” has much chance of success under present circumstances. The time to have taken effective action was perhaps three decades ago; now we must prepare for impending disaster and the possibility of dealing with change beyond anyone’s ability to imagine.

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