Wise Words

A Conversation With Lester Brown

Founder and president of Earth Policy Institute, a nonprofit environmental research organization, Lester Brown is author of numerous books, including the newly published Plan B (W.W. Norton, 2003). Brown, who has been called “one of the world’s most influential thinkers” by the Washington Post, focuses his research on food, population, water, climate change, and renewable energy. He spoke with us recently from his office in Washington, D.C.

Q: How did you first become interested in environmental issues?

A: I grew up in a farming community in southern New Jersey. Through high school and college, my brother and I grew tomatoes. The last year we farmed, we marketed about a million and a half pounds of tomatoes. So we were young entrepreneurs. But in 1956 I had a chance to spend half a year living in villages in India under a program called the International Farm Youth Exchange Program. Being in India, which at that time only had 460 million people and now it has over a billion, even then, for someone from this country you could feel the pressure of population. I began to worry about the population problem. And so after two more years of farming, I decided to join the Foreign Agriculture Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture so I could work on the world food problem. If you work on food, then you become very conscious of things like soil erosion, climate change, air pollution and other environmental trends that effect food prospects. So I sort of evolved into someone with deep-rooted environmental concerns. But now I'm concerned about climate change because of its many consequences that go beyond agriculture.

Q: What are the greatest environmental concerns you address in Plan B?

A: There are two that I always put at the top of the list: climate change and population growth. These have the greatest effect on the planet and are in many ways the most difficult to deal with. Stabilizing climate means restructuring the world energy economy—shifting from fossil fuels to renewables. Stabilizing population means changing the reproductive behavior of hundreds of millions of people. The exciting thing is that we know how to do both.

Q: How is population growth a major concern for the planet?

A: If we look at the projected growth in population during this half century, that is by 2050, it's nearly 3 billion and the overwhelming majority of those 3 billion will be born in countries where water tables are already falling. So we're sort of moving into a crunch time in the relationship between us, now numbering 6.3 billion, and the earth's natural systems and resources. And while the news regularly reports on economic issues like unemployment levels, new housing starts, interest rates, and industrial output, it does not similarly report on the state of the environment, of the earth's natural systems and resources. So we're not as aware of what's happening there as we should be.

Q: How are water shortages effecting us and what can individuals do in terms of water conservation?

A: The global economy evolved in a situation where there was more water than we could use, so it was treated as a free resource but it's no longer free and it's no longer abundant and in large areas of the world it's becoming the resource that's constraining growth in food production. We see in the Southern Great Plains of the United States and in the Southwest, importantly California, that water shortages are beginning to effect local economies and that as the water supply tightens water is diverted from agriculture to the cities. For most of us who are not farmers it's residential water use that we need to be thinking about and that means more water-efficient shower heads, more water-efficient toilets, and if you're watering a lawn or a garden do it efficiently and water when the sun's not shining early in the morning. There are a lot of things we can do to increase water efficiency and we're beginning to in this country in some areas. In fact, in some areas watering one's lawn is prohibited at certain times and there are actually water police enforcing these laws.

Q: What about farmers and the struggles they're facing right now?

A: Farmers have always faced problems—the uncertainties of weather and outbreaks of disease in their crops, for example—but now farmers are facing two new problems: One is rising temperatures and the other is falling water tables. And what we're beginning to realize is that higher temperatures are taking the edge off of grain harvests in at least a few major grain-producing regions each year. The generation of farmers now on the land is facing the prospect of temperatures higher than at any time since agriculture began. Agriculture has evolved over a period of 11,000 years, during a time of rather remarkable climate stability. But we're now beginning to see a change in that climate system, a change that puts our current agriculture out of sync with the climate system.

The other thing that farmers are facing now for the first time in history is falling water tables. In the last half century we've developed the capacity to over pump aquifers with diesel and powerful electrically driven pumps, now suddenly we see water tables falling in literally scores of countries around the world, including the major food producing ones.

Q: What is the new relationship between water and grain?

A: Whereas historically water shortages have been local issues, water scarcity is now crossing national boundaries via the international grain trade. The reason for this is that when countries, for example in North Africa and the Middle East where almost every country is facing water shortages, push up against the limits of their water supplies and then they need still more water in their cities which are growing, then they take irrigation water from agriculture and use it in the cities, but then they have to import grain to offset that loss of productive capacity. And the reason they import grain is because it's the most efficient way to import water because it takes a thousands tons of water to produce one ton of grain. This creates a strong incentive to import water in the form of grain. So grain is becoming the currency with which countries balance their water books and trading in grain futures now is in a sense trading in water futures. So we're seeing this interesting evolution of the relationship between water and food evolve and become international and become marketable.

Q: You write that we surpassed the earth’s regenerative capacity around 1980. How so?

A: What I talk about in Plan B is that we have built a bubble economy based on overconsumption of the earth’s natural capital. We’re overcutting forests, overgrazing rangelands, overplowing lands, overpumping aquifers, and overfishing oceanic fisheries. At some point this overconsumption begins to effect the economy, and in some countries that is already beginning to happen.

Q: How soon will the world see first-hand results of this overconsumption?

A: The wake-up call could come within the next few years. I think the economic indicator that will first signal serious trouble in the relationship between us 6.3 billion people and the earth’s natural systems and resources will likely be food prices. The event that will probably trigger that is when China comes into the world grain market for massive imports of grain. Grain production in China has been falling for the last five years and they’ve been running up a huge grain deficit, but they’ve been covering that shortfall by drawing down huge stock. So what we’re looking at is the potential of 1.3 billion Chinese consumers competing with us for our grain, and we need to keep in mind that they have a hundred-billion-dollar trade surplus with us each year now. So the question is not if they can buy grain or not—they can. This will create a situation that will likely generate rising food prices in this country and, indeed, in the world. We’ve never faced a situation like this.

Q: What can we do to solve these problems?

A: Because we’re such enormous consumers, the most important environmental decision that most Americans will make is how many children to have. My own feeling is we’ve now reached the point where couples everywhere in the world should be stopping at two children; that is, replacement-level fertility. It’s not that you or I might not be able to afford more than two children; the question is whether the earth can afford more than two children per couple. I don’t think it can. The other thing we need to do is to reduce carbon emissions. The key to that is restructuring the energy economy, and the key to that is restructuring the tax system by lowering income taxes and raising taxes on environmentally destructive activities, like carbon emissions.

Q: Do you see our government today raising the tax on gasoline?

A: Well, if we get scared enough it will. We have a recent example of how this works. The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta have done a remarkably detailed study of the social costs of smoking cigarettes. Taking into account the two major costs of treating smoking-related illnesses and the cost of worker absenteeism [which causes] lower worker productivity, in this country they calculate [the cost] is $7.18 a pack. So the cost to society of cigarette smoking is far greater than the cost to the individual buying the cigarettes.

We're in a similar situation now with gasoline because burning gasoline leads to carbon emissions and higher temperatures and it's these higher temperatures that are beginning to effect world food production. When we buy a gallon of gasoline at the service station we basically pay the cost of getting the oil out of the ground, refining it into gasoline, getting the gasoline to the local service station. We do not pay the cost of treating illnesses caused by air pollution. There are literally hundreds of millions of people around the world now who suffer from air pollution; three million of them die each year so it's not a trivial cost. And then the cost of global warming … how do you calculate the cost of reduced harvest and food shortages? How do you calculate the cost of ice melting and rising sea level? The point is that the cost becomes almost unacceptably high to continue with our fossil fuel based economy. I think we need to ask the question how much is the cost to society of burning a gallon of gasoline? And my guess is that it would probably be as large as if not larger than the cost of smoking a pack of cigarettes. The reason for doing this research is that it provides then sort of an empirical backdrop against which to think about tax levels.

Q: It all seems overwhelming. Is there hope?

A: I conclude the book by referring to the amazing logistical challenges we overcame in World War II. President Roosevelt met with automobile leaders and laid out his goals for arms production, explaining that he was going to ban the sale of automobiles in the United States so auto makers could focus on building tanks, aircraft, guns, and ships. From the beginning of April 1942 until the end of 1944, there were no cars sold for private use in the U.S. For us, we hear Detroit today say, “Oh well, we can’t build more efficient cars.” If Chrysler can go from making cars one day to making tanks the next, I think we can do almost anything. That was the United States doing it, so we can do it again.

Q: By the way, what exactly was "Plan A"?

A: There was a cartoon in the New York Times a few Sundays ago and there were a group of generals sitting at a table in a row and at the head of the table a guy had a document that said "The Rebuilding of Iraq: Plan B." And then down the table one guy has his hand to his mouth and says to another "Was there a Plan A?" That's sort of where we are. We're just sort of muddling along. If we'd done that in World War II we'd be in real trouble. And I think we're in a situation where the urgency is comparable to WWII. And the cost of inaction could be even greater.

Q: Can you recommend resources for those who want to learn more about protecting the environment?

A: To begin with, our Web site has links to many other groups that work with climate, population, water, food, and so forth. And every few weeks we also do a four-page "Eco-Economy Update" on any of a range of environmental issues and these are free of charge, as are our books. One can go online at www.earth-policy.org and download our books free of charge. We will have the entire book, Plan B, online so anyone who wants to download it can do so.

—Delicious Living

To download Plan B for free, visit www.earthpolicy.org.