Learning from Lester Brown

Lester Brown We can learn a lot from Lester Brown. By way of introduction, he is an environmentalist with some 50 books to his credit, including Eco-Economy: Building an Economy for the Earth and Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble. He founded the Worldwatch Institute and the Earth Policy Institute, and is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship and the 1989 United Nations Environment Prize.

In the video linked to below, he touches briefly on the relationship between the economy and the environment at its broadest level, an issue we’ve examined here before. Incessant growth of an economy out of sync with the environment has imposed severe stresses on the ecosystem. Brown discusses how ongoing environmental degradation might soon affect the economy as falling water tables (and rising temperatures) constrain food production worldwide. This is a nice introduction to this water issue which Brown describes as “the most underestimated resource issue in the world today.”

Though its role is clear enough to the careful listener, Brown only touches in the video on population growth. Elsewhere he spells out the crisis toward which we’re heading if we are unable to hasten stabilizing world population at a time when water tables are dropping in the most populous countries, which also happen to be the largest grain producers.

He speculates, in fact, that world population numbers may not make it to the level of current projections. While he hopes this will be due to our taking wise, proactive steps to stabilize world population, he fears it will instead come in large part from the clash of human numbers and the earth’s carrying capacity. As that clash intensifies, water shortages will mean food shortages, with malnutrition and hunger costing untold numbers of lives. (The other major contributor to this increased death rate is the tragic impact of the HIV epidemic in Africa.) As other aspects of environmental degradation reach certain thresholds as well, our bubble economy, artificially inflated by our consumption of the earth’s natural capital in an effort to provide for 6.5 billion people and counting, will inevitably burst.

Once again, we must confront our unsustainable economic model, excessive consumption, and population growth — the catastrophic triad of our time.

Click here for the video.
Image source: poptech2006, posted on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 license

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30 responses to “Learning from Lester Brown

  1. While I recognize that “awareness” is on an all-time high (how many new eco-blogs have come into existence? and how many new ones keep popping up every day?), I can’t help seeing that whole societies of people are finding it difficult (impossible?) to adapt to the situation.

    “Everybody” knows that we are all faced with new, and extremely scary, climate scenarios. Nevertheless: societies of people keep going in the opposite direction of what would be “wise” or “advisable”.

    Are “we” (as social creatures) willing to accept that “the unstoppable growth show must perpetually go on” – never mind the consequences?

    I wonder. Are “we” ready to just face the fact of mass extinction? Business-as-usual and status quo being the “name of the game.”

    I’m merely speculating, okay? :-/

  2. To lend credence to Brown’s comment on falling water tables being a major problem, one need only look to T. Boone Pickens who is either a “notorious oilman” or “great oil entrepreneur” depending on your point of view. He’s buying up land in order to get the water rights to part of the Ogallala aquifer so he can sell the water to large cities.

    Read about it in the Southwest Farm Press and at Public Citizen. The former seems to think it’s an interesting idea, the latter is rather appalled, noting he wants to sell as much as 200,000 acre-feet annually when the natural recharge rate is less than 1.

    Boon notes: “I can sell down to 50 percent of the saturated thickness of the water table. … In 100 years, 50 percent of the water in four counties (adjacent to Roberts) would remain.”

    He’s mining fossil water.

  3. Magne,

    I can’t help seeing that whole societies of people are finding it difficult (impossible?) to adapt to the situation.

    That’s the crux of the issue for me. The more I learn, the more it seems to me Brown’s speculation — that world population will be capped sooner rather than later and due to trauma rather than taking wise, proactive, intentional steps — is likely to be true. As depressing as that may be (and I find it very depressing) I force myself to remember that any wise steps we take now will save more of Earth’s environment and reduce the suffering of future generations.

    I do imagine that 50 or 100 years from now the question will be, “Why did those people at the beginning of the 21st century take so much for themselves and leave so little for us?”

    One can hope as the crisis heats up nations will move from competition to get resources to cooperation in managing our planet wisely.

  4. Magne — Yes, climate change is really the lever which is increasing awareness, but the denial and turning away is strong. Many say it’s human nature not to really respond until things reach a crisis point. But, as we’ve wondered before, what shape will the global ecosystem be in if we wait until a crisis is directly and clearly impacting the lives of many or most in developed countries?

    I don’t know; I just go with Trinifar’s assumption that any small dents made now will be of help to future generations.

    And who knows, maybe some series of events (unfortunately probably tragic events) concerning climate change (or maybe Brown’s water/food shortages) will kick people into gear and swing things in a new direction. Hmmm, I wonder if there is some “critical mass” of blogs, websites, media articles, movies, etc. that would trigger such a shift.

    Trinifar — Thanks for those links. Very interesting. I wonder if Pickens is a harbinger of a coming wave of capitalistic efforts to profit from water. I’m seeing a vision of the captains of industry going down with the ship their actions sunk. :-/

    I have to think you’re right, as well, about how this time will be viewed in the future. If we manage to survive and find a better way, much of today’s economic activity will no doubt look both ruthless and incredibly short-sighted.

  5. John, as for capitalists developing a “water market,” it’s only a matter of time before they will tell us how “good” such a market would be for everyone.

    “I’m seeing a vision of the captains of industry going down with the ship their actions sunk.”

    Hey, I’m on that ship too! Good time for a muntiny.

    I firmly believe there is a “critical mass” in terms of good research and communication about that research in blogs, books, movies, etc. The most recent IPCC report is getting a lot of press and I hope will get more as it sinks into to people’s thinking. I plan on writing about it, especially since some believe it is too conservative. Keep up the good work here at GIM, you’re a gifted writer.

  6. Good time for a mutiny, indeed. And thanks for the kind words, Trinifar. You’re no slouch of a writer yourself! 🙂

  7. Funny you should talk about water. Like a true masochist, I added a few comments to the Australian Libertarian Society blog site – their posting on water privatisation particularly. Although not entirely sure about the role of public vs. private provision of water I thought these smug hyper-rationalists needed opposition. Unfortunately, not knowing much about the issue of water (and being quit outnumbered) , I got a little bruised. Fun nevertheless.

    Take a look:


  8. Magne Karlsen

    John: “Many say it’s human nature not to really respond until things reach a crisis point.”

    – —

    So what’s the definition of “crisis point” ..?

    I mean: from what I’m reading on the internet, it’s becoming pretty clear that many people feel we’ve reached some sort of crisis point already. The call for immediate changes, especially in terms of our energy production and energy use, is definitely becoming louder and louder. – The problem is, however: this new call is popularly written on blogs. To me, it’s more like realizing that there’s a growing number of people who are indulged in the “writing, writing on the wall.” 🙂

    On the other hand – from what I can see, hear and otherwise sense (as the social creature I am) – it seems to me like the population at large (the society of people) is ready to enjoy their food and their water, so long as it is still there, and breathe freely for as long as this is possible; that there really is no crisis until there is nothing much to eat any longer.

    Now: please don’t misunderstand me too much. I am also hoping that the eco-awareness boom may actually turn out to be a good thing. What I am worried about is the possibility of making a switch from “individual concern” to “societal concern.”


  9. Magne, I think the situation is similar to that of the slavery in the USA in the 18th and 19th centuries. Many people (perhaps most notably Thomas Jefferson and George Washington) knew slavery was wrong and yet owned slaves. In the late 1700’s we created a new nation “founded on liberty and freedom for all” that enslaved millions of human beings. About 16% of the population were slaves in 1800, about 10% in 1865.

    It was a long hard road for the abolitionists to get the word out and make their case, and even then it took a civil war and the deaths of more than half a million people (2% of the population) to abolish slavery in the USA. And still it was only in the 1960s with the Voting Rights Act that the decendents of slaves were actually enfranchised.

    Are we wiser today, able to take more effective action before resource wars take their toll? Ceraintly we are more clever with science and technology, but it would take a great leap of faith to say we are more noble or less self-serving.

  10. Verdurous, against my better judgment I followed that link and left a comment. There’s really no meaningful discussion to be had with those guys (and they are always guys). Still, I think there is some good in engaging a little bit in the hope that someone who is merely libertarian-curious and not yet given over to the Dark Side might be swayed.

  11. Magne,

    I was thinking along the lines of your second scenario — a crisis point at which people’s daily lives are directly affected. I think the warnings of scientists, environmental bloggers, etc. only really register with a small minority, even among those who read them. (The goal, of course, is to keep sending the message out there and to keep tweaking it in ways that one hopes will register with larger numbers.) But real, concrete inconveniences and losses to people’s daily lives will register. But that will be an awfully late point in the process, so we have to keep trying to spark something, anything, before it gets to that point. Maybe it will only help a little, but that’s something.

    It may be a long road, as Trinifar describes. I suppose the US civil war was the big crisis point there. Let’s hope it doesn’t take anything nearly so catastrophic in the “war” for the planet.

  12. Verdurous,

    I read a good chunk of that discussion. I think you did just fine. Kudos to you and now Trinifar for getting in there and engaging such a group.

    I have only a basic understanding of libertarianism. (And have more recently seen the arguments of “anarcho-capitalists,” who seem to be the logical extreme of the same philosophy.) But my current thinking it this:

    While I think libertarianism contains some worthwhile points to consider, I think many of its adherents are either lying or deluded in their assertions about the environment. This is because on the one hand they insist that freeing up the markets, allowing pure capitalism to do its thing, will protect the environment more than any other approach. (and there are aspects of that which make sense, such as ending corporate subsidies which only allow more environmental degradation) But on the other hand they have been actively engaged in the climate change denial business. (See statements from the Cato Institute and other libertarian organizations.) You can’t say your methods will be good for the environment if you’re unwilling to listen to what science is telling us about the environment. That stance is transparently pro-business at the expense of the environment.

    They are also among the most vocal groups arguing against any notion that population growth is a problem and should be addressed. There again, their denial of environmental problems betrays their real values.

    By the way, on the issue of private ownership and the notion that it will automatically lead people to take better care of resources, I wonder why so many people trash their cars and homes.

    For now, I don’t have many firm ideas about exactly how government should be structured to best protect the environment. But given the libertarian denial of major environmental problems, I figure the answer must not lie there. I do see clearly that our current economic approach isn’t working in that regard, and that its model is completely wrong in its vision of the economy-ecosystem relationship.

    Currently, I’m reading Molly Scott Cato’s book. Market Schmarket: Building the Post-Capitalist Society, and while I don’t know if I’ll come away from it feeling I have the answer, I certainly find myself much more sympathetic to its philosophy than to that of the libertarians. (much less the anarcho-capitalists, who seem to me to be a bit of a contradiction in terms… Once you get rid of government completely, how are you to be sure economic activity remains structured in a capitalistic way? i.e., I don’t think those guys are really the anarchists they hold themselves out to be.) It’s very readable and intriguing, and I’ll post a review when I’m finished. (which may be a while since I’m reading a few others at the same time. :-/ )

    Molly’s blog has some interesting reads.

  13. Magne,

    Regarding individual concern shifting to societal concern. There is certainly room for hope. We need not reach a catastrophic crisis before change occurs. The steps by which things may evolve:

    1) continued and growing media and public interest in climate change and species loss (after all the issues wilonly intensify)

    2) increased activity by small groups on many fronts tackling environmental concerns. Also increased pressure from within academic circles.

    3) increased networking by these groups which coalesce to form large, more powerful voices within civil socety.

    4) a series of minor regional environmental crises leads to….

    5) increased electoral success of green-leaning candidates and election time discussion of green issues. They then implement wider societal changes which make it easy to do the right thing. We no longer rely purely on individual ethical action (which can never work on its own).

    6) governments and departments of education increase exposure to sustainability and green issues in schools leading to future generations of wise citizens. Young people who can’t understand why we treated the Earth’s ecology so brutally in the early part of the third millenium.

  14. John, like you I seem to have an attention problem and read a few books at a time. Sometimes I come unstuck though and some don’t get finished.

    Regarding libertariansim. I think it is a philosophy that has contributed a great deal to Western thought and is perhaps the most dominant strand of political thought looking back through US history. Civil liberties are a particularly important product of the movement.

    But the pendulum can swing too far and I feel the balance of individual rights versus societal obligations is a bit out of kilter in the West.

    FWIW, these are some movements that I find most appealing at the presenttime:

    Communitarianism (not Communism!!), Relocalisation (related to anti-globalisation), Green economics.

  15. John,

    Thanks for alerting me to Gaianeconomics Blog. Her book title reminded me of another one. Although the list of worthy books is neverending, “The Post-Corporate World” by David Korten is great. His background is acadaemia (psychology/business) though he has experience in the military and has worked in the field of promoting development in the third world also.

    Here’s a link:

    Website is worth a browse even for those with too much on their plate to take on a new book in its entirety.

  16. Verdurous,

    First, thanks for pushing a little hope and optimism around here. It’s all too easy to see mostly denial and lack of change, and I’m as guilty as anyone of that. But we need to remember that these things do take time, and there is a reasonable chance we’ll ultimately see real progress. The steps you describe are certainly realistic. So let’s hope the more we and everyone else push for progress, the more damage will be prevented down the road. Okay Magne, time for some optimism, man! 🙂

    On libertarianism, I hadn’t thought of its influence in the way you describe it, but it does make sense. I suppose the actual libertarians represent the extreme end of a spectrum (well, perhaps not as extreme as the anarcho-capitalists, but similar) so as a small minority don’t have a lot of direct representation. But their line of thought (or very similar lines) does seem to have had a lot of influence. And yeah, it’s swung pretty far in recent times. Personally, I think it’s disheartening, to say the least, to see where it’s brought us. But the recent democratic victories in the US spark a lot of hope.

    Thanks too for the David Korten link, which I’ll look into. I’ll be looking more closely as well at Communitarianism and Relocalisation, terms I hadn’t heard, though I see they describe some ideas I’ve seen touched on in articles, but not named. Interesting to see they are actually well defined movements.

  17. Pingback: the CIA & saving the world « Trinifar

  18. Magne Karlsen

    John: – Okay Magne, time for some optimism, man! 🙂

    – —

    Well, I’m laughing here. Ha ha.

    Believe me: I’m all hopes, but hell: it seems as if we’ve got a long way to go. Not only are a lot of people only looking for reasons to believe the opposite of what is the general tendency of the eco-blogs of this universe (including yours); the latest mainstream news also bug me. –


    Quote: “According to the new report, the administration’s climate policy will result in emissions growing 11 percent in 2012 from 2002. In the previous decade, emissions grew at a rate of 11.6 percent, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
    The report also contains sections describing growing risks to water supplies, coasts and ecosystems around the United States from the anticipated temperature and precipitation changes driven by the atmospheric buildup of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping greenhouse gases.”


    Quote: “”There should be a moratorium on building any more coal-fired power plants until the technology to capture and sequester the (carbon dioxide emissions) is available,” said James Hansen, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.
    “This is a hard proposition that no politician is willing to stand up and say it’s necessary,” he told journalists at the National Press Club.

    Anyway: we truly are becoming more “aware” every day, now aren’t we?

    Verdurous: – Future generations of wise citizens; young people who can’t understand why we treated the Earth’s ecology so brutally in the early part of the third millenium.

    – —

    You know what: the way we – the modern adult population – is parenting, socializing and otherwise guiding our little ones, I’m afraid there is no reason to believe it’s an earth saving lot we are raising. Bad habits are very hard to change. Especially when you don’t know about any other way of doing things, and coping with life.

    Who’s going to teach the children that we might as well need to come to terms with the fact that, over the past few generations, we’ve all grown accustomed to making enormous mistakes, and that making these mistakes is “our way of life” – which our government troops are waging wars in far-away places, in order to protect ..?

    Not funny. Not entirely untrue either.

  19. Is that the same Lester Brown that predicted crippling famines sweeping the world in the 1990’s? You know, the Lester Brown that predicted that soil erosion would reduce crop yields no later than 2001? Lester Brown, the neo-Malthusian who is just as accurate as Ehrlich?

    It is?

    Oh, OK.

  20. Deep Thought, I invite you to enter this discussion in a meaningful way. For example you could provide some citations for your claims about Brown. Just off the top of my head, China’s grain harvest has decreased steadily in recent years and there was a famine in the Sudan in the late 1990’s — so I’m not sure what you are getting at or what your goal is. I’m no Brown scholar but he has a substantial body of serious work and is highly regarded even by people who don’t agree with all his conclusions.

  21. Deep Thought,

    In addition to Trinifar’s comments, I would just add that I and others are perfectly willing to discuss these issues civilly. I too invite you to join in and do so. Sarcastic, unsourced jabs don’t really help us accomplish anything.

    I’ll just underline Trinifar’s points by adding that world grain production per capita peaked in the ’80s and declined in subsequent years up to the present:

    Here’s a graph

    As for Ehrlich, his ideas have actually been very solid. He made a mistake, I think, in betting on some resource prices with Julian Simon. His basic argument was correct while Simon’s was wrong. (Simon said, for instance, that we could continue growing the human population for the next seven billion years, an absurd notion which has been completely debunked.) But when you bet on something like the price of copper in the near future, there are many variables at work. You may actually have the best side of the bet, but will frequently lose anyway. Any professional gambler knows this. And of course Simon lost similar bets with others and refused a follow up bet with Ehrlich.

    Ehrlich shouldn’t have bet on something that people who didn’t understand the nature of the bet would latch onto to discredit him, and should have been reluctant to make many specific predictions. There are too many variables at work. But his general ideas are valid: The earth is finite. There are limits to growth. We will pay for overshooting them by too much for too long. He should be your hero. 🙂

  22. Magne,

    Those are telling links, indeed. It’s definitely an uphill battle, but there’s room for hope, I think. I need to read your comment on Trinifar’s essay which looks at the possible “tipping point” regarding raising awareness:


    Once I get a chance to read it, I’ll come back to this to see if I can still be an optimist — or at least one who hopes. :-/

  23. John, I’ll try to get to the video tomorrow. In the meantime, I inadvertently blogged on something similar today. See ” An inverted look at climate change” at http://facilitatedsystems.com/weblog/2007/03/inverted-look-at-climate-change.html; it’s a pointer to a paper by Peter Schwarz and company.

  24. That URL should have been http://facilitatedsystems.com/weblog/2007/03/inverted-look-at-climate-change.html , which is what you get if you take the “;” off the end.


  25. Bill,

    Thanks! Just from an initial look, the report looks very interesting, with educated guesses about effects of climate change that we don’t hear so much about.

  26. Bill, the report is a very good read. Thanks. Too bad the PDF doesn’t allow for copy/paste (they turned all the protections on); there were a couple of pithy statements I wanted to share. Instead I’ll just encourage everyone to read it.

    BTW Lester Brown’s Plan B 2.0 is on-line in HTML and PDF here: http://www.earth-policy.org/Books/PB2/Contents.htm and you can listen to him talk at http://forum.wgbh.org/wgbh/forum.php?lecture_id=3062 WGBH out of Boston. It’s about an hour long.

  27. Trinifar, I don’t know for sure why they protected it. One thought came to me as I was reading it, though; I’m not sure excerpts from that document travel well. It may be that they wanted to (try to) ensure people got the whole picture and not just subsets of their message.

  28. Thanks for posting Lester Brown’s Plan B 2.0 links. You’re messing up my schedule; now I want to take the time to read it. 🙂 Looking at the outline reminded me a bit of Gerry Barney’s Global 2000 Revisited; see my More on growth for an introduction and the link.

  29. Oops: I should have noted that the link to Barney’s work is the very last link in that posting.

  30. Barney’s little book (or long essay) has a nice approach. The focus on arable land and a 70 year window is a great way to make the material immediately relevant. And anyone who quotes Thich Nhat Hanh and Gary Snyder always gets my attention.