Lester Brown on his must-read new book “Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization” the Superfreaks, a lot of good books on global warming and its solutions are coming out right now (see “The Invention of Lying about Climate Change“).  One of the best is Lester Brown‘s “Plan B 4.0:  Mobilizing to Save Civilization.”  In his book, Brown lays out the too-little-discussed but devastating impacts unrestricted emissions of greenhouse gases will have on agriculture, expanding on his Scientific American piece “Could Food Shortages Bring Down Civilization?”

He also lays out one of the most comprehensive set of solutions you can find in one place, including important subjects and strategies that don’t get enough attention, with a full chapter on “Eradicating Poverty and Stabilizing Population,” another one on “Restoring the Earth,” which focuses on regenerating forests, soils, and fisheries, and, of course, “Feeding Eight [!] Billion People Well” — the exclamation point is mine.

I had lunch with him recently, an eye-opener even for someone who follows these issues closely.  I asked him to submit some blog posts.  What follows is his first, about his new book, which was just released September 29.

In early 2008, Saudi Arabia announced that, after being self-sufficient in wheat for over 20 years, the non-replenishable aquifer it had been pumping for irrigation was largely depleted.

In response, officials said they would reduce their wheat harvest by one eighth each year until production would cease entirely in 2016. The Saudis would then import virtually all the grain consumed by their Canada-sized population of nearly 30 million people.

The Saudis are unique in being so wholly dependent on irrigation.  But other, far larger, grain producers such as India and China are facing irrigation water losses and could face grain production declines.

Water Shortages Undermining Food Security

Fifteen percent of India’s grain harvest is produced by overpumping its groundwater. In human terms, 175 million Indians are being fed with grain produced from wells that will be going dry. The comparable number for China is 130 million. Among the many other countries facing harvest reductions from groundwater depletion are Pakistan, Iran, and Yemen.

The tripling of world wheat, rice, and corn prices between mid-2006 and mid-2008 signaled our growing vulnerability to food shortages. It took the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression to lower grain prices.

Past decades have witnessed world grain price surges, but they were event-drive-a drought in the former Soviet Union, a monsoon failure in India, or a crop-withering heat wave in the U.S. Corn Belt. This most recent price surge was trend-driven, the result of our failure to reverse the environmental trends that are undermining world food production.

These trends include-in addition to falling water tables-eroding soils and rising temperatures from increasing greenhouse gas emissions. Rising temperatures bring crop-shrinking heat waves, melting ice sheets, rising sea level, and shrinking mountain glaciers.

With both the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets melting at an accelerating pace, sea level could rise by up to six feet during this century. Such a rise would inundate much of the Mekong Delta, which produces half of the rice in Viet Nam, the world’s second-ranking rice exporter. Even a three-foot rise in sea level would cover half the riceland in Bangladesh, a country of 160 million people. And these are only two of Asia’s many rice-growing river deltas.

The world’s mountain glaciers have shrunk for 18 consecutive years. Many smaller glaciers have disappeared. Nowhere is the melting more alarming than in the Himalayas and on the

Tibetan plateau where the ice melt from glaciers sustains not only the dry-season flow of the Indus, Ganges, Yangtze, and Yellow rivers but also the irrigation systems that depend on them. Without these glaciers, many Asian rivers would cease to flow during the dry season.

The wheat and rice harvests of China and India would be directly affected. China is the world’s leading wheat producer. India is second. (The United States is third.) With rice, China and India totally dominate the world harvest. The projected melting of these glaciers poses the most massive threat to food security the world has ever faced.

An Early Sign of Decline?
The number of hungry people, which was declining for several decades, bottomed out in the mid-1990s at 825 million. In 2009 it jumped to over 1 billion. With world food prices projected to continue rising, so too will the number of hungry people.

We know from studying earlier civilizations such as the Sumerians, Mayans, and many others, that more often than not it was food shortages that led to their demise. It now appears that food may be the weak link in our early twenty-first century civilization as well.

Will we follow in the footsteps of the Sumerians and the Mayans or can we change course–and do it before time runs out? Can we move onto an economic path that is environmentally sustainable? We think we can. That is what Plan B 4.0 is about.

Mobilizing to Save Civilization
Plan B aims to stabilize climate, stabilize population, eradicate poverty, and restore the economy’s natural support systems. It prescribes a worldwide cut in net carbon emissions of 80 percent by 2020, thus keeping atmospheric CO2 concentrations from exceeding 400 parts per million.

Cutting carbon emissions will require both a worldwide revolution in energy efficiency and a shift from oil, coal, and gas to wind, solar, and geothermal energy.

The shift to renewable sources of energy is moving at a pace and on a scale we could not imagine even two years ago. Consider the state of Texas. The enormous number of wind projects under development, on top of the 9,000 megawatts of wind generating capacity in operation and under construction, will bring Texas to over 50,000 megawatts of wind generating capacity (think 50 coal-fired power plants) when all these wind farms are completed. This will more than satisfy the needs of the state’s 24 million residents.

Nationwide, new wind generating capacity in 2008 totaled 8,400 megawatts while new coal plants totaled only 1,400 megawatts. The annual growth in solar generating capacity will also soon overtake that of coal. The energy transition is under way.

The United States has led the world in each of the last four years in new wind generating capacity, having overtaken Germany in 2005. But this lead will be short-lived.  China is working on six wind farm mega-complexes with generating capacities that range from 10,000 to 30,000 megawatts, for a total of 105,000 megawatts. This is in addition to the hundreds of smaller wind farms built or planned.

Wind is not the only option. In July 2009, a consortium of European corporations led by Munich Re, and including Deutsche Bank, Siemens, and ABB plus an Algerian firm, announced a proposal to tap the massive solar thermal generating capacity in North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean. Solar thermal power plants in North Africa could economically supply half of Europe’s electricity. The Algerians note that they have enough harnessable solar energy in their desert to power the world economy. (No, this is not an error.)

The soaring investment in wind, solar, and geothermal energy is being driven by the exciting realization that these renewables can last as long as the earth itself. In contrast to investing in new oil fields where well yields begin to decline in a matter of decades, or in coal mines where the seams run out, these new energy sources can last forever.

At a Tipping Point
We are in a race between political tipping points and natural tipping points. Can we cut carbon emissions fast enough to save the Greenland ice sheet and avoid the resulting rise in sea level? Can we close coal-fired power plants fast enough to save at least the larger glaciers in the Himalayas and on the Tibetan Plateau? Can we stabilize population by lowering fertility before nature takes over and halts population growth by raising mortality?

Yes. But it will take something close to a wartime mobilization, one similar to that of the United States in 1942 as it restructured its industrial economy in a matter of months. We used to talk about saving the planet, but it is civilization itself that is now at risk.

Saving civilization is not a spectator sport. Each of us must push for rapid change. And we must be armed with a plan outlining the changes needed.

— Lester Brown

17 Responses to Lester Brown on his must-read new book “Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization”

  1. joyce says:

    Thank you for giving Lester Brown space in your blog. All of the Plan B books are terrific, and must reads for people who want a comprehensive and understandable view of climate issues. And thank you Lester Brown for thoroughly updating these books every year. They are on my recommendation list for people who want to understand and find ways to help.

  2. Jim Bouldin says:

    Lester, thank you for all your work. When Plan B 3.0 came out I said “I’ve got to read that”, but never did get to it. Now I have more incentive. I much appreciate your wide-ranging integration of the different aspects and interrelationships of these various problems. We badly need such viewpoints. Thanks for putting this up Joe.

  3. Carl S says:

    This most recent price surge was trend-driven, the result of our failure to reverse the environmental trends that are undermining world food production.

    I don’t believe that’s entirely accurate. Most blame the recent price spike in food commodities on several things: increased cost in fertilizer (driven by natural gas prices) and higher demand in Asia.

    As for your larger point, that wind and solar are somehow going to displace large amounts of base load coal, we would try at our own peril. Integrating more than a token quantity of variable output renewables will make brownouts and blackouts a daily occurrence.

  4. Cynthia says:

    That was beautiful! Thank you!

  5. Rockfish says:

    Good book. Kudos to CP for giving Mr Brown a spot on the blog.

  6. I haven’t read 4.0, but the greatest defect of earlier versions of Plan B (in my opinion) is that it doesn’t talk about any mechanism for stabilizing per capita consumption.

    Remember the famous IPAT equation:
    Total Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology

    Brown very strongly emphasizes stabilizing population and developing cleaner technology. But he mentions the need to stabilize consumption, without talking about policies that would make it possible.

    The Canadian economist Peter Victor has developed computer models of how an economy can stabilize consumption and transition to slow growth or no growth. Part of it involves a shift from private to public investment. An important part is shorter work hours, since stabilizing consumption would cause high and growing unemployment unless it is balanced by shorter work hours.

    I think this is not just an oversight of Brown’s. It is an oversight of the environmental movement generally. Many environmentalists do talk about the need to live simply, but very few actually look at practical policies that would make it possible for us to stabilize per capita consumption, so nations can transition to slow growth or no growth after they reach the point where they are economically comfortable.

  7. Mark Shapiro says:

    Plan 4.0 is a must read.

    Lester Brown is a hero.

  8. Richard Brenne says:

    Thanks Joe, and thanks Lester for a great post. We just made your February, 2009 Scientific American article (should’ve been the cover, although the chimp-woman was cute) and Plan B 3.0 in our NASA-sponsored Global Climate Change on-line course.

    My partner Toby Dittrich and I feel food security is the number one concern relating to climate change. NOAA’s Earth Science Research Laboratory Founding Director Alexander MacDonald does also, because he brought up your Scientific American article to me at lunch recently.

    I’ve produced and moderated panels with climate scientists, freshwater experts, topsoil and peak oil and natural gas experts all discussing what the concerns are in their areas of expertise. When you put them all together they’re unbelievably alarming.

    You’ve done the best job of synthesizing all this issues of anyone, but I still think you should factor in peak oil and natural gas more. As you know, in 1940 it took a calorie of fossil fuels to create a calorie of food. Now the ratio is more like 10 calories of fossil fuels to create a calorie of food. And natural gas, while currently looking a bit more optimistic than oil with the development of shale gas, is the primary feedstock of most fertilizers.

    So when not every farmer can at first afford and eventually obtain all the oil and gas they’re used to, and when transporting food along existing paradigms is also crippled, these will be as key parts of the equation as those you so appropriately and expertly raise.

    Also, as you also know there is a global crisis in obtaining capital for all endeavors, including farming.

    My dream is to produce a panel with you, people like Kevin Trenberth, Al Bartlett, Bill McKibben (I just had the last three last month at an event at Chautauqua in Boulder) and Richard Heinberg about peak oil and natural gas.

    Thanks so much for all your great work, both Joe and Lester.

  9. Mark Shapiro says:

    Editing note – the link to the book, Plan B 4.0, is broken.


    You can download the whole thing free — it’s fast!

  10. Lou Grinzo says:

    First and foremost, let me add my applause for Lester Brown to those already resounding in our virtual meeting room. Thank you for everything you’ve done, and please keep fighting the good fight.

    Secondly, I’m particularly glad to see your focus on water issues. I’ve been saying for some time that the primary vector for climate change’s impact on people will be through fresh water supplies. Less water for personal consumption/use, less water for agriculture, less water for hydroelectricity and thermoelectric power plant cooling–the details are truly horrific, and the more we talk about them and push for real action on our energy and environmental challenges, the better.

  11. Gail says:

    Lou Grinzo, in case you missed the excellent article in the NYT today about water:

  12. pete best says:

    Just read UNQUENCHABLE about americas water issues. Its a good book and only recently published and I live in the UK!! Reading it for a second time. The world consumes 5000 cubic kiliometers of the stuff ever year.

    Thats a lot right ;)

  13. Phillip Huggan says:

    Learning about water mining and fossil water aquifers. Confusing as I’m not sure if water mining that results in a ground depression renders the aquifer unrechargeable and if this is what usually happens or if remains a “hollowed-out” vestible suitable to be refilled. The concept would be to somehow recharge the aquifers. Not sure if I mean capturing one-time (temporary surge before glaciers lost) melting glacier runoff or just channelling regular rainfall or rivers to be stored in the aquifer instead of running off to sea or evaporating.
    I bet a whole bunch of oil’s workforce could be employed here, but I’m not sure if this would be more economical than just using less water or reusing water. If it only buys you a few extra years of water supply what’s the point? The Mayans had reservoirs capable of storing 1.5yrs of water. Didn’t mean nothing then and wouldn’t much much in the future if glaciers melt. Maybe is better just to put floating logs or something on lakes to eliminate evaporation? Too bad models can’t predict where water shortages and flashfloods will be.

  14. Lester makes a great point about media in my interview with him for the IPS new service:

    “It looks like I’m a radical because the mainstream media aren’t reflecting the reality of our situation.”

  15. Dano says:

    I’ve been a Les Brown fan for many years, have numerous books of his and have seen him speak (with scant notes) several times. His analyses are incisive and cogent. And I agree with Charles above that the policy prescriptions for turning all this around were wanting.

    Regarding the oversight(s) of the environmental community, Gus Speth’s new book The Bridge at the End of the World explains and corrects the oversight(s) wonderfully and it is highly recommended.



  16. paulm says:

    Good to see LB get some air time here.

    Things do seem to be turning now. However, the news is full of the economy rebounding. I only hope that sustainably (ie non-growth base) is incorporated in this before it is too late.

    We will probably have a second chance at this as I am convinced we are coming out of this downturn too quickly (and there are all the other issue waiting in the wings – like food prices etc).

  17. hapa says:

    i made a handy self-explaining shortlink for the online version of the book: