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Time for Plan B: Our Civilization Is on the Edge of a Systemic Breakdown

Lester Brown talks about whether our civilization can survive the mounting global stresses of rising pollution, starvation, food prices, water shortages and failed states.
 
 
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"How many failing states before we have a failing global civilization?" asks environmental pioneer Lester Brown in Plan B: Mobilizing to Save Civilization , premiering March 30 on PBS as part of its continuing Journey to Planet Earth series. It's a Gordian knot of a question with no simple answer and nothing but complex, demanding solutions, fearsomely put forth as the fate of humanity totters in the balance.

Based on Brown's book of the same name, Plan B is likely the scariest horror film that was ever disguised as a documentary, despite its calm narration from superstar Matt Damon. That's because the acclaimed environmentalist has deeply studied the variety of environmental and geopolitical tipping points we are fast approaching, and found that we're headed for a seriously dark dystopia if we don't turn civilization as we know it around, and fast. A catastrophic confluence of food and water shortages, overpopulation and pollution, collapsed governments and communities and more natural disasters than Roland Emmerich can dream up await us on the other side of Plan A, which Brown calls "business of usual."

"Environmentalists have been talking for decades about saving the planet, but the planet is going to be around for some time to come," Brown told AlterNet by phone from his Washington D.C. office at the Earth Policy Institute, which he founded at the turn of the century after decades of public and private service in the name of sustainability. "The question is will civilization as we know it be around for some time to come? Can it survive the mounting global stresses of rising pollution, starvation, food prices, water shortages and failed states? These are the real threats to our security now, but we're not responding to them."

In a sense, we are without knowing it. Japan's bungled response to a mounting nuclear crisis, thanks to one of Earth’s most destabilizing earthquakes and tsunamis, has in a cosmological eyeblink reset the entire world's nuclear ambition. Uprisings in hotspots like Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and more, compounded by America's continuing quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan, are squarely knitting together civilization's crappy experiments like preemptive war, biofuels and light-speed financial stratagems into one titanic mess that is demanding new theories of cleanup.

It's no longer intellectually feasible to consider any of these events as separate, because they, like the warming climate, are interconnected nightmares that are keeping us more awake than ever, whether we like it or not. And no matter how we spin them, Plan B argues, we're eventually all going to have to work together to survive what is without a doubt an existential crisis of historical proportions. Only the depth and vigor of our mutual efforts and understanding separate us and every other failed civilization in the planet's incomprehensibly expansive history.

But after 77 years spent on Earth, most of them trying to educate its inhabitants on the dangers of taking its astronomically singular bounty for granted, the soft-spoken Brown remains a cautious optimist. That's a comforting sign for those of us at our wits' end and wondering when the rest of civilization will get its ass in gear to forestall what passes for a collective execution.

"Change comes very quickly and unexpectedly sometimes," Brown said. "The question is whether we can turn things around quickly enough. But I don't think we have a lot of time. Time is our scarcest resource."

I picked Brown's deeply experienced brain on geopolitical and environmental change, Japan's nuclear crisis, China's powerhouse green economy, food and water scarcity, technological bandaids like desalination and lab-grown meat and much more. Taken together with Plan B 's accessible yet apocalyptic programming, it points the way forward for a civilization on the edge of a systemic breakdown.

Scott Thill: The book and television program is called Plan B: Mobilizing to Save Civilization . So let's start with how Plan A, what you call "business as usual," bungled the job?

Lester Brown: Plan A belongs to another age. There was a time when the market could set prices pretty well and guide the direction of economic development. But in recent decades, and particularly recent years, we have come to realize that many of the indirect costs have not been included in the prices that the market sets. The market is good at setting direct costs. For example, when you buy a gallon of gas, the market includes the costs of pumping, refining and distribution of that gas to your local service station. But the market is not very good at treating the indirect costs of treating respiratory illnesses from breathing polluted air, and certainly not the cost of climate change. The problem with Plan A's system, which worked pretty well a century ago when the world economy was only a twentieth of what it is now, is that these indirect costs are now far larger than the direct ones. So we're being guided by the market, but it's not telling us the truth about the prices or costs. In a nutshell, that's the big challenge we're facing in the world today.

ST: Plan B is arguing that we need to save not the planet, but ourselves.

LB: Environmentalists have been talking for decades about saving the planet, but the planet is going to be around for some time to come. The question is will civilization as we know it be around for some time to come? Can it survive the mounting global stresses of rising pollution, starvation, food prices, water shortages and failed states? These are the real threats to our security now, but we're not responding to them.

ST: Do you think that's because losing civilization is beyond the comprehension of civilization itself?

LB: That's quite possible, when you look at the trends of earlier civilizations whose archaeology we study now. More often that not, food shortages were responsible for their decline and eventual demise. For a long time, I had rejected the idea that food shortages could be the weak link in our modern 21st-century economy. But in fact, I think it is the weak link, and I think that's where the wake-up call is going to come from. Rising prices spreading a hunger to more and more failing states are the manifestations of our mounting stresses. That requires a mindset that's very different than we've had up until now.

ST: This is not encouraging, given our current geopolitical and environmental nightmares.

LB: Well, the other thing I'd like to add is that change comes very quickly and unexpectedly sometimes. I can remember the Berlin Wall coming down, which was the visual manifestation of a political revolution that changed the form of every government in Eastern Europe. Or the collapse and breakup of the Soviet Union, which I had assumed was going to be with us forever. But suddenly, it wasn't there anymore. Right now, we're watching a political phenomenon in Africa and the Middle East that not many of us had anticipated, a grassroots political fervor strong enough to unseat the despots that have been ruling that part of the world for decades. It's interesting because this is not the part of the world where I would have looked for political revolutions, if you will. But they're happening, and on a scale that would have been unimaginable months ago. So these tipping points come every once in a while in places and forms that are new and different. We can probably explain some of this through social networking and the Internet, but nonetheless these are radical changes occurring in a number of countries at the same time.

ST: Many of these despots were assisted into power by the United States in order to keep Plan A alive. Are our current interventions in Africa and the Middle East geostrategic capitalizations on these grassroots revolutions for access to what's left of Earth's fossil fuels? Or are we helping wipe away the 20th century's regimes so we can focus on beating climate change, which is the mammoth task of our new century?

LB: That's an interesting question. My guess is that rising food prices are leading us to the tipping point for both crises. It's difficult to convince people of the need to stabilize the climate. When you're talking about rising CO2 levels going from 280 parts per million at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution to 385 parts per million today, few can relate to that. No one has ever seen, smelled or tasted CO2; it's a very abstract thing. But people do understand rising food prices, and they do respond to them. So whether it's a growing dependence on imported food in North Africa and the Middle East, or rising food prices at the checkout counter in America, we can see how that would lead to change that is at the moment very difficult for us to manage.

ST: I've seen reports of scientists engineering meat in labs. Do you think that technocratic solution, or any others, can save our civilization from collapsing because of food shortages, as so many have in the past?

LB: The idea of producing food in labs is a bit beyond at least our commercial reach at the moment. It's not something that's close to being economically possible. Plus, it happens that nature devised this process a couple billion years ago called photosynthesis, which uses sunlight to convert water and CO2 to create basic carbohydrates. And we have not come up with any important improvements on that process: It's still the most efficient way to convert solar energy into biochemical energy.

But in looking at the global picture, it is water that is emerging as the principal constraint on efforts to expand food production. There's a lot of land in the world that could provide us food, if there was water to go with it. And what we have seen is that there are countries whose rising demand for food have led them to over-pump aquifers and underground water resources. Now, you can over-pump in the short run. But once you've depleted the aquifer, then the rate of pumping is necessarily reduced to the rate of aquifer recharge from precipitation. So we're looking at a situation where a number of countries have artificially inflated their grain production by over-pumping.

ST: And their bubbles are bursting.

LB: These bubbles are in countries that contain over half of the world's people, and they're starting to burst. The first is occurring in Saudi Arabia, which was self-sufficient in wheat production for 20 years but whose production has fallen by two-thirds in three years. They're going to have to phase it out entirely in another year or two, because they were pumping a fossil aquifer, which is like an oil field. Once you pump it out, it's gone. You're going to see more of those.

ST: Once we exhaust or deplete these aquifers, and climate change perhaps dries out our glaciers, it seems logical that we will turn to the seas for our water. What are your thoughts on global desalination, and how might that complicate our already heavily complicated problems?

LB: We can de-salt sea water. There's no question that we have the technology to do that. There are hundreds of desalination plants in the Middle East, particularly in the oil-exporting countries in the Persian Gulf. The problem is that it takes a lot of water to produce food. It takes 1,000 tons of water to produce one ton of grain. To make desalination cheap enough to produce food that we could afford, we'd have to reduce the cost of desalination by a factor of ten. Though we're getting small percentage increases in desalination efficiency, I don't know anyone who sees us being able to de-salt seawater at a cost that will make it feasible to irrigate large areas of land.

We don't drink very much water, so for household uses we can afford desalination. At least, people with reasonably good incomes can; the poorest people in the world can't even afford that. So desalination is not the answer. We drink in one form or another close to four quarts of water a day, whether that's in juice, coffee or whatever. But the food we eat requires 2,000 liters of water to produce, 500 times as much. And that's where the water crunch is going to come from, on the production side of the food equation.

ST: Let's talk about the crisis in Japan, and the pall it has cast upon the nuclear power industry.

LB: Well, we don't know yet the extent of the damage we're going to see at the Fukushima power plant. But it is clear that is has become a clear issue of public concern in Japan, and I do think it is going to change attitudes toward nuclear power worldwide. There's a tendency for industry and political leaders to say that it's not going to change how we think about nuclear power. But I think it will. There's already talk about the Indian Point power plant on Long Island: If there's an accident there where the United States government suggests a 50-mile-wide civilian and military evacuation, as it has in Japan, that would mean emptying out New York City.

When people begin thinking about that, they start to realize what a catastrophe it could be. Is it worth it to have this relatively old nuclear power plant operating so close to population centers? I think that plant is going to close, and I also think that's going to affect how we think about nuclear power. Because it's not just about the operation of these plants, it's the storage of the spent fuels. That's what is creating problems in Japan. We've got at least 70 sites with spent fuel in a similar situation. If we lose control of our ability to cool that fuel because of some accident or disaster, we're going to have a big problem on our hands.

ST: I read that the Yucca depository in Nevada has to be able to capably store nuclear waste for a million years, which frankly seems beyond our ability, if not our comprehension.

LB: Who wants waste that has to be stored for a million years around them? That's a problem. There's not a single country in the world that has come up with a way of safely disposing of nuclear waste. We haven't solved the problem of what to do with all the waste that has been accumulating, and that is going to become a matter of public concern. Japan doesn't even need nuclear power; it has so much geothermal energy. It's ironic that the same seismic threats to Japan are indicators of the country's enormous amount of geothermal energy. Japan has something like 10,000 natural hot baths, all using geothermally heated water. Any country with that many hot springs can tap geothermal energy for electricity.

So the question has to be asked: Why hasn't Japan developed this indigenous renewable resource? Why did they even bother with nuclear power? These sorts of questions will come up again and again in the future, and that's going to make it more difficult to develop nuclear power plants. I mean, Wall Street gave up on investing in nuclear power plants more than 30 years ago. The only way you can get in now is if the government -- which is to say taxpayers like you and I -- guarantee the loan.

ST: Plan B explains that we're in a race between the lethal tipping points of climate change and failed states. Can we reach in time the tipping point of grassroots revolution and public involvement that you mentioned earlier? Because it seems like we're way behind.

LB: We're losing ground right now. The question is whether we can turn things around quickly enough. But I don't think we have a lot of time. Time is our scarcest resource. But as I said, change can come quickly, and in ways that we sometimes don't anticipate. As ex-Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt explained in the show, the period between the first civil rights march in Selma and the Voting Rights Act lasted less than five years. If you go back to before Pearl Harbor, and ask the American people if they should get involved in World War II, the majority would have said no. But if you ask them the day after Pearl Harbor, the majority of them would have changed their mind in a matter of days.

ST: In that situation, nationalism played a huge role in Hitler's horrific regime and our galvanized response to it. But do you think our problem with climate change is that it is rooted in interconnectedness, which is nationalism's atomized opposite?

LB: Climate change is clearly an issue that no country can solve on its own. It's going to take all of us working together to solve it. And that in itself is intimidating. But what I expect to see is some countries simply moving ahead on their own in ways that will lead other countries to begin doing the same. I don't think change will come as a result of an internationally negotiated climate agreement, but rather from countries like America, China and a few other major economies stepping ahead in a major way. The energy rethink that this nuclear accident in Japan is going to generate may also carry over into major alternatives like geothermal, wind and solar energy.

ST: China has already taken the lead. If you want to be part of what Plan B calls the New Energy Economy, you have to deal with China.

LB: It's the leading manufacturer of solar cells worldwide by a wide margin. They're also moving very rapidly into a huge expansion of wind power generation. By 2020, China plans to add something like 200,000 megawatts of wind-generated energy capacity. That's huge. That's like building a coal-fired power plant every week for the next four years. I don't think we've quite yet realized the scale of what's happening with renewable energy in China.

China has also emerged as a leading manufacturer of high-speed rail equipment. After the $8 billion bond passed in California, the first representative there to discuss supplies and equipment with California government officials was a delegation from China. Which is interesting, because it was workers from China who provided much of the labor for the Western part of our transcontinental railroad. So the Chinese are back again, but in a much different capacity. And that is something we should be thinking about.

ST: Speaking of rail, we've seen states handing free billions for high-speed rail, and the jobs that go with them, back to the government because of a bankrupt ideology. Does high-speed rail's American future worry you?

LB: I'm a bit worried. One of the problems is that many Americans have not traveled in Europe or Japan, where they have really good high-speed rail. If you don't know what it is, how it works or how efficient and reliable it can be, you don't have the same attitude or appreciation for it. In 2004, I was invited to speak at the 40th anniversary of high-speed rail in Japan. I mean, these trains travel at 170 miles an hour, have carried billions of passengers and have never had a single train-related fatality. And the average late arrival time a year before the conference was 14 seconds. We can't think in those terms right now.

 
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