World on the Edge

Lester Brown has for years been unwavering and persistent in drawing attention to the gathering environmental dangers humanity faces and pointing to the alternative practices which might yet save us from the worst effects. His widely read Plan B books have appeared at regular intervals throughout the last decade. I reviewed the fourth of them on Hot Topic in 2009. A new book now published is shorter but no less urgent, as its title indicates: World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse.

He points to three areas where the foundations of human civilisation are under severe threat, particularly because of the effects on food production. Water is being overpumped from aquifers and the world’s farmers are losing the water war, with dangerous consequences for food production as harvests consequently shrink.  Soils are eroding and deserts expanding on an alarming scale, resulting in lowered soil fertility and contraction of land available for farming. Global warming is bringing a climate instability to which agriculture is not adapted, the threat of sea level rise which will shrink rice harvests in vulnerable areas, and changes to water supply from mountain glaciers already affecting farming negatively in some places.

Three consequences are selected and highlighted for a world where the human population continues to soar. The first is the emerging politics of food scarcity. We are adding 80 million people a year. Three billion of us who are already here are trying to move up the food chain, consuming more grain-intensive livestock products. The massive ethanol distillery investment in the US has added an epic competition between cars and people for grain. Some of the more affluent food importing countries are now buying or leasing large blocks of land in other countries on which to produce food for themselves. The countries doing the buying or leasing include Saudi Arabia, South Korea, China, India, Egypt, Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE. Brown writes of an unprecedented scramble for land that crosses national boundaries. A dangerous geopolitics of food scarcity is in the making.

The second consequence Brown dwells on is the phenomenon of environmental refugees, people displaced by rising seas, more-destructive storms, expanding deserts, water shortages and other environmental factors. As the impacts of climate change begin to bite it will be rising-sea refugees who will likely dominate the flow. The book details some of the places where people are already moving as refugees within their own countries and warns of the potentially massive and chaotic movement of people across national boundaries as the pressures intensify.

The third consequence he considers is the increase in the number of failing states. Virtually all of the top 20 of them are depleting their natural assets – forests, grasslands, soils and aquifers – to sustain their rapidly growing populations. Failing states not only cause misery to their citizens but also threaten the international cooperation necessary in an age of increasing globalisation. It is in all our interests that the causes of state failure are addressed with urgency.

This is the world at the edge to which our environmental heedlessness has brought us. We don’t have to go over that edge, but to avoid doing so we need a monumental effort undertaken at wartime speed. This is Plan B. It has four components: the stabilisation of the climate, the restoration of Earth’s natural support systems, the stabilisation of population, and the eradication of poverty.

To stabilise climate we need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 80 percent by 2020.The first step is raising energy efficiency. This can entirely meet the projected growth in energy use between now and 2030. The second step is replacing all coal- and oil-fired electricity generation with that from renewable sources, meaning wind, solar and geothermal. Nuclear is too expensive if full-cost pricing is applied. Carbon capture and sequestration from coal-fired plants is also excluded, given the costs and lack of investor interest within the coal community itself.  Brown sees wind as the early leader and calls for a crash programme to develop 4000 gigawatts of wind generating capacity by 2020. That’s 2 million wind turbines of 2 megawatts over the next ten years. Not really an intimidating target when compared with the 70 million automobiles the world produces every year. The third step is to end deforestation and engage in a massive campaign to plant trees and stabilise soils.

Brown’s writing is never just exhortation. He looks everywhere for evidence of movement in the directions we need to take, and details it. It is not the case that Plan B solutions are untried. There is a great deal to encourage the concerned reader as Brown points to hopeful developments already taking place. Whether it be Scotland announcing in September that it was adopting a new goal of 80 percent renewable electricity by 2020 and expecting 100 percent by 2025, or the explosive growth in solar cell production in recent years, or the seemingly miraculous rebirth of forests from barren land in South Korea since the end of the Korean War so that nearly 65 percent of the once denuded country is now covered by forest, or the rapid reduction in fertility rates some developing countries have shown achievable, there are many signs that Plan B is not pie in the sky.

But we have to move with speed. Brown insists that the key to restructuring the economy is to get the market to tell the truth through full-cost pricing. An honest market will reflect the full cost of burning gasoline or coal, of deforestation, of overpumping aquifers, and of overfishing. If we can create an honest market, then market forces will rapidly restructure the world’s energy economy. Wind, solar and geothermal will be revealed as much cheaper than climate-disrupting fossil fuels.  At present we are being blindsided by a faulty accounting system that will lead to bankruptcy.

When Brown is beginning to feel overwhelmed by the scale and urgency of the needed changes he reminds himself of the economic history of the US during the war, when within three years from 1942 the US turned out an astonishing 229,000 aircraft and added more than 5000 ships to the American Merchant Fleet.  The conversion to a wartime economy happened within months. But it took a Pearl Harbour to motivate the turnaround. He trusts a cataclysmic event on the climate front, such as the break-up of the West Antarctic ice sheet, will not be needed to galvanise action, since it might also unfortunately indicate that we were too late. He hopes rather that the rapid changes needed can result from a dedicated grassroots movement pushing for change that is strongly supported by political leadership as, for example, civil rights change in the 1960s was achieved in the US.

Brown understands the precariousness of human civilisation as the time of environmental reckoning draws ominously closer. He expresses it in patient and telling detail that addresses the intelligence and humanity of the reader. He equally buttresses his outline of the solutions with solid information as to how and why they can work. Whether sanity and clarity carry weight in the halls of power may be moot, but Brown well represents the thinking of the substantial body of people who see the perils ahead and want their governments to mobilise to avert them.

[Purchase via Hot Topic affiliates Fishpond (NZ),, Book Depository (UK, with free shipping worldwide).]

21 thoughts on “World on the Edge”

  1. One of the problems with taking an interest in Climate change and Peak oil is that you get to understand why this disaster is looming. Our use of carbon fuels has given us a ‘golden age ‘ of life and it is not going to be pleasant when it starts to end. In NZ we should be able to avoid the worst of it but we are not alone in this world and the troubles of others will effect us all.

  2. Brown insists that the key to restructuring the economy is to get the market to tell the truth through full-cost pricing.

    It will never happen unless we replace our current economic concept at the core of which is the belief that growth is always good and therefore can and must be infinite. But nothing can be infinite in a finite system, and we are increasingly becoming aware of this as we bump into limits that take on the shape of most, if not all global problems. From AGW and top soil erosion, to financial bubbles and the obesity epidemic.

    Replacing this economic concept of infinite growth is the number 1 thing that needs to be done if all these global problems are to stand a chance of being solved conclusively.

    Maybe Lester Brown touches on this. It would be a shame if he didn’t, as it should be his core message.

    1. Indeed he does, Neven. After writing about the need for markets which tell the truth he adds: “Beyond this, mainstream economics pays little attention to the sustainable yield thresholds of the earth’s natural systems…How can we assume that the growth of an economic system that is shinking the earth’s forests, eroding its soils, depleting its aquifers, collapsing its fisheries, elevating its temperature, and melting its ice sheets can simply be projected into the long-term future?”

      1. Thanks for the reply, Bryan. I couldn’t imagine someone taking such a holistic view of things overlooking that and I hope he will stress it even more. Mainstream economics needs to be overturned, starting with universities.

  3. Steve is right. Wind farms are not the whole answer and trying to power our nation with it will not work. Geothermal is good for base load, and we have plenty of it. Hydro is good for base load and to deal with sudden surges, and we have plenty of it. Wind is cheap and intermittent but we have plenty of it.
    What we are desperately short of is political will power.

    1. With respect Bob, I don’t think Steve was saying anything as constructive as that wind farms are not the whole answer. He was sneering at the notion that the world can produce 2 million turbines over ten years. As is often the case with his sneers he offers no reason as to why that should be impossible. Brown himself doesn’t suggest that wind farms are the whole answer – he thinks they have a leading part to play in the early stages of the crash programme he advocates.

  4. Thanks for this excellent summary of an important book.

    To stabilise climate we need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 80 percent by 2020.
    Should that be 2050? Scotland is aiming for 80% by 2020 (and all power to them, esp since I now live here!), but I thought the usual figure was 80% by 2050 globally (which means considerably more than that for developed nations unless we’re going to throw all notions of justice out the window). There are of course plenty of criticisms of this figure as being still too dangerous and so maybe he really is calling for 80% by 2020?

    1. Yes Byron, that’s what he sees as necessary. “The goal of cutting carbon emissions 80 percent by 2020 is based on what we think is needed to avoid civilisation-threatening climate change. This is not Plan A, business as usual. This is Plan B – a wartime mobilization, an all-out effort to restructure the world economy.”

      1. Ah, good, so he is taking the science seriously then.

        This means that Scotland, far from being a global leader, is merely aiming to do the minimum required as a global average. Given the greater responsibility of developed economies, this means we’re still not moving fast enough here.

        1. Hi John, I’d hate to think you were Gish galloping and trying to provoke endless debate in other threads. I have answers for your questions, so how are you going with researching Beck?

        2. It may not be that hard. There are a number of initiatives underway that could seriously dent our requirements for fossil fuels. Things like; flooding northern Australia, India and Pakistan, parching southern Australia, emptying the Ogallala Aquifer, drowning Bangladesh, burning Russia.

            1. Oh, it wasn’t a complete list by any means. I didn’t mention the flashflooding that appears to be becoming a regular event in the UK, just never in the same place twice, I’m sure that doesn’t do the crops a lot of good. Baking 25-30 thousand French to death, what happens to a glacier feed river when the glacier cant keep up, …

  5. Hi John. Any luck with Beck yet?

    Wow. I wonder if any of those smartarse climate scentists ever predicted that the feequency of extreme weather events would increase?

  6. Flash flooding that is becoming a regular event in the UK?
    Didn’t you mean snow?

    Oh, don’t get distracted John. Weren’t you about to answer Doug’s question about Beck?

  7. Is our ozone layer beyond repair?? The recent catastrophic flooding incident in the eastern seaboard of Australia looks alarming. Hope that’s not the beginning of the end of days for mankind. — are we heading towards the prophesied “2012”?

    1. Sorry mate, but ?
      The ozone hole is self healing, always assuming that we don’t keep feeding the atmosphere certain chemicals. Just takes a bit of time is all.

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