How does Lester Brown manage to stay optimistic? Newly published is Plan B 4.0 the fourth in a series of Plan B volumes which started six years ago. In those six years atmospheric CO2 levels have continued to rise alarmingly, the global population has carried on expanding, aquifer depletion has proceeded apace, food scarcity has intensified.
Yet here he is, undaunted, urging his Plan B alternative to business as usual, and offering evidence that the elements of the plan are already in operation in various parts of the globe.
It’s not that he downplays the seriousness of our plight. He opens his book with a Newsweek quotation, “Business as usual is starting to look like the end of the world.” He explains why in unflinching terms. Food production is under major threat. Freshwater supplies are severely constrained. Fisheries face collapse. The number of failing states is growing. Population pressures are strong in the poorest countries.
On the climate change front recent studies project a sea level rise of up to two meters by the end of the century. Up to a third of all plant and animal species could be lost. The chorus of urgency from the scientific community intensifies by the year. Higher temperatures diminish crop yields, they increase the severity of storms, flooding, drought and wildfires, and they alter eco-systems everywhere. The effects of melting glaciers on irrigation is a massive threat to food production.
Indeed if you want an unvarnished account of the reality ahead under business as usual there are few who can provide better than Lester Brown. He and various organizations he has been involved with have been keeping watch for years over environmental and ecological degradation. He’s a generalist whose work is to pull together scattered information and communicate it to the public in a big picture. He does this faithfully, respectful of the facts and of the work of scientists, and his report is alarming, as it should be.
Yet he offers Plan B with a sense of buoyancy and soon has the reader feeling that all may yet be well. Not superficially. His method is to search out hopeful things that are happening in various parts of the world, report how they are working, and then fit them into the wider Plan B scheme to successfully address the threats confronting us.
Energy efficiency measures hold an enormous potential which we have only just begun to exploit. Lighting, for example, currently uses 19 percent of the world’s electricity. This would be cut to 7 percent with a move to compact fluorescent lamps in homes, advanced linear fluorescents in offices, shops and factories, and light emitting diodes in niches such as traffic lights. This move is already under way in some countries.
A similar level of savings would be achieved with a worldwide set of electric appliance efficiency standards keyed to the most efficient models already on the market. Low energy use buildings, the overall electrification of transport, extensive recycling, drastic waste reduction measures, smart grids – again all things that are under way in some places – offer exciting surprises as to the savings possible in energy usage.
Equally exciting are the renewable energy sources and the rate at which they are starting to be deployed. “...this energy transition [to wind, solar and geothermal energy] is moving at a pace and on a scale that we could not have imagined even two years ago. And it is a worldwide phenomenon.” From a combination of energy efficiency measures and renewable energy growth, all carefully estimated, Brown sees an 80 percent reduction in emissions possible by 2020.
That’s what’s needed. Brown stands with Hansen and others that an atmospheric CO2 concentration of no more than 350 parts per million is the safe level for the human future. We’re already above that. We can perhaps afford to go as high as 400 ppm before starting to lower back to 350 ppm, which means an 80 percent reduction by 2020.
Climate isn’t his sole focus. The restoration of land is being addressed successfully in parts of the world, even as it is continuing to deteriorate in others. The afforestation of South Korea is an outstanding example and he details many others. In the ocean the creation of marine reserves is demonstrating a surprising capacity to help declining fisheries recover.
The eradication of poverty and stabilisation of population are well within our financial capability. He quotes economist Jeffrey Sachs as regularly reminding us that for the first time in history we have the technologies and financial resources to accomplish this. It’s not even expensive. The rich are so rich and the poor so poor that a few added tenths of one percent of GNP from the rich would do it.
Steadily Brown works his way through the list of serious threats to the environment that sustains life and offers proven Plan B strategies in each case. Cynics will scoff, saying that humanity will never embrace on a large enough scale the solutions that are so obvious. Brown himself knows that the odds seem heavily stacked against our taking action, no matter how sensible it may be to do so. But he remains soberly affirmative.
Changes are not necessarily as far away as we might imagine. He points to the catastrophe of Pearl Harbour which changed American opinion about entering World War II overnight. Hopefully we won’t have to wait for a catastrophe, which could mean we have waited too long. Social changes can build quietly and then manifest themselves unexpectedly and quickly, as in the case of the fall of the Berlin Wall, unforeseen by commentators.
This is a preferable model to the catastrophic. But best of all is what he calls the sandwich model where a strong grassroots movement pushes for change on an issue that is fully supported by strong political leadership at the top. The American civil rights movement of the 1960s is an example of how this model can achieve swift change. He hopes for such a process on climate and other sustainability issues and sees signs that it is happening in the US. Let’s hope he’s right and do our best to prove it.
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