April 22, 2008

How Many Earth Days Do We Have Left?

By Terrence McNally, AlterNet
Posted on April 22, 2008, Printed on April 22, 2008
Of all the resources needed to build an economy that will sustain
economic progress, none is more scarce than time. That is one of the key
messages of PLAN-B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, the newest book
by Lester Brown -- available as a free download at earthpolicy.org.

Plan A -- the western fossil-fuel-based, auto-centered, throwaway
economic model -- is not going to work for China, India, or the 3 billion
other people in developing countries, and it will not continue to work
for the industrial countries either.

It's time for Plan B -- an all-out response at wartime speed
proportionate to the magnitude of threats facing civilization.

The four overriding goals of PLAN B 3.0 are to stabilize climate and
population, eradicate poverty, and restore the earth's damaged
ecosystems. Failure to reach any one of these goals will likely mean failure to
reach the others as well.

"We are crossing natural thresholds that we cannot see and violating
deadlines that we do not recognize," says Brown. "These deadlines are set
by nature. Nature is the timekeeper, but we cannot see the clock."

Lester Brown has been described by The Washington Post as "one of the
world's most influential thinkers." After working with the Department of
Agriculture in international agricultural development, Brown helped
establish the Overseas Development Council, then founded Worldwatch
Institute, publishers of annual State of the World and Vital Signs reports.
In 2001, he left Worldwatch, founded Earth Policy Institute, and
published Eco-Economy: Building an Economy for the Earth.

TERRENCE McNALLY: When you were involved in agriculture in the Kennedy
administration, few thought about the environment, unless it was about
conservation or wilderness. A bit later, environmentalism was usually
local -- a polluting factory or a threatened forest. Yet very early you
had a global understanding of environmental issues. How did that

LESTER BROWN: It was probably due to, first, living two and a half
years in villages in India in 1956, where I could see the food/population
problem beginning to unfold; and second, my training in the sciences,
which gave me a feel for how natural systems work.

McNALLY: What has driven you to write Plan B, and then Plan B 2.0 and
Plan B 3.0?

BROWN: One of the goals of the Earth Policy Institute is to provide a
vision of a kind of world we want, and a sense of how we get from here
to there. Plan B was the first version of this.

With 3.0, we've changed the subtitle from Rescuing a Planet Under
Stress and a Civilization in Trouble to simply Mobilizing to Save
Civilization. We used to think about saving the planet, and that's still
essential, but what's really at stake now is civilization itself.

We have a growing backlog of unresolved problems in the world:
deforestation, collapsing fisheries, expanding deserts, falling water tables,
eroding soils, you can go down the list. The fallout from these problems
is becoming more and more difficult to manage, especially for
governments in developing countries.

A number of countries have developed enough to bring down mortality but
not enough to bring down fertility. With a rapid rate of population
growth, they're caught in what demographers call "the demographic trap."
If you can't break out of it, eventually you begin to break down.

17 of the top 20 failing states have rapid rates of population growth.
These are the countries where most of the 70 million people added each
year are being born. As this list of failing states grows each year, we
have to ask how many failing states before we have a failing
civilization? No one knows the answer. We haven't been there before.

On top of traditional environmental problems, we now have new stresses
like soaring oil prices that put a lot of pressure on low and
middle-income oil-importing countries. Then as the United States converts a
growing share of our grain into fuel, we drive world grain prices to
all-time highs, creating instability in low and middle-income countries that
import grain. We face the risk that the combination of rising oil and
food prices will greatly increase the number of failing states. I think
the number of failing states in the world is now the key indicator as
to whether civilization is going to succeed or fail.

McNALLY: The enormous global inequity in income and wealth breeds
inequity in health, in education, and in all phases of life, doesn't it?

BROWN: There is a vast opportunity gap, and those born into societies
with few opportunities become recruits for international terrorist
groups. In Africa, revolutionaries who want to overthrow governments simply
recruit kids -- 10, 12, 14 years old -- give them guns and let them go.
As I look at the world today, terrorism is a problem and a threat, but
even bigger threats are the persistence of poverty, continuing
population growth, and climate change.

McNALLY: In one of the earlier versions of Plan B, you pointed out the
danger of our attention to terrorism distracting us from these other
issues. In 3.0, you've knit those problems together even more clearly.
Now you're saying they're no longer "either/or", but they are
inextricably linked.

BROWN: No question. The money we lay out to deal with things like
population growth, environmental degradation, spreading water shortages,
climate change, etc. is really the new security budget because these are
the real threats.

The climate change threat is enormous. Last August an area of Arctic
sea ice twice the size of Britain melted in one week. Scientists have
never seen anything like this before.

Greenland has an ice sheet a mile thick or more, covering almost the
entire island, which is three times the size of Texas. The rate at which
it's melting now is extraordinary. There's a large glacier on the west
coast, where the ice sheet flows into the sea, 3 miles wide and a mile
deep, and it's flowing at 2 meters an hour. Glaciers normally flow at
80-100 meters per year. This is 2 meters per hour!

McNALLY: How much has global temperature risen so far?

BROWN: About one degree Fahrenheit over the last several decades. By
the end of this century, temperature could rise anywhere from 3 to 10
degrees Fahrenheit.

McNALLY: But it's much greater than that at the poles, isn't it?

BROWN: Yes. We report temperature changes as a global average, but we
have to keep in mind that temperature rises faster over land than over
oceans, faster near the poles than near the equator, and faster in the
interior of continents than in coastal regions. In parts of Alaska,
Northern Canada, Siberia and areas around the Arctic Circle including
Greenland, temperatures have already gone up 3 to 7 degrees.

The west Antarctic ice sheet is not really on the continent itself, but
is supported by a number of islands. When it starts to go, it could
break up very quickly.

McNALLY: What might be the repercussions of that?

BROWN: If Greenland melts entirely, that adds 23 feet to the sea. The
west Antarctic ice sheet adds 16 feet -- so together almost 40 feet. If
that happens, many of the world's coastal cities would be under water.
This is not going to happen in years or decades, but will be spread out
over we hope at least a century or two. But still the rate becomes
alarming. Even a one-meter rise in sea level threatens a lot of cities.

A large share of the world's population lives pretty close to the
coast. If sea level were to rise 39 feet, there would be at least 600
million rising sea refugees. What happens to the price of land in the
interior, if vast numbers are forced inland?

McNALLY: When people talk about melting glaciers, they usually refer to
Greenland, the Arctic and Antarctica. You point out that throughout
the world we depend on mountainous glaciers for a steady supply of water.
Los Angeles, for instance, is vulnerable to this.

BROWN: Mountain glaciers are melting everywhere. The Alps and Andes
could be almost entirely gone in half a century. But I'm even more
concerned about the Tibetan plateau. All the major rivers in Asia originate in
the Himalayas: the Indus, the Ganges, the Mekong, the Yangtze, and the
Yellow River.

McNALLY: These rivers sustain huge numbers of people.

BROWN: During the dry season, the Ganges is fed by the ice melt from
the Gangotri glacier, a vast glacier that could be gone entirely by mid
century. If we can't close enough coal-fired power plants fast enough to
save it, then the Ganges will become a seasonal river that no longer
flows during the dry season. Imagine the consequences of that. Think
about the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers that irrigate the wheat and rice
fields of Asia.

McNALLY: Along with the US, China and India are two of the three
largest grain-producing countries.

BROWN: The two countries most affected by the melting of the glaciers
in the Himalayas and the Tibetan plateau will be India and China, which
happen to be the two countries now building most of the world's coal
fired power plants.

McNALLY: In other words, they're putting up more and more greenhouse
gases at a time when their very survival is dependent upon cutting them
back. Those kinds of connections and interactions are some of our
biggest blind spots, aren't they?

BROWN: We face four big challenges right now. We need to stabilize
climate, stabilize population, eradicate poverty and restore the earth's
damaged eco systems.

We probably cannot stabilize population growth humanely unless we
eradicate poverty. Stabilizing population means making sure that all
youngsters get at least an elementary school education, girls as well as boys.
It means providing basic health care, immunization against childhood
diseases, the basic fundamentals of health care at the village level.

We have to provide reproductive health care and family planning
services as well. There are at least 200 million women in the world who want
to limit their number of children, but who lack access to family
planning programs. The cost of family planning for these women over a year
would be a tiny fraction of what we're spending in Iraq.

McNALLY: Iraq is now about 3 billion a week. Two years of Iraq funding
could solve almost all the biggest problems we're facing. Talk about
misspent resources!

BROWN: In terms of annual expenditures, the total bill for Plan B is
less than $200 billion a year. I call it the New Defense Bill, because --
terrorism notwithstanding -- the real threats to our future now are
climate change, continuing rapid population growth, continuing
destruction of the economy's environmental support systems, the things that lead
to failing states.

McNALLY: I've always said that the key to minimizing the threat of
terrorism is to make terrorists pariahs in their own societies.


I can remember what we did in the post World War II period. Normally
after you win a war, you pillage. Instead we launched the Marshall Plan
to rebuild the very countries with which we'd been engaged in one of the
most deadly wars in history.

McNALLY: We did the opposite after World War I, and the result of that
was World War II.

Let's imagine civilization is our patient. We've talked about some of
the symptoms: climate change, peak oil, loss of water and soil. Briefly,
what are the diagnosis and the recommended treatment?

BROWN: Looking at the world through an ecological lens, I see a
mounting backlog of unresolved problems, many of them associated with
population growth including deforestation, expanding desert, deteriorating
grasslands, eroding soils, falling water tables. Very few of these trends
have been turned around; instead they're getting worse and becoming more
difficult to manage. Now add to that climate change and peak oil.

McNALLY: Peak oil is the moment at which we've taken half of the oil
out of the earth. One might say, "Only half ... we're in good shape."
But, once we reach peak oil, we've used up the easiest half, and every
subsequent barrel becomes more expensive.

BROWN: We have spent our lifetimes in a world where, except for an
occasional blip here and there, oil production has always been increasing.
In a world where oil production is no longer increasing, no country can
get more oil unless another gets less, and that's a very different
world. It creates a lot of tensions. It creates a politics of scarcity and
rising oil prices.

As the United States shifts an ever larger share of its grain harvest
into the production of fuel, the world is now facing quite possibly the
worst food price inflation in history.

McNALLY: When we did an interview on Plan B four or five years ago, you
predicted the current battle for grain. Does it go into the gas tank
of a rich person or the mouth of a poor person?

BROWN: Nearly 20 percent of the 2007 grain harvest has been used to
produce ethanol to satisfy, at most, 4 percent of our automotive fuel
needs. From an agricultural point of view, the automotive fuel demand is
insatiable. The grain required to fill a 25-gallon SUV tank with ethanol
would feed one person for a year.

McNALLY: So the shift of grain to ethanol raises grain prices for us
and the rest of the world, condemns millions to starvation -- all to
supply a speck of our energy demand.

BROWN: We're in an ironic situation where as taxpayers we are
subsidizing the conversion of grain into ethanol, and therefore a rise in our
own food prices. So we pay twice, on April 15 when we settle our taxes
and then every time we go to the supermarket checkout counter.

McNALLY: Let's shift to solutions -- eradicating poverty, family
planning, education and so on. You say that for $200 billion a year we could
solve them.

BROWN: Yes -- one fifth of global military expenditures which are now
over a trillion, or 1000 billion per year. $100 billion weapon systems
are almost useless now. You can't use them to deal with the problems
we're facing.

McNALLY: What are the solutions?

BROWN: To slow climate change, we've devised a plan to cut carbon
emissions 80 percent -- not by 2050, which is what politicians like to talk
about -- but by 2020.

McNALLY: An 80 percent reduction in 12 years. How do we do it?

BROWN: There are three components to the plan: first, dramatically and
systematically raise the efficiency of the world energy economy;
second, massive investment in renewable sources of energy; and third,
increase the earth's tree cover by planting billions of trees.

On efficiency, let me offer one simple example that most people are
familiar with. If we replace incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescents,
we can cut global electricity use 12 percent, allowing us to close 700
of the world's 2360 coal fired power plants.

40 percent of the world's electricity currently comes from coal, but by
2020 we see wind providing 40 percent.

McNALLY: In a dozen years you see wind replacing coal as the dominant
energy source?

BROWN: There's 100,000 wind turbines in operation today, so that means
building about a million and a half more producing two megawatts each:
3 million megawatts in global wind generating capacity. But a million
and a half wind turbines over a dozen years is peanuts compared with
producing 65 million cars a year, which we do now.

The Texas state legislature and the Republican governor, Rick Perry,
are putting together a package to harness that state's abundant wind
energy. They're planning about 23,000 megawatts of wind energy, which will
do away with 23 coal-fired power plants and supply half the state's
residential electricity.

McNALLY: How quickly will that happen?

BROWN: By 2020. They're moving very fast.

We can install a million and a half wind turbines and combine that
technology with plug in hybrids. Add a second storage battery and a plug-in
to a Toyota Prius and you can recharge the batteries at night. The
car's batteries become a storage facility for wind energy.

McNALLY: Toyota says they'll have plug-ins by 2010, and they're in
competition with other companies who say they'll have it quicker.

BROWN: The big competition right now is between Toyota with the
modified Prius and GM with the Chevrolet Volt. The gasoline equivalent cost of
running cars on cheap wind-generated electricity is less than a dollar
a gallon.

McNALLY: Wow! Will it take tax subsidies or incentives to get us to
ramp up wind and renewables?

BROWN: The key is to get the market to tell the environmental truth,
and right now the market does not do that. The market does a lot of
things well, but it does not do a good job of incorporating what we call the
"indirect cost" or what economists call "externalities." For example,
the climate change and pollution costs of fossil fuels. The simple way
to do that is to add carbon taxes and offset that increase by lowering
income taxes.

McNALLY: Make it tax neutral, so that your pocket book bite is the same
at the end of the year. But instead of taxing labor or work, which we
want more of; we tax pollution and greenhouse gases, which we want less

BROWN: So we end up with more jobs and less climate destruction -- a
win/win situation.

McNALLY: In terms of transforming our industries, you point to World
War II, which you lived through.


In his State of the Union address one month after Pearl Harbor,
President Roosevelt announced that we were going to produce 25,000 tanks,
60,000 planes, 20,000 artillery planes. It was extraordinary. No one had
ever seen arms production like this.

Then he called in the leaders of the auto industry and said, "Guys,
guess what, we're going to ban the sale of private automobiles in the
United States." The automobile industry had no choice but to switch to
producing arms. And we didn't produce just the 60,000 planes, which was the
goal, we produced 229,000. We exceeded every one of those arms
production goals.

McNALLY: So it is your sense that we could make that same kind of a
massive shift if leaders take this seriously?

BROWN: No question. It didn't take decades to restructure the US
industrial economy. It didn't take years. We did it in a matter of months.
That's the exciting and encouraging thing about what we're challenged
with now. It is entirely doable.

We have it in our power to restructure the world energy economy and
avoid disastrous climate change. All we need is the leadership, the
vision, and the will.

Interviewer Terrence McNally hosts Free Forum on KPFK 90.7FM, Los
Angeles (streaming at kpfk.org).

© 2008 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.

View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/83032/

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