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Columbia Journal logoVolume Nine, Number Four   September 2004    www.columbiajournal.ca


    Plan B: Rescuing a Planet under

    Stress and a Civilization in Trouble
    By Lester R. Brown
    W.W. Norton & Co.  
    New York, London
    284 pp.

    Tom Sandborn

    Plan BRemember those classic New Yorker cartoons featuring the wild-eyed guy in robes and sandals? He’d be posed on a Manhattan street corner and accompanied by a sign declaring “The End Is Nigh” and, beneath the image, an ironic caption. The underlying joke was always how ridiculous the prophet’s declaration of impending doom was in the context of modern progress.

    Well, the prophets may get the last laugh. Armageddon may not arrive on biblical horseback, and may not be preceded by a supernatural Rapture sweeping up the righteous to heaven, where they can enjoy watching the end of the world from celestial box seats (as is devoutly wished by George Bush and his mouth breathing core constituency), but it may well be arriving within our lifetimes, and it may be even more horrible than anything TV evangelists or the President could imagine.
    At least that’s the argument of Lester R. Brown’s troubling new book of ecological bad news, Plan B.  Brown is one of America’s most respected critics of environmental policy. (The Washington Post calls him “one of the world’s most influential thinkers”.) Founder and for 26 years President of the World Watch Institute, Brown has directed the Earth Policy Institute in Washington DC since 2001. He has written or co-authored over 30 books on environmental issues, and Plan B may well be his most important work.
    Modern industrial civilization, in Brown’s detailed and well-documented account, is on a collision course with crisis, and the count down to disaster is growing very short indeed. In the last half century, he points out, human population has more than doubled--from 2.5 billion on the long-suffering planet to over 6 billion. This is more population growth in a half century than had occurred in the preceding four million years.
    Yoked to suicidally stupid and unsustainable agricultural and industrial practices, this new crowd of humanity has dire impacts on the web of life on the planet. Since 1980, for example, every year human activity has drawn down more from the natural capital of living systems (forests, fisheries, cropland and the like) than those systems can replace. Farmland is disappearing beneath concrete and into the hot winds of desertification and the muddy runoffs of erosion. Fossil water aquifers like the Ogallala under the American southwest and the reserves beneath the North China plain are being pumped dry.

    Since the turn of the millennium, we are producing less grain each year  than we eat, diminishing world reserves while nearly a billion of us hover near starvation and another billion in the well fed First World fret about weight gain and new diets. During the same half century that has seen such daunting increases in population, water use and food demand, the world economy has been re-designed by the neo liberal policies promoted by the IMF and World Bank to deepen the gap between the starving poor and the obscenely wealthy.

     Fortunately for those readers who would just as soon not give way to despair, Brown has some public policy proposals that could go a long way to staving off the impending crisis he describes so vividly in the first sections of this disturbing book. His final chapters take up, by and large persuasively, the challenge of what could be done to change our planetary rush to judgment.
    Brown calls for tactics designed to raise productivity in water use, including more efficient forms of agricultural activity ranging from plastic lined irrigation canals to sprinklers to drip irrigation. He calls for meters and realistic pricing to reduce both industrial and residential use of water through economic incentives. (In this instance, as too often in this book, Brown is a bit tone deaf to the impact such policies will have on the poorest of the poor. For example, South Africa, which he cites as a model for using real pricing to limit water wastage, is a country where millions have lost their access to clean water in the last decade because of insensitive implementation of these so called reforms. ) 

    Brown also proposes policies that will increase efficiencies in land use. Currently the taxpayers of the world expend around 700 billion dollars in subsidies that make ecologically destructive industries more profitable for their corporate owners and vastly more costly for the world at large. Brown proposes reforms in tax and subsidy policy that would reward ecological sanity and charge heavily for destructive profit taking.
    Beyond these reforms, Brown calls for a world mobilization to stabilize population at 7.5 billion, a drastic shift in energy policy away from fossil fuels to promote hybrid cars, hydrogen fuel cells, wind and solar power, a change that would not only reduce the death toll due to air pollution but also begin the process of slowing climate change and all its attendant disasters. Even more boldly, Brown calls for a major world campaign to eradicate adult illiteracy, provide universal primary education, empower women around the world to control their own reproductive lives, distribute condoms world wide in a sexual health push that could help stop the AIDS epidemic, provide free school lunch programs for children in the world’s poorest 44 countries, give pregnant women and pre-school children support programs in these same  countries, and provide universal basic health care around the world.

    The cost for this utopian checklist of world healing efforts? Roughly 62 billion dollars a year, less than 15 per cent of what the United States and its allies spend on the military annually. We could easily afford the set of reforms Brown advocates, if we put the health of the planet and the future of the human race ahead of profit, patriotism and other pathologies of advanced capitalism. Whether or not we will make this vital shift in perspective and policies remains to be seen. That is a question for politics, not prophets. Is the end nigh? That’s up to us.

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