Lester Brown at the World Conference on Disaster Management.

The Keynote Speaker for this year’s World Conference on Disaster Management was Lester Brown, and his talk alone was worth the price of admission. He basically walked us all through the material in his latest book, World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse, published by W.W. Norton & Company, 2011. He and the meeting organizers cooperated to make 800 copies of the book available to session attendees. A great plus!

The material used fresh examples (e.g., last year’s Russian drought and Pakistan floods) to make points he has made before. This time around, he added that while in the past he’d  felt that a worldwide food crisis was unlikely to be a trigger for any coming global collapse, he now thought it quite likely, and sooner rather than later (with the precise dates unspecified; I guess we all learned something from Harold Camper’s recent travails). In particular, he saw the confluence of several trends contributing to this scenario.

One had to do with the drawdown of the world’s aquifers; we’re running low on the 1000 tons of water needed to grow each ton of grain. Another cause? The competition between grain-as-ethanol feedstock and grain-as-food. A third? Farmers’ use of the best available agricultural practice has caught up with research. There are few additional gains to be found here. And fourth and finally, the anticipated reduction of crop yields in a warmer world. [Alert readers will have already noted that couched in this way, it doesn’t matter so much about whether energy or food or water is the proximate cause of the problem; all three are tightly coupled. ] Brown’s logic is replete with supporting detail, which I’ve omitted. Worth buying one or more of his books, or hearing him speak in person, or going to the Earth Policy Institute website.

What to do?

Brown argues for what he calls Plan B, which he’s outlined previously. Today’s version: (1) cut carbon emissions 80% by 2020. (2) Stabilize population at 8 billion, no higher. (3) Eliminate poverty. (4) Restore ecosystem function.

You might think these goals a bit of a stretch. But Brown gives arguments for why each of these objectives would appear to be achievable, at least in theory. For example, to achieve the first requires an 80% or greater improvement in the efficiency of electrical appliances, emphasis on renewable forms of energy (excluding biofuels except possibly for aviation), and conversion from internal combustion engines to electric motors for all surface vehicles. To achieve the second requires a massive education program, especially for women, and making the means for family planning available to those same women. [Brown estimates that perhaps 200M women fall into the category where this would make a difference.] To eliminate poverty he seems to suggest a rather substantial transfer payment, accompanied again by education and by public health efforts. [If I remember correctly he estimates the cost of this as perhaps $200B/year which he points out is only the order of one-third the U.S. defense outlays.] Steps toward achieving the fourth are a little vague, but you get the flavor.

Of course, setting such goals doesn’t constitute a plan for achieving those goals, particularly in a very short time frame. The music fades a bit here, but Brown does emphasize that the key to achieving the first, the reduction in carbon emissions is a carbon tax. He makes it revenue-neutral by reducing other taxes. He has a similar approach to each of the others. Of course, the key to this, he argues, is that all of us, including you and me, have to get involved. And he means politically. We can’t just turn out the lights whenever we leave the room, or recycle our waste, our buy a Prius.

Repeatedly in his remarks, and throughout the book as well, Brown emphasized that we don’t know how much time we have, but that we don’t have much. Here’s where some of the logic from LivingontheRealWorld comes into play. As we’ve argued in numerous posts here, four elements are cheap enough and fast enough to make a difference.

Lester has identified the first: getting the policy framework right. The second? Harnessing the power and speed of social networks and emergent approaches to solving problems. The third? Preparing, energizing, motivating, and equipping future leaders. And fourth, investing in the observations, knowledge and understanding, and services required to see how the Earth works and what it is going to do next.


Some readers are probably unconvinced. You don’t see the need for any fuss. At the other end of the spectrum, some may feel the situation is already too far gone. But that leaves a large number of us in the middle.

My own thinking may be shaped a bit by two days that my wife and I spent on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls before the meeting’s start (sadly, she bailed on me before the meetings got underway).  48 hours of watching 150,000 gallons of water a second, every second, speed past and thunder on the rocks below. To be there is to feel overwhelmed by the water and its breathtaking power, and its connection with the human story. Couples taking a honeymoon walk on the ice floes below in winter, only to have floes break off, sweeping them to their death. People going over in barrels, with their pets. People kayaking over. A man going over on a jet ski. One historian estimates 5000 people have died going over the falls since 1850, most presumably by accident. Of the fifteen who made a deliberate attempt, some ten have survived.

Most of these stories had a common thread. The risk wasn’t too great, at first. But the risk grew. Slowly to start, but soon events accelerated and any options for turning things around quickly evaporated.

So, those of you who don’t think there’s any urgency…let’s start making for the banks of the river while that low rumble we hear is way off in the distance. Would do us little harm to act before things got too desperate.

For those of you who think it’s too late…hear the story of the bargemen back in 1918, whose scow broke loose from the tug that had been towing them. Seeing themselves about to be swept to their deaths, they scuttled the barge, which then lodged on the bottom. But for how long? They still expected to be swept off at any moment. But folks at a power station on shore worked for hours, firing ropes out to them until finally they succeeded in securing a line, and then setting up a breeches buoy for the scary ride to safety. That barge? Still out there where you and I can see it today. How about this? In 1960, a seven-year-old boy was swept over wearing only swim trunks and a life preserver. His only injuries? A few scratches and abrasions. The latest incident? Just days ago, two policemen who had just rescued four teenagers stuck on the Niagara River got disoriented in fog and found themselves just 300 yards from the falls. They were rescued by helicopter.

There’s always hope.

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One Response to Lester Brown at the World Conference on Disaster Management.

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