World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse

Lester Brown, Earth Policy Institute, USA, 2011

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World on the Edge continues to promote the “Plan B” alternative to industrial-era conventional wisdoms, and thus could be seen as the “5.0” version. But, like all of Brown’s books, this is not the “same old same old” in slightly different form. Rather, over the years, Brown continues to update and refine his big picture message, with fresh and authoritative data and new ideas. For those who are familiar with Brown, his latest book is as good as any, and certainly more urgent and deserving of attention than ever. For those who are not familiar with Brown, get with it: there is no better general overview of global environment/resource issues and sensible action to address them.

Overall Theme: A “Perfect Storm” Ahead. In early 2009, Brown notes, the chief science advisor to the UK government warned that the world is facing a “perfect storm” of food shortages, water scarcity, accelerating climate change, mass migration, and costly oil by 2030. The head of the UK Sustainable Development Commission thinks that the crisis will hit much closer to 2020, calling it the “ultimate recession” from which there may be no recovery. Brown writes that the perfect storm or ultimate recession “could come at any time.” It will likely be triggered by an unprecedented harvest shortfall caused by a combination of crop-withering heat waves and emerging water shortages as aquifers are depleted. This would escalate food prices and erode confidence in the international economic and financial systems. The values generating the ecological deficits that are leading the world toward the edge are the same values that lead to growing fiscal deficits. “No generation has faced a challenge with the complexity, scale, and urgency of the one that we face.” To reverse these trends, a massive restructuring of Plan B or something like it is needed, based on green taxation (less tax on income and more on carbon emissions), full-cost pricing, and redefining “security” to shift military resources to Plan B goals.

Why We Are “On the Edge.” We are liquidating the earth’s natural assets to fuel our consumption. Water tables are falling and wells are going dry, soil erosion exceeds soil formation on a third of world cropland, forests are shrinking, ocean fisheries are at capacity or collapsing, and ever-growing herds of cattle, sheep, and goats are converting vast stretches of grassland to desert. The world is in overshoot mode: it would take 1.5 Earths to sustain our current consumption. “No previous civilization has survived the ongoing destruction of its natural supports.” Food will likely be the weak link, and the reality of our situation may soon become clear with rising world food prices. Yet, mainstream economics does not register this situation because market prices omit indirect costs, e.g. $12/gallon for gasoline (if climate change, oil spills, illness, and military costs in the Middle East are included). We delude ourselves with our economic accounting system. On the social front, the most disturbing trend is spreading hunger, from a low of 788 million hungry and malnourished people in 1996 to >1 billion by 2009.

A Deteriorating Foundation. 1) Falling Water Tables and Shrinking Harvests: on water tables declining worldwide, intensified competition between farmers and cities (roughly 70% of all water use is for irrigation; the market price of water far exceeds the value of crops produced with it); 2) Eroding Soils and Expanding Deserts: on dust storms in China and South Korea (giant dust bowls from overgrazing, overplowing, and deforestation are historically new), and countries that have lost capacity to feed themselves (Lesotho, Haiti, Mongolia, North Korea); 3) Rising Temperatures and Melting Ice: on the 2010 heat wave in Russia and flooding in Pakistan (both the worst in their history) as the kind of extreme events we can expect to see more of, and temperatures rising much faster in the Arctic than elsewhere. “If ice disappears entirely in summer and is reduced in winter, the Arctic region will heat up even more, ensuring that the Greenland ice sheet will melt even faster…(which) could raise sea level by up to 6 feet during this century, up from a 6-inch rise during the last century; even a 3-foot rise in sea level would sharply reduce the rice harvest in Asia.”

The Consequences. 1) Food Scarcity Politics: on more and more people trapped between low incomes and rising food prices (leading to more food riots, e.g. in Egypt, Morocco, Yemen, Indonesia, Mexico, etc.), growing demand for food (due to population growth, rising affluence and meat-eating, and use of grain for fuel), the scramble to buy or lease cropland in poor countries (major players are China, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and India); 2) Environmental Refugees: the swelling flow of people displaced by rising seas, more destructive storms, expanding deserts, water shortages, and high levels of toxic pollutants; freshwater refugees are likely to become commonplace, but rising-sea refugees will dominate this flow in the long term (India is now building a 10-foot fence along its shared border with Bangladesh); 3) Failing States: after a half-century of forming new states, the world is now faced with disintegration of states (the term “failing state” has been in use only a decade or so); in the past, governments worried about too much power in one state, but today it is failing states that provide the greatest threat to global order (virtually all of the top 20 countries on the Foreign Policy annual list of failed states are depleting their natural assets to sustain rapidly growing populations).

The Response. Plan B has four components: 1) a massive cut of 80% in global carbon emissions by 2020 (by raising world energy efficiency through LED lighting, etc), restructuring transport, and shifting to wind, solar, and geothermal energy (nuclear is far too expensive when full-cost pricing is considered); 2) stabilization of world population at 8 billion by 2040 (by promoting primary education for all children and family planning services and reproductive health care for women); 3) eradication of poverty; and 4) restoration of forests, soils, aquifers, and fisheries (global initiatives to raise water productivity, ban deforestation, reduce paper use, and plant billions of trees to sequester carbon). The last three components would cost <$200 billion a year, a mere one-eighth of current world military spending. When WWII began, we were able to restructure the US industrial economy in months; surely we can restructure the world energy economy in this decade. We can stay with business as usual or change direction. “The choice will be made by our generation, but it will affect life on earth for all generations to come.”

NOTE: Why not Plan B, or similar? A counter-argument for desirability has yet to be made. In our age of infoglut, when few if any serious debates are held, a deep and ongoing debate is needed. The counter-argument for likelihood, however, is simple: an absence of political will. Lacking a discrete event to ignite political action, such as Pearl Harbor or the 9/11 terrorist attack, the “perfect storm” (described by others as “global megacrisis” or “the great disruption”) is slowly developing on many fronts, mostly far from the seats of power. Paul Krugman has recently warned that “world commodity prices have risen by a quarter in the past six months,” and that “wheat and corn prices are way up” (NY Times, 27 Dec 2010, A19). This reinforces Brown’s argument, but is still far from enough to spark a change in direction. (From Global Foresight books